Even a well-loved radio and television personality like Donnie Simpson is not inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame every day. In honor of his late October induction, the go-go community surprised Simpson with an unexpected gift: the new track “I Wanna Thank You,” by 26 local performers recording as Go-Go Artists United.
The project was organized by Full Circle Entertainment’s Tom Goldfogle, longtime manager of Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown. Well-connected in the world of go-go, Goldfogle pulled together a remarkable roster of performers, including Anwan “Big G” Glover, Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, DJ Kool, “Sweet Cherie” Mitchell-Agurs, and “Big” Tony Fisher.
“The Mount Rushmore of D.C. would likely be Chuck Brown, Marion Barry, and Donnie Simpson,” says Goldfogle. “His induction into the Radio Hall of Fame seemed like a perfect time to show D.C.’s love and appreciation to Donnie and thanks for what he means to the DMV. We wanted to thank him, and this seemed like the most heartfelt way.”
Simpson, who began his radio career in Detroit before landing at WKYS-FM in 1977, has been a longtime fixture on local radio. He and Goldfogle have known each other for decades, a connection that was strengthened by Simpson’s close friendship with Brown. “They had this amazing relationship of love and respect between the two of them,” says Goldfogle. “Donnie holds D.C.’s culture and music in high regard and knows its importance to the community.”
The week after Simpson’s induction, Goldfogle delivered “I Wanna Thank You” on a CD to Simpson’ current radio home, WMMJ-FM, along with a framed portrait of Brown surrounded by signatures of all who contributed to the track. Simpson recalls that he went outside to his SUV to listen to the song. “It was such an incredible gift. I sat there in the truck listening with tears in my eyes,” he says. “To be embraced by your home folks is just a special honor. It just doesn’t get any better than that … It was almost like having your own private ‘We Are the World.’”
Even before BET’s Video Soul debuted in 1981 with him as its host, the smooth talking, matinee idol-handsome Simpson was an established radio personality here and in Detroit, where he started on WJLB-FM as Donnie “The Love Bug” Simpson. He =joined WJLB at age 15, so young that he had to pre-record sections of his 8 p.m. to midnight slot to comply with labor laws stipulating that he could not work after 10:30 p.m. When he relocated to D.C. to host the WKYS afternoon drive show, he became a local star here.
“Though he has that celebrity glow around him, he’s so down to earth and real, and that just draws everybody in,” says Goldfogle. “I think D.C. has the most loyal fan base of anywhere in the world. They’re a tough audience to get, but once you’ve won them over, they’re yours for life, loyal forever.”
According to Goldfogle, the entire project came together in two weeks and was recorded over three days shortly before Simpson’s induction. All parties involved volunteered their time—especially meaningful when so many in the music industry have diminished incomes due to COVID-19. “This was a labor of love,” says Goldfogle.
To expedite the process, Goldfogle had opted for a cover song rather than an original, choosing a 1983 hit by Frankie Beverly, whose R&B group Maze has been a local favorite for decades. Goldfogle then tapped Rare Essence keyboardist and respected local producer Roy Battle to produce the record. “Roy is just really good at production and taking an idea and moving it along in ways that I’m not capable of doing,” says Goldfogle.
Then Goldfogle started making calls. One of the first was to Frank “Scooby” Sirius, vocalist for the Chuck Brown Band and his own Sirius Company. Scooby grew up listening to Simpson on the radio and later, watching him as the host of Video Soul, an essential music outlet for Black artists during the ’80s and much of the ’90s as well. “When I was a kid, Donnie Simpson was a soundtrack to my radio life, the one voice you could count on hearing,” says Scooby.
In late November, the Go-Go Awards featured a pre-recorded segment with Simpson greeting the go-go community while wearing one of Montu Mitchell’s “I Love Go-Go” shirts that he had received as a gift from DJ Rico. “Donnie has always supported go-go, and anybody that has endeared themselves to the community marks themselves as an honorary go-go colleague,” says Scooby. “D.C. is a go-go town, and people love him.”
For Battle, who served as producer and arranger for “I Wanna Thank You” and played some of its keyboard parts, the hardest aspect of this project was the number of vocalists involved. “Fitting so many great vocal performances into a specific number of measures was almost like doing a math equation, because you have X amount of vocalists, and only a certain amount of bars,” says Battle. “You gotta figure out how to get those bars spread out among the vocalists, and you want everyone having as much participation as possible.”
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, studio recording times for everyone involved in the project were staggered over several days at Square Circle Entertainment and Meridian Studio, both in Prince George’s County. Everyone was masked except for when they were singing or playing an instrument that required the use of their mouths. The video was filmed by whoever was on hand at that particular moment; later, film and video editor Stacy Holmes put them together for a video that’s now available on YouTube.
Like everyone else who participated on this project, says Be’la Dona’s Sweet Cherie, she was thrilled to get the call. “For me to be a part of this collaborative work of art and to have my name scribbled on the poster is such a huge honor,” Sweet Cherie adds. “And can I just say that Donnie Simpson has the most adorable green eyes I’ve ever seen and a wonderful smile?”
Sweet Cherie got an up-close view of those green eyes in 1998, when she performed alongside Experience Unlimited’s Sugar Bear for Simpson and his wife’s 25th anniversary celebration.
For Sugar Bear, playing that party and participating on “I Wanna Thank You” were both tremendously gratifying. “Being on this record meant a lot to me because of everything Donnie Simpson has done for our go-go culture,” he says. Sugar Bear credits Simpson with playing an important role in breaking “Da Butt,” go-go’s biggest hit, back in 1988; the song, which was featured in Spike Lee’s film School Daze, went to No. 1 on the R&B charts.
“Donnie gravitated towards our sound, our music, and he really bent over backwards for EU, Chuck Brown, Rare Essence and other bands. We’re so very grateful to him for his open mind and open heart,” Sugar Bear says. “This is the perfect song, ‘I Wanna Thank You.’ What other way is there to say it?”