Rory “DC” Felton, the go-go artist whose life was recently cut short just days before his 58th birthday, was a founding member of Rare Essence and went on to play with several bands, including Proper Utensils and Little Benny & the Masters.
And while he was not one of the genre’s biggest stars, he left behind an important legacy comprised of the innovative rhythms he beat out of the cowbell, the instrument that locks in the syncopation of go-go’s other percussion patterns.
“His style of cowbell was like no other,” says Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman, who performed alongside DC during Rare Essence reunions and other shows. “He started a lot of the beats that you hear now. Everything that’s used today, they got it from DC.”
Team Familiar bandleader Donnell Floyd, who replaced DC as Rare Essence’s saxophone player in 1983 when DC left the band, concurs. “DC is really considered the best-ever to play the cowbell,” he says. “I’ve almost never heard a beat from the cowbell that isn’t a derivative of a beat that DC came up with, so that was a huge contribution to go-go.”
Unlike most go-go players, DC—whose nickname was derived from his middle name, Mordese—was not a native of Washington. He grew up on a farm in Halifax County, Virginia, and once he got to Ballou High School in Southeast, he was affectionately known as a “’Bama” due to his country accent and clothing sense. His wife Penny Felton, who met DC in high school, still remembers the checkered pants he wore on his first day at Ballou. “These guys was jokin’ on him,” she says. “‘Man, do you like to play checkers? Well, go get the checkers, ‘cause you already got the checkerboard!’”
DC played in Ballou’s marching band alongside other early members of Rare Essence, then known as the Young Dynamos. He quickly struck up a friendship with drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson, who invited DC to join the fledgling band. By 1977, DC was a member of the band that would soon become the city’s hottest go-go act. DC played on several of RE’s early hits, including “Body Moves,” “Back Up Against the Wall,” and on the band’s legendary 1982 Highlands PA tape.
He was known for an easy sense of humor and for his hats, which were not mutually exclusive, and friends assumed that his rural upbringing was behind his affection for oddball hats. TMOTTGOGO founder Kato Hammond, who played with DC in Little Benny & the Masters, recalls one crocheted cap with balls hanging off it. “Those hats really defined his personality, because he was super fun,” says Hammond. “Looking at the hat, there’s no way anybody wearing this hat is not a fun person.”
The country bumpkin headgear was at odds with his smooth dance moves as Rare Essence’s saxophone player during an era when the band’s front line choreography was a priority. DC was go-go’s Fred Astaire, a smooth and natural dancer who made it all seem effortless. “With Benny and DC being on the front line, the rest of us were just trying to catch up with those two,” recalls Rare Essence guitarist and bandleader Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson.
But DC’s ease and confidence as a performer eluded him off-stage, and he was drawn down a path that was all-too-familiar in the city’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. DC was the real-life inspiration behind Little Benny & the Master’s 1987 go-go hit “Cat in the Hat.” One of the genre’s greatest records, it is a cautionary tale of young man who can’t resist the lure of the pipe: “Cat in the hat/ used to do crack/ now he does crack/ You can’t get back.”
Mark “Godfather” Lawson, who co-wrote “Cat in the Hat” with the late Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, explains that the song grew out of their frustration with their longtime friend. “Me and Benny were mad and fed up because we loved him so much,” says Godfather. “We let him know, ‘This is about you buddy. We want you to stay straight, so that’s why we’re putting that message out there on this record.’”
With the support he needed, DC did make his way back, and he remained a presence on the go-go scene, performing withThe Legends, a group of former Rare Essence players. He was a regular at the band’s reunion shows—Whiteboy says DC had just signed on for two more—where he’d be up on stage gliding through the old front line steps and hitting the cowbell like no one else.
“The way he was beating the cowbell, I was scared to let him use mine,” says Go-Go Mickey. “If he asked to borrow mine I would run. He played hard all the time, so he would give it back to you with dents all over it.”
Recently, Godfather and DC had planned to return to the studio to record a new version of “Take A Ride through the City,” an old Rare Essence hit that DC co-wrote. “He wanted to let people know where the original go-go came from, the way that we learned from Chuck Brown,” says Godfather. “He wanted to keep that going.”
They will never have that opportunity. In a case that remains unsolved, Felton was found late last month with multiple stab wounds in a Southwest house. According to Penny Felton, he had previously recovered from a 1992 shooting. This time he was not so lucky.
Now Godfather is left wishing he could once again advise DC to spend more time in the studio and with the people who loved him. “The pain is so unbearable—I wish I could find something to replace this feeling,” says Lawson. “He got caught up in a bad situation like that. If any of us as his band members could have stopped that, we would have been there, because he was part of the family.”