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Some folks might receive a set of golf clubs, or maybe a gold watch, on the occasion of their retirement.
Go-go star Donnell Floydgot Stevie Wonder.
Closing his 40 years on the go-go circuit with a farewell concert late last month at The Anthem, Floyd was gifted with the opportunity to perform alongside his longtime musical idol.
A former member of the iconic go-go band Rare Essence who has fronted his own popular band Team Familiar since 2002, Floyd first announced in January that he would be stepping away from the genre at the end of 2019. He predicted a big finale, “full of props and showmanship.” His farewell show promised guest performers, but no one was expecting Wonder to join Floyd onstage, praise his contributions to music, and perform a few of his classic songs with Team Familiar. “Tonight we’re here to celebrate you, Mr. Floyd,” Wonder announced from the stage. “Forty years just ain’t long enough.”
Days later, Floyd—who is 55, has raised four kids, and is looking forward to the imminent arrival of his first grandchild—still sounds incredulous. “Just the idea of hearing Stevie Wonder talking about me seems ridiculous,” he says. “The greatest musician and R&B entertainer in the history of the world standing there and talking about me? I felt like I was in a dream.”
After Wonder spoke for a few minutes, Floyd signaled Team Familiar to begin a go-go version of “As.” Clearly delighted, Wonder started singing, with Floyd’s former bandmates Frank “Scooby” Marshall and “Ms. Kim” Graham among those on backup vocals. Flanked by Floyd and rapper Doug E. Fresh, Wonder performed a go-go-tized medley of “I Wish,” “Happy Birthday,” and “My Cherie Amour” before being led offstage. “He decided which of his songs would work on the go-go beat, and we just followed him,” says Floyd.
Wonder has family connections in Prince George’s County, and while some discussion about his participation in Floyd’s farewell show had taken place, the outcome was uncertain. Floyd had dismissed the possibility until that evening, when someone backstage remarked that they could have sworn they just saw Stevie Wonder walk by. Floyd and Wonder were introduced shortly before the event began.
“He shook my hand and said, ‘Young man, 40 years isn’t that long if you love something,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir, you’re right,’” recalls Floyd. “He has a lot of D.C. ties, and he loves go-go. He was really complimentary. He said, ‘Maybe I’ll come down and we’ll do a go-go record,’ and I told him we would absolutely love to do that.”
For many in the audience and in the go-go community at large, Wonder’s appearance represented an important validation. “Donnell has been the voice of our generation,” says Montu Mitchell, owner and operator of go-go clothing line Mitchcraft, which sold limited edition commemorative shirts at the show (now available at donnellfloyd.com). “With Stevie Wonder, go-go got a stamp of approval. Stevie Wonder stamping Donnell Floyd stamps us and stamps go-go culture. It is something to be respected and appreciated by the greatest living musician in any genre,” says Mitchell.
Wonder’s brief performance was one of many emotional moments throughout the evening. The main event started with a video that Floyd had recorded because he did not trust himself to deliver a speech to his fans without falling apart. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through it,” he says. “I’m a crybaby.”
The heartfelt video was followed by Floyd’s Team Familiar bandmates singing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” as a slideshow depicted go-go’s fallen performers, including the music’s founder, Chuck Brown. Friends say that the loss of so many of the genre’s artists inspired Floyd’s original song, “I Gave My Whole Life,” and as the images faded, Floyd appeared on stage, singing:
“I come from nowhere, and I chase the daylight, to entertain you. See, I gave my whole life. D.C. I love you, and I hope you feel me.”
As it turned out, Wonder and Floyd’s longtime friend Doug E. Fresh were two of many stars who turned out to honor Floyd. The show also featured guest spots by R&B singer Ledisi and a couple of artists with D.C. roots, Kenny Sway and Raheem DeVaughn. Go-go luminaries who joined Floyd onstage at various points during the evening included Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, as well as Backyard Band’s Anwan “Big G” Glover and Leroy “Weensey” Brandon Jr.
Floyd was still a student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts when he joined Rare Essence in 1983; before that, he had played with Chance Band and Total Groove. Initially RE’s saxophone player, he eventually pushed the band toward a harder, more hip-hop influenced sound as a rapper and co-writer of “Lock It,” “Work the Walls,” “King of the Go-Go Beat,” and “Overnight Scenario,” the band’s biggest hits of the late ’80s and ’90s. (In case you missed it, “Lock It” was featured on an episode of Black-ish last month.)
He left Rare Essence in early 2001 due to a dispute over publishing rights. At the time, his departure was big enough news to warrant a story in the Washington Post. That year, he formed the band 911 with several other former RE members. Nearly a decade later, following a successful RE reunion show, he rejoined the band, and remained for almost 10 months before leaving again, this time to resurrect his own band, then known as Familiar Faces.
Floyd’s farewell show marked the first time since he, Rare Essence guitarist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson and former Rare Essence percussionist Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman have performed together since 2011. And while Go-Go Mickey has been with Floyd for years, Whiteboy’s appearance was another surprise that even Floyd wasn’t expecting. The audience roared as Whiteboy sauntered onstage while strumming the retro-styled guitar riff from “Work the Walls.”
Floyd is not retiring from music altogether—he still plans to join a local R&B group as a saxophone player and he has signed on for next year’s much anticipated Rare Essence reunion.
Most go-go bands have three frontline microphones, designated as number one for the band’s lead talker, number two for the rapper, and number three for the vocalist. During his time with RE, Floyd mastered the role of number two mic, and he has long been credited for the evolution of go-go’s second mic. Floyd devoted a section of his farewell show to a few of his favorite second mic go-go rappers, summoning them with a challenge: “Who’s the best? I want the best to come test me.” Junkyard Band’s David “32” Ellis Sr. was among those who complied. A friend for decades, 32 could not imagine missing this night. “Donnell called, and I’ve always told Donnell, anytime you ring my phone, I’m gonna run every light getting there and pay the tickets later,” says 32. “He’s been a mentor for me on and off the stage, and I’m so proud of him. He’s definitely the greatest in my eyes.”
During the course of his career, Floyd has played at countless area clubs as well as larger venues including The Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. He performed with RE on the legendary Go-Go Live concert at the old Capital Centre and with Team Familiar for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s inauguration at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Perhaps most meaningful, though, were Team Familiar’s 2017 performances in the ancient Nigerian city of Ife for the Yoruba king known as the Ooni of Ife.
There were also low points along the way. When Floyd first left RE, some of his new band’s shows attracted an audience of only 10 people. Far more devastating were the deaths of close friends and bandmates: RE drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson in 1994 and Team Familiar keyboardist Byron “BJ” Jackson in 2016. “Losing them, those were some of the hardest days I can remember,” says Floyd.
Announcing his retirement early this year, Floyd explained his motivations. “Go-go’s retirement plan is to become irrelevant or to pass away,” he said. “I didn’t want that for me.” Instead, the beloved artist who will always be known around the DMV as “King of the Go-Go Beat” stepped away on his own terms. While The Anthem did not allow the evening to be professionally recorded, plenty of videos can be found on social media.
Floyd closed the show with an a cappella rendition of “I Gave My Whole Life,” and what happened next was truly remarkable.
As Floyd choked up, unable to continue, Sugar Bear approached him and wrapped him in a hug, and then others on and offstage rushed over. They surrounded Floyd, holding him, touching him, and supporting him. As Scooby finished the song he could not, Floyd looked up, his fists aloft.
“I saw he was breaking down,” says Sugar Bear. “So I told him, ‘Nah man, you good. God is good. You’re going out on your note. What better way to do it?’”
Darrin “Mr. X” Frazier, a Rare Essence alum who joined the group clustered around Floyd, also sensed a spiritual presence. “It felt like when a pastor comes to the altar, and people place their hands on him as they pray,” he says.
Indeed, there was something almost holy in that moment, which seemed to distill all the love that has always held together this community as it has endured so much—and shared so much. “I felt like we had just ran a marathon, and I made it,” says Floyd. “I finished it, and I was victorious.”
“The way that people treated me and acted toward me, it was almost as if my career was the kind of career that we dreamed of in terms of going around the world and playing music,” he adds. “But we never left the Beltway.”
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