For the longest time, Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, leader of popular go-go band Experience Unlimited, considered himself Jimi Hendrix’s greatest fan.
Then he met Tino Jackson.
“Tino was my Jimi Hendrix,” says Sugar Bear. “I never got to see Jimi Hendrix live, but when I incorporated Tino into Experience Unlimited, he had that rock style and that edge.”
Experience Unlimited guitarist Valentino Gordon Jackson, who died earlier this month at age 63, was surely one of go-go’s most esteemed guitarists. Known to all as “Tino,” he first joined EU back in 1979, and remained with the band for more than 30 years; subsequently, he often returned for specific shows. His rock-infused guitar set EU apart from every other go-go group.
During the music’s golden era of the late ’70s to the mid-’80s, various bands put their own stamps on genre founder Chuck Brown’s new percussion-heavy go-go sound. EU echoed the funk rock of groups like the Ohio Players and Mother’s Finest, further galvanizing go-go with a distinctly rock feel.
“All those bands would take it to the bridge, but Experience Unlimited’s go-go had the lead guitar heavy metal sound in their bridge,” says go-go historian and musician Kato Hammond. “That was Tino. None of the other go-go groups were doing anything like that.”
Early EU manager Charles Stephenson, co-author of The Beat: Go-Go Music From Washington, DC, compares Tino’s career path to those of gifted go-go musicians like drummer Ricky Wellman and Chuck Brown. (Wellman, who later recorded with Miles Davis, helped Brown devise go-go’s distinctive drum pattern.)
“Artists like Ricky and even Chuck, they made conscious decisions to do their art here, and that was the decision that Tino made as well,” says Stephenson. “I’m sure Tino could have latched onto and played with some of the more notable groups around the country, but he made that decision to stay.”
Tino grew up in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, and he honed his musical skills at the Wellman family’s Fairmount Heights home. Recording engineer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Dwayne Lee recalls meeting Tino around 1979, a time when go-go was new—and everything. “Each neighborhood had their own bands that would rehearse in basements, backyards and porches, and we used to walk over to the Wellman’s to hear all those musicians—Sugar Bear, Tino, Ricky Wellman,” says Lee. “Tino turned all of us on to rock music, hard rock, and heavy metal. This was the late ’70s, so we were listening to Funkadelic and Mother’s Finest, but he was listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Van Halen.”
For Sugar Bear, who grew up deep into rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith along with Hendrix, Tino was a perfect musical partner. “We just clicked,” he says. “It was like your right hand and your left hand.”
One of EU’s earliest recordings, “EU Freeze,” would define the fledgling band’s sound and remain on its setlist forever. “That was our first radio record, and it sold over 50,000 copies in 1980,” Sugar Bear says. “We wanted that rock edge instead of a hardcore crank session. You couldn’t identify it as hip-hop or go-go.” And because Experience Unlimited lacked a keyboard player at the time, Tino’s guitar had plenty of space to fill.
Tino did not participate on the recording of EU’s biggest hit, “Da Butt,” which was featured in the 1988 Spike Lee film School Daze. But he played that song at hundreds of live shows in the years that followed. After the national success of “Da Butt,” EU recorded two albums for Virgin Records and toured across the globe. Tino also performed with EU at the opening festivities for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Generally, guitar does not feature prominently in go-go, but for the longest time, in EU and other bands including Proper Utensils, Let It Flow, and After Hours, Tino’s guitar felt essential. “He was one of the first black guitarists in D.C. to really rock out like that,” says Tino’s longtime friend Vincent Coleman. Several years ago, when Tino launched his own group, No Sins, Coleman and Dwayne Lee both joined the band.
According to Coleman’s brother, former EU trumpet player Steve “Too Tall” Coleman, Tino never used a pick, preferring instead to play with his thumb and fingers. Similarly, Tino’s playing shattered expectations. “Tino had a way of interpreting music that was very different than the average R&B guitarist,” Too Tall says. “His rock influence came through in the spirit and the way he played in R&B and go-go bands. Most guys came up listening to James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & The Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire. There was a sameness among these artists. But Tino didn’t play the standard way. He played our music his way.”
Around 1999, several members of EU, including drummer William “JuJu” House, Sugar Bear, and Tino began playing with ’70s R&B and funk band Maiesha& the HipHuggers; the popularity of their shows marked the start of the early 2000’s old school revival that celebrated go-go’s original top bands. Bandleader Maiesha Rashad was grateful to have Tino around. “I remember very well that he played ‘Don’t Look Any Further’ from Dennis Edwards, and oh, my goodness, he sang that so well, then he’d stop singing and play,” she says. “You could tell that his heart was in every lick that he hit on that guitar.”
Throughout his illness, Tino continued to perform whenever possible. During the last year, he performed several times with Feeling the Funk, whose drummer, Robert “Mousey” Thompson, describes Tino’s playing as particularly expressive. “That guitar spoke many words for him,” he says. “You could really feel him. These past few months, when he played, you forgot about him being sick. Man, I wish this cat could hold on to his axe all the way through everything.”
Historian Kato Hammond recalls a night in either ’89 or ’90 when he was playing for Little Benny & the Masters and the band was recording a live show at the Metro Club. Several local stars, including Tino, dropped by to join them on stage. “Tino didn’t have his guitar, so he played mine, and I’m syced,” says Hammond. “I kept thinking, ‘Damn, I hope my guitar is tuned.’”
Years later, Hammond devoted an episode of his “True Go-Go Stories” artist interview series to Tino. In it, Tino muses about signing autographs in Montana.
Particularly early on, Tino used to play a signature melody, the Westminster Quarters clock tower chimes, that appears at the beginning of EU’s “Knock ‘Em Out, Sugar Ray,” on some versions of “Ooh La La,” and on countless PA tapes. Not long after Hammond learned of Tino’s death, he posted an online tribute in which he played the Westminster Quarters. “Anybody in go-go know,” he said, “when you heard that sound, you knew it was Tino.”
Friends say that Tino was recognized and respected by a number of better-known guitarists, including Greg Howe and Parliament-Funkadelic lead guitarist Eddie Hazel. Over a friendship that held for decades, Lee and Tino attended dozens of concerts, including one by their idol, Howe. “We would go to all these shows, and they would have us backstage because they knew who Tino was,” says Lee.
“Music was his language. Most of the conversations we had would be around musicians and about the music—what he was hearing and feeling in his head and his heart and how he could express that,” says Stephenson. “Tino loved his music, he loved his city. I’m just so glad that he walked this way and contributed what he did to the music here in Washington.”