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“She commanded the stage. She made you look at her and pay attention.” That’s WKYS’s evening Go-Go Crank Session DJ Big John talking about seeing D.C. born-and-raised singer/actress Michelle “Chel’e P.” Perry in June 2013 at the Howard Theatre in the gospel drama My Father’s Keeper. Chel’e P., the self-proclaimed “Queen of Go-Go Soul” died Tuesday, Oct. 14, at age 42 from lung cancer, as first reported by Take Me Out To The Go-go. A lifelong musician, Chel’e became best-known for her singing in a number of go-go bands from 2006 to 2012, as well as for the 2012 song “Where Da Party At,” which received attention from local radio and club DJs.
Chel’e grew up in Congress Park, where her parents enrolled her in violin lessons at age 7 and soon had her learning how to read and write sheet music. Her mother, Vernell Garey, got her into the D.C. Youth Orchestra, but soon, Chel’e had other musical goals. “By the time she got to be 12, that’s when she liked to sing. I just thought it was a phase she was going through like all typical teenagers,” Garey says. “But as the years went on I saw she was really serious about it. She would do all kinds of talent shows all over the city.” Garey says that Chel’e’s middle-school music and math teacher George Parker, a former member of the soul group Special Delivery, helped hone her vocal chops. By high school, she was checking out Rare Essence and others on the go-go scene.
In 2006, Chel’e started singing in the All 4U Band, followed by Firm Project from 2007 to 2008, the Uncutt Band from 2008 to 2011, and filling in with Familiar Faces in November 2011 through early 2012 when she stopped performing to concentrate on her health. (Her appearances with Familiar Faces, led by go-go horn player/singer Donnell Floyd, a longtime member of Rare Essence, helped up Chel’e’s local profile.) “A lot of people were talking about her—-she had a great voice and people thought she had an edgy attitude. She would sit in with us when our main singer wasn’t available,” Floyd says. She was “a tall singer who wasn’t trying to hide her height. She didn’t slouch. She would wear stilettos and stand over 6 feet tall. She had a lot of charisma onstage.”
Chel’e was working on her own recording projects, too. In 2011, local producer Big Wyllz (aka Kaddy Musik) turned Jessie J.’s “Do It Like a Dude” into a go-go/rap showcase for Chel’e’s raw, powerful timbre. She followed that up with her 2012 effort, “Where Da Party At,” an original featuring her lyrics with music by Big Wyllz and guitarist Dennis “Sixx Playa” Atkinson from Suttle Thoughts. It also contained a guest appearance by Chuck Brown’s daughter, rapper KK. The song became known in part for Chel’e’s name-dropping of popular go-go bands: “We are an Optimistic Tribe called go-go…the Experience is Unlimited.” Impressed with the track, Big John gave it much attention on WKYS. When she passed away, Chel’e was in the midst of planning one more musical project that she never finalized due to her health issues: an all female go-go band of her own, to be called Chel’e P. & the Beat Freaks.
Roosevelt Jackson, the producer of My Father’s Keeper and a movie starring Chel’e called Sheets of Deception, recalls Chel’e’s tryout nerves. “She was the last person to audition, and I was about to leave, and I saw her walking very fast up the steps,” he says. “She just came from a funeral of a friend and wasn’t going to come, but she did.” Despite her singing experience onstage, Chel’e told Jackson that she was scared about appearing in the play. It was her dream of to be in a Tyler Perry play; Jackson told her “I am nowhere like Tyler Perry but I will help you get there.” Chel’e’s mom still looks back fondly on the standing ovation she got that night at the Howard. Chel’e did, too.
Services for Michelle “Chel’e P.” Perry take place tomorrow, Friday Oct. 24, at Union Temple Baptist Church, 1225 W St. SE. The viewing is from 9 – 11 a.m., immediately followed by a funeral ceremony. A repast will take place afterward at the Upscale Ballroom, 3900 Bexley Place, Suitland, Md. Donations for funeral expenses and for Chel’e’s daughter can be made online.
Photo by Chip Py