Ivan Goff wasn’t just the youngest member of Experience Unlimited when he joined the band in 1986. He was about a decade younger than the rest of EU, so band manager Charles Stephenson visited Goff’s mother at home to reassure her.
“I had to convince her,” recalls Stephenson, “that he was in good hands.”
And he was. Goff, who died last week at the age of 52, stayed with EU for nearly all of the next three decades. During that time, he helped shape EU’s distinctive sound and also had a considerable impact on go-go as a producer, songwriter, and label head.
“Ivan was an unsung champion of the genre,” says Full Circle Entertainment’s Tom Goldfogle. “Not only was he a player on the scene and an integral member of EU, but he was also an active entrepreneur in promoting other go-go bands.”
As a teenager, Goff joined Redds & the Boys, playing on the latter’s 1985 classic Hitt’n and Holding album, which was released locally and in England. He also played briefly with the original Familiar Faces.
Once Goff joined EU, the band’s frontman and leader, Gregory “Sugarbear” Elliott, didn’t just look out for Ivan. He also admired him. “Ivan had a great aggressive keyboard style,” Sugarbear says. “He was also very, very creative.”
During go-go’s golden era, a cover of any song was not just a cover. It became something else, a wholly different piece of music with distinct go-go stylings. “Ivan was very good at rearranging the sound to make it an EU song,” says Sugarbear. “He always filled in gaps, and that’s something a lot of people just can’t do. If I made a song like, ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ he would come with the horn part, ‘her fleece was white as snow.’ If something was missing, Ivan could always figure it out—a horn line, a synthetic patch, or percussion. He knew exactly where to put it, without me asking him to.”
Goff was with EU when the band recorded “Da Butt,” for Spike Lee’s 1988 classic School Daze. The film placed EU in the national spotlight: They recorded two albums for Virgin Records and toured extensively. “We toured Japan, and we played in Antigua, Bermuda, Afghanistan, and El Salvador,” says Sugarbear. “We did two USO tours and went to places I couldn’t even pronounce, playing for American soldiers all over the world.”
Many of go-go’s musicians received their musical training in DMV public schools, but Goff didn’t stop there. “Ivan studied keyboard, classical, and music theory at Howard University,” says Trouble Funk’s Dave Gussom. “He always practiced—he practiced alone, and he practiced a lot. I believe that that set him apart.”
Over the years, Goff applied his talents to production and ran several labels that released music by other go-go artists. Big City Records’ releases included Little Benny & the Master’s undisputed go-go masterpiece Cat in the Hat as well as EU’s hugely popular Go Ju Ju Go. ND/Goff, his partnership with national Def Jam rep Wes “Party” Johnson, released Double Agent Rock. And Goff Records put out music by the original Pure Elegance, Go-Go Lorenzo, and other go-go artists. That label also released the 1991 album 90’s Goin Hard that was credited to Ivan Goff featuring Chuck Brown, and featured Brown’s sublime remake of “Misty.”
Goff frequently partnered with another EU keyboardist, Kent Wood. “Ivan and Kent Wood,” notes Sugarbear, “were like go-go’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.”
EU drummer William “JuJu” House recalls how diligently Goff worked to promote the artists he recorded. “Ivan was one of the first guys in D.C. that was distributing go-go records and cassettes out of his trunk,” JuJu says. “We drove everywhere: Richmond, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Atlanta. I remember one time we dropped off 10 copies of the Go Ju Ju Go album at a mom ‘n’ pop gas station in South Carolina. We drove eight hours to get there, and we got halfway home when they called us and said, ‘We need 10 more records.’ We sold out everybody.”
Perhaps this is why, in an October interview that was very likely his last, Goff told me: “I have had more hits than anybody in the history of go-go.”
If things had turned out differently, he might have had many more. Goff suffered from congestive heart failure, and friends wonder whether, with better medical care, he might have lived longer. In the days after his death, several in the go-go community posted information on Facebook about how musicians can acquire health insurance through ASCAP.
If it is possible to live one’s life fully in the months before dying, Goff was able to achieve that. In September, EU was tapped to perform at the opening celebration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a proud moment for Goff, friends say, and he was thrilled to find his Go Ju Ju Go album on display in the museum’s permanent go-go exhibit.
That same weekend, Goff had the opportunity to perform for the Obamas. He texted a friend: “Played at the White House Saturday wit da President an 1st Lady and EU Sunday!… 1st Lady Loves Cat in da Hat!…Could be My best weekend ever.”
His final show was at The Howard Theater on November 6, and no one realized it would be his last. “I’m grateful that God leant him to EU for as long as he did,” says Sugarbear. “I can’t ever replace Ivan. I can just get someone to sit in.”
A graduate of High Point Regional High School, Ivan Goff is survived by his mother, Sandra Goff, his father, Floyd Goff, and a sister, Melody Owens.
Homegoing Services for Ivan Goff will be held on Tuesday November 22 at Gethsemane United Methodist Church, 910 Addison Rd. in Capitol Heights. Viewing is from 9-11 a.m., with the service immediately following.