American Routes Shortcuts: Chuck Brown
In the nation’s capital, there’s a homegrown beat you can hear all over town, from clubs to street corners to booming car stereos. The man who started it is our guest, the late Chuck Brown. He was the Godfather of Go-Go, that combination of Latin percussion, soulful horns, and guitar funk. Chuck blended it all to create his groove, with good helpings of jazz and gospel inspiration, what he called “a sound for the town.” And fronting that sound was his distinctive voice. I asked Chuck how he found his voice and his way to music.
Chuck Brown: I was a loud little kid, you know. I had a deep voice for my age. But I had strong lungs, you know, and I used to sing and play a little piano, and everybody admired that. They said, “Boy, when you grow up we want you to be something. We want you to turn into something, something positive,” you know.
Nick Spitzer: Music had to have been part of your life growing up.
CB: Yes indeed, well you know, when I was a little kid, everybody in my family played some kind of instrument. My mother, she played the harp and accordion, and believe me, she could sing, she could really sing, and she was offered deals to go out and sing rhythm and blues but she turned them down because she was such a strict church lady.
NS: You probably were around the Holy Spirit all the time, all kinds of great preachers and other great players.
CB: Yes indeed, and I was inspired by a lot of preachers, you know, I did a little bit of preaching myself at the age of eleven. But when I turned thirteen I gave it all up, and I left home, went out there and got a little experience, you know.
NS: How did you get to the guitar? That wasn’t a church music instrument.
CB: I got serious about guitar when I was about twenty-four years old. I was incarcerated at the time. I decided that, you know, when I got out that time I was going to pursue my dreams, and my dream was to become a musician. I wasn’t too much up on singing, but I definitely wanted to play the guitar. Blues really is my roots. Gospel and blues, that’s where I come from.
NS: But in blues there’s often these, you know, the sad lonesome songs, and people get through the pain, and they feel better, but one thing I’ve noticed about Go-Go is it always seems, in your words, to be a very positive thing. There’s not that kind of mournful side in go-go. It’s much more upbeat.
CB: It’s a spiritual feel because Grover Washington came out with a beat, with a tune called “Mr. Magic.” And I recognized the beat. You know, we had a little church band, and they used to play that beat in church. Used to play it real fast, and people used to jump and shout on that beat.
CB: So when I heard it, you know, I said, "Wow, I could adopt that and stick it in something that I want to do." I was looking for a sound of my own, but it ended up being a sound for the town.
CB: When I put that beat to just about everything we played–of course we were doing Top 40–but I would break it down. We used to do twenty-five, ten, twenty-five, thirty songs a night, and when I break it down and put that percussion in there that beat was locked in. Everybody would get on the floor. Tables and chairs disappeared, coats coming off. That told me something right there, “Okay this is what I've looking for. This is it!”
NS: You found the beat.
CB: Yes sir.
NS: What is the actual origin of the word “Go-Go”? What does it really mean as a word and as a music?
CB: Back in the day they had Go-Go clubs and Go-Go girls, and I was thinking, “They ain’t got no Go-Go music so maybe I can call this Go-Go," because once we get into that groove we just keep going. The music just goes and goes and goes, and people don't stop dancing until the show is over.
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