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Local media dutifully noted the death of a cyclist who was struck by a car along Kenilworth Avenue last weekend. According to police, Lorenzo Queen, 53, of Hyattsville, died at the scene of the accident.
What nearly all of them neglected to mention was that Queen, widely known as Go-Go Lorenzo, was a respected figure in local music.
Lorenzo, who grew up in Anacostia, started his music career in the go-go group Pet Boys, which functioned as a kind of musical farm team for the popular Northwest band Petworth. In 1985, Petworth lead talker John Cabalou left the band to join Rare Essence, and Lorenzo was tapped to replace him.
The lead talker of a go-go band isn’t just leading the band on stage. He’s also running the crowd and running the show, adjusting the mood, song choice, and tempo based on his reading of the audience. Lorenzo never achieved the iconic status of the genre’s great lead talkers—James “Funk” Thomas, Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, and the original, Chuck Brown. But he was pretty damn good. “When you’re a lead talker and you go out there and do what you do, you gotta be bold,” says former Petworth saxophonist Kevin Miller. “You looking at thousands of people, talking to all those people. Lorenzo could do that at the drop of a dime. Certain people can flow like that–they have a gift.”
But Lorenzo’s most successful endeavor was a single he recorded separately from Petworth. “You Can Dance (If You Want To)” by Go-Go Lorenzo & the David Pinckney Project was a funked-up take on Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” and an enormous local radio hit in 1986.
While “Safety Dance” was about freedom to pogo, “You Can Dance” seemed to limn the go-go universe, a world wholly apart from the province of white Washington: “Go-Go if you want to/ Into the places you will never find/ Well if you don’t dance/ I said if you don’t dance/ You’re no friend of mine.”
The success of “You Can Dance” meant that Lorenzo’s appearance on the now legendary 1987 “Go-Go Live at the Capital Centre” concert was practically mandatory. Lorenzo performed, backed by Little Benny & the Masters with the bandmembers’ faces hidden by “Jason Voorhes” hockey masks.
“Lorenzo was onto something groundbreaking with that record,” says Rare Essence’s Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris. “He was a pioneer in that he became a go-go solo artist who could get up on stage and perform with Little Benny or with Redds & The Boys or whoever. He was essentially creating his own lane.”
Several remixes of “You Can Dance (If You Want To),” were recorded, including “Top, Bottom, Side & Rear,” released by PolyGram. Lorenzo performed hundreds of gigs in the DMV area, several in North Carolina, and traveled as far as London to perform.
But this is not a rags-to-riches story.
“Lorenzo never received any money for that ‘You Can Dance’ record. That’s how he ended up on my label,” says Ivan Goff, a writer and producer who also does keyboards and vocals for Experience Unlimited. Lorenzo recorded several singles on Ivan Goff Records during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“Lorenzo had a very strong voice, very street style—an upper Northwest style of go-go talking and rap,” says Goff. “He worked hard in the studio and was real creative. I wish I could have pushed more of his stuff on the radio.”
Perhaps Lorenzo’s early success was too fleeting or the financial pressures too great. Eventually, friends say, he was drawn into a downward spiral painfully common in economically challenged African American neighborhoods. “The whole drug epidemic touched almost every family,” says Miller. “People saw ways to make money off the drug addiction, partly because there had been a lot of exploitation that was going on in the music.”
Lorenzo’s friends, still deeply loyal, don’t talk much about his bad years. “What’s important is that even when he had difficult times in his life, he still managed to encourage others,” says Lorenzo’s close friend Reverend Lawrence Watson, Senior (formerly known as “Bullet”). “Even when he was in jail, he held a band together.”
In recent years, friends say, Lorenzo found his way again. On Sunday mornings, he could be found behind the congas or drums at New Convent Missionary Baptist Church. He participated in Petworth reunions and was back in the studio working on new music projects.
“I think he had a lot more to contribute,” says J. Lanard Thompson, better known as another popular DMV rapper, D.C. Scorpio.
Lorenzo’s fiancé, Cornelia Bethea, says that he was in the process of putting together a band for live shows. “That was his happiest, when he was on that stage,” she says. “When he had the mic in his hand, he was on fire.”
No one can know whether Lorenzo would have come up with another hit record. But as the Facebook tributes increase with every hour, it’s clear that he will be missed.
Longtime go-go journalist Jill Greenleigh explains that area fans feel a deep connection with the genre’s musicians. “Go-go is very interactive and very intimate,” she says. “We know these artists. They’re on stage and they say our names. So it’s hitting you harder than if someone like Bob Dylan or Smokey Robinson dies. We feel the loss very heavily.”
Lorenzo Queen is survived by his mother, Maxine Maclin, his brother, Stephen Maclin, three children and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Nov. 1 at the New Covenant Church, 1301 W St. SE. Following the 10 a.m. viewing and 11 a.m. service, Queen will be laid to rest at Glenwood Cemetery, 2219 Lincoln Road NE.