Chuck Brown, who styled a unique mix of funk, soul and Latin party sounds to create go-go music in the nation’s capital, has died after suffering from pneumonia. He was 75.
Brown, widely acclaimed as the “Godfather of go-go” for his pioneering sound, died Wednesday at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Hospital spokesman Gary Stephenson confirmed Brown had died after a hospital stay that began April 18.
Thanks to Brown and his deep, gravelly voice, go-go music was uniquely identified with Washington. That’s where he continued to play the city’s club circuit to a loyal audience late in life.
Mayor Vincent Gray said the nation’s capital will be a different place without him. Mournful admirers of the musician were called Wednesday evening to an impromptu candlelight vigil in Washington, where a sound truck was to blast a special Chuck Brown music mix to the crowd before a prayer session for him.
“Go-go is D.C.’s very own unique contribution to the world of pop music,” he said. “Today is a very sad day for music lovers the world over.”
In 2007 Brown told The Associated Press that go-go was influenced by sounds and fast beats he heard early in life, growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, combined with his experience later, playing with a Latin band.
“Go-go is a music that continues on and on, and it’s a call and response communication with the audience,” Brown said.
Go-go was heavy on percussion with drummers as lead players, accented by guitar riffs, keyboards and horns. Sometimes the musicians would play for two or three hours without stopping. In between tunes, Brown would keep the thunk of percussion going and talk to the crowd.
Brown’s hit “Bustin’ Loose” with his group, the Soul Searchers, helped define go-go’s sound. It spent several weeks atop the R&B chart in 1979. Rapper Nelly later sampled Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” in 2002 for his massive hit “Hot in Herre,” which won Nelly a Grammy.
Brown didn’t get credit at first, though, and “had to go through some legalities to get it right, but we knew, once we heard the song, that’s Chuck Brown,” said Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, lead singer of the go-go band EU (Experience Unlimited.)
In 2007, rapper Eve sampled Brown’s song, “Blow Your Whistle,” in her hit single “Tambourine.”
Brown told the AP he admired such artists.
“Go-Go had some influence on rap because a lot of rap musicians come to my shows,” he said. “Some of them were students at Howard University. People like Puff Daddy, he’s been to see us when he was a young Howard University student.”
Spike Lee, a fan of Brown’s, used go-go for his movie “School Daze.”
“Chuck Brown Will Always Be ‘Bustin’ Loose’ – the Godfather of Go-Go,” Lee said through a spokeswoman.
Elliot said Brown had been a father figure since he was a teen when he aspired to be a rocker like Jimmy Hendrix but realized he wouldn’t make it that way as a young black man. When he saw Brown perform, he said he “instantly knew” what he wanted to do.
“Chuck Brown is going to live on forever. I’m going to make sure of that,” Elliott said. “When they see me, I want them to see a reflection of Chuck because he inspired me so much.”
He added: “The go-go sound is still going strong.”
When Brown was younger, he spent some time in jail. While behind bars, he traded five cartons of cigarettes for his first guitar. After he was freed in 1962, Brown played with several bands and then formed the Soul Searchers. To comply with terms of his parole, they couldn’t play where alcohol was served, so they went to churches, recreation halls and youth centers.
Brown’s daughter, Cherita Whiting, said he had died from complications with pneumonia and was gone too soon.
“I just want to tell all his fans, thank you, for lovin’ our dad,” she said. “He had the best fans in the world.”
During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, violence in some clubs affected go-go’s reputation. Brown said “we can’t blame the go-go for that,” though.
More recently, he said he had seen more grandparents at his shows, with an audience ranging in age from 18 to 60.
In 2005, he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Washington was always his most loyal fan base, Brown told the AP, and he was happy to play here the rest of his life.