The prospect of a D.C. without ample opportunity to party with Chuck Brown is unimaginable, and so we never imagined it. Ringing in a new year without Brown’s smoky “sho ya right” in our ears, spending our birthdays without dancing to his music and sweating through our clothes—those weren’t things we’d ever have to face. With each passing decade, as Brown crept toward 50, then 60, then 70, then 80, we wondered how much longer he could keep going on, and then just stopped wondering. We figured that if he could play all night long, hold a groove, hold a pocket like he’d never let it go, then he could hold on forever and never let us go, either.
The Godfather of Go-Go—its innovator and its finest practitioner—busted loose from this mortal coil on May 16. And although he had been ill and was 75 years old, his death still came as a shock to those reared on his music. But is it really so strange that we assumed, beyond logic, that he’d be around forever? He seemingly never tired, never aged, never forgot any of our names or faces and, in his most astounding, superhuman feat, consistently flourished in the face of long odds and unfavorable circumstances. He insisted that we could, too.
Brown learned to play guitar in prison, then built a career so centered on love and positivity that it bloomed during the height of D.C.’s crack epidemic. Later, he and his music remained a beloved, ever-present fixture in D.C. at a time when so many of the city’s cultural institutions and relics have been cast aside in the name of progress.
For more than 40 years, Brown applied a salve to the souls of Washingtonians and made decades of turmoil and change in D.C. easier to bear.
Brown’s biggest national hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” peaked on the Billboard charts at almost the same moment in 1979 that Marion Barry began his first term as mayor. The two of them would become the city’s defining cultural figures, and they remain so to this day: the fairy tale and the cautionary tale.
Over the next two decades, residents of the region watched Barry’s legacy tarnish while Brown’s became increasingly burnished. School kids absorbed their tandem stories as life lessons—yes, a mayor could fall from grace, but a guy who got his start doing $10-a-night gigs at the Ebony Inn on Sheriff Road in Fairmount Heights could, through creativity and sheer will, inspire a city. Over the years, a lot has been said of Barry’s unlikely status as folk hero, but not nearly enough of Brown filling that same role with unfailing grace and class.
Many were moved by the humanity in Barry’s falls and his ability to get up after each one. But nearly everyone was uplifted by the smooth, flawless ascent of Brown, who learned to make beautiful music in one of the worst places imaginable and created a genre that mixed jazz, blues, funk, African and Latin percussion, call-and-response, and less tangible elements that written descriptions always fail to capture—the elements that have managed to enthrall a city for the better part of a half-century.
And the neat trick of Brown’s reach—his mentorship, his guidance, his inspiration—is that it was hidden in the coolest sound on Earth. No one went to the go-go seeking comfort, or to make sense of the city, or to get motivated—at least not consciously. You went because you felt like movin’ that body. Because Chuck and them cranked.
Inside the go-go, Brown brought together young and old, neighborhood and neighborhood, block and block. Outside of the go-go, he did the same, uniting Washington and D.C. with a common interest and love. Whether you knew Brown from shows on the Capitol lawn and Eva Cassidy duets, or heard him and his band hit the Mike Hammer at the Masonic Temple, you could agree on his greatness.
As the city changed, Brown became a unifier of a different sort, a thread connecting recent transplants and longtimers, old D.C. and new. Brown’s role as national treasure and local legend took some of the bite out of gentrification. He was go-go’s permanent access point for the unfamiliar, including D.C. newcomers, and he helped longtime residents, dizzy from so much change, orient themselves as go-go clubs shuttered and the genre migrated with its fanbase to Prince George’s County.
Go-go has always had a presence in the counties surrounding D.C., but through venue closures, police crackdowns, and the displacement of many of the communities who’ve supported the music, the inner-city sound’s cultural center has shifted to the suburbs. Up until the time of his death, Brown provided an increasingly rare opportunity to hear go-go within D.C. proper on a regular basis, to experience the music in its birthplace, as it should be experienced.
Brown was to play the renovated Howard Theatre in June—a full-circle moment to rival his concert at the Lorton Workhouse Arts Center in 2010. Instead, his fans gathered outside of the historic venue the night he died, peeking inside of the glass doors, looking at pictures of the Godfather projected onto the television screens in the venue’s lobby, wearing T-shirts bearing his name and likeness and lyrics—some printed with the phrase “Chuck Brown Raised Me.” One woman said to me, “Damn. The Black Hole officially closed today,” referring to the Georgia Avenue NW go-go club that hosted its last show years and years and years ago.
Brown’s music—his very existence—was the biggest remaining connection to those old clubs, those old times, that old D.C. For anyone who came of age in this region during the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, seeing him reminded us of that first time sneaking out of the house to go to a go-go, meeting your first love while dancing to “Run Joe,” falling in love with the music that your bamafied cousins down south or up north didn’t understand. Even when Chuck was performing at Constitution Hall, he transported us back to the Chapter III.
When he was on stage, it didn’t matter as much that Deno’s is now a catering hall, Kilimanjaro has been transformed into an upscale gym, and the Ibex is a discount furniture store—seeing Chuck perform made us feel that the D.C. of our youth hadn’t completely disappeared.
Some of Brown’s nationally recognized accomplishments came during this time, the last few years of his life—his performance at a Redskins’ half-time show, his Grammy nomination, his Late Night with Jimmy Fallon jam session with The Roots.
We cheered these moments and cheered even harder when, in that classy way of his, Brown managed to express gratitude while maintaining, time and again, that no accolade was more exciting than 40 years of love from the people of D.C.