On the occasion of Chuck Brown’s 75th birthday celebration this weekend @ 930 club (this Saturday, with Bootsy!) we decided to re-run this awesome interview we did with him back in ’07 when none of you read BYT yet. Enjoy-ed
Walking down the street with Chuck Brown, you have to wonder how the man manages to make any progress at all through the city.
Every few feet on U Street another face lights up, “Chuck! It’s you! Remember me?” This isn’t the same kind of recognition some touring celebrity would get, all gawkers and nervous handshakes—people in DC all seem to have a Chuck Brown connection, (“My sister sang backup for you in ’79!”) or a slice of the past to share, (“I saw you in the park when I was only 3 years old…”) and Chuck makes the time for each new story, stopping and laughing with the fans like they were long lost buddies from back in the day. It’s not just the fact that he invented DC’s most important homegrown music, or had a string of hits that are still being sampled and beloved on an international scale, it’s more about the integral part of the city’s daily life Chuck Brown has played over the past 35 years.
When we finally duck into Ponytail’s Shoe Shine and Shoe Repair shop, business comes to a halt while customers and employees, guys close to Chuck’s generation, gather around and start discussing the old times. The memories emerge as lists of names and places; the Lincoln Theater where Count Basie and Louis Jordan and Duke Ellington played, the boxing rings where Sonny Boy West or Joe Louis fought, the ballrooms and speakeasy cabarets now closed, the movie theaters and restaurants and shops replaced by boutiques and cafes.
Sitting on one of the high chairs which have been used to perch customers for decades, Chuck, looking as sharp and kick-ass as ever at 71, holds court as people peek at him through the window and come in to listen to the legend. “I used to shine shoes right on this street, you know?” Chuck tells the group, and they do know. Most folks in DC, go-go fans or not, can recite Chuck’s long and powerful history by heart. “Man I’ve told this story so many times,” he begins, but like old friends, his audience doesn’t mind the reminiscence, since it’s their story too.
BYT: This is your street isn’t it?
CB: This is the street. This used to be the main drag. When you were walking up and down U Street, you had to be well dressed. Everyone looked good when they came out on U Street. You know, you grew up in this area. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody tries to out-dress everybody. When I was a little boy, I used to walk up and down this street with my shoeshine box. I started in the morning at the Republic Theater, and worked all the way up to Georgetown. If I made 50 cents I had enough to get into a movie at the Plymouth. At the Howard Theater I shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes, Louis Jordan, right out front there. People standing around admiring him, getting his autograph, and I was down on my knees, shining his shoes.
BYT: This area’s changed a lot since then, what do you think about what’s happening here and on H Street?
CB: Well everything’s changed up here on U Street to be frank about it. Still it’s good to see some of the old timers coming through so we can rap about the old days. We have a lot to talk about.
BYT: Did you ever get to play with any of those guys whose shoes you shined?
CB: I saw Louis Armstrong play in New Orleans, in the late 50’s I think. But I never got to play with him.
BYT: You’ve played with a lot of other great people from almost every era…
CB: So many I can’t even count. I played at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, with two hundred acts. I had the pleasure of coming right on in front of James Brown. He was the man to play back in the days, when I was running up and down this street. Every band in this city had to do at least one James Brown song or you weren’t going to get paid.
BYT: You struggled a lot to get started back then. What motivated you to keep working so hard?
CB: I’m not going to go that deep, but I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 24 years old. I’ve always been musically inclined, everybody in my family can sing, everybody can play some kind of instrument—a harmonica or a piano, or an accordion. Or a juice harp. It’s just a natural thing. My mother had me singing since I was two years old, in church and in different people’s houses. But that was it. I wasn’t really that interested until I was 24 years old.
BYT: You decided to get serious about it as a career?
CB: (turning to a employee of the shop) I’ve told this story so many times haven’t I, Joe? I’ve told this story all over the world. See when I was going to jail, I hadn’t played anything in years. When I made up my mind not to go to jail anymore, I was down in Lorton. I learned to play guitar in there, got my High School diploma, and I knew what I was going to be when I got out of there. So I became the number one entertainer in Lorton. They had showtime on Saturday, and chowtime on Saturday. Showtime 5 o’clock, chowtime 5 o’clock. And they got to the point when they had me on the show, they had to close the messhall, and open it at 7:30, because if I was on the show there wasn’t going to be anybody in the messhall. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging but that’s the way it was. I knew when I got out of there I wasn’t going back to jail no more. That was fifty years ago. That was when Lorton was a place of rehabilitation. It wasn’t a penitentiary or any of that kind of ugly stuff they’ve got now in jail. You went there to better yourself. To find yourself. And I did. And I’m grateful.
BYT: You’re grateful you went to jail?
CB: Lorton wasn’t a jail, it was a school. And you know what those inmates used to say? “Chuck Brown we know you’re going to do it man, don’t you come back in here.” I said, “Ill be back in here.” “When”? “When I come play for y’all.” And I went back there for fifteen years! I played in jails in California, all over. I know about jails. The only thing those other jails taught me, was how not to go back to those same jails. When I went to Lorton, I learned everything. I have to say, I am so glad I went to Lorton. I’m one of the few inmates I guess would say that.
BYT: When you were getting started back then, when you were coming up with what became the go-go sound, when did all those percussion instruments come in, the timbales and congas and other things you didn’t usually hear in funk music at the time?
CB: That came out of an ideas that I had when I played with a group called Los Latinos. I got a lot of experience with that group, great group, used to play right here at Bohemian Caverns. Those were good guys; they were a great inspiration in my life. So that Latin groove came from those guys… and the congas, that groove came from all the African music that was around. And the beat itself, that came out of the church that I grew up in. In church they played that groove, but they were jumping and shouting with it. It got into my mind and it stayed there. So when I put my own group together I decided to incorporate that Latin sound with those African instruments. I put all that together because I was trying to make my own sound, like James Brown and all the people who have their own thing. Muddy Waters, BB King, Lighting Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, I could just go on and on, I’m crazy about the blues. It turned out to be a sound for the time, it just caught on. I had no idea it was going to happen like that.
BYT: It’s almost like Go-go’s a mix of sounds in the same way that DC is a mix of different cultures. Did you know it was different from everything else?
CB: Oh yes. You just know, you feel it. I was doing top 40 too, all the bands were. In those days you had to play close to the record, or as good as the record, and that determined who got the most gigs. So it was a struggle, but it was a fun struggle. All those different artists you had to sing, it showed your versatility. I’m happy to say we were hanging in there too. Back in those days I could go from where I am now… to Smokey Robinson. Of course my voice has dropped an octave since then.
BYT: You were trying to reproduce the records?
CB: Yeah I was singing falsetto and all that. That’s how you kept working, that’s how you made money. We worked seven nights a week. Sometimes double, triple gigs on weekends. For twenty-five years I worked right across the street from here. Twenty-five years playing top 40, you follow me? So eventually I developed my own sound, and I thank god for that. There’s a spiritual thing about it. There’s a spiritual vibe in Go-go. You can do just about any kind of music off a Go-go groove. There are groups around here that are playing Go-go gospel in the churches. And that is a blessing.
BYT: I’ve heard your version of the love theme from the Godfather too… (from Chuck’s latest album, “We’re About The Business.”)
CB: It works! I’ve been wanting to do the Godfather since the movie first came out, since I saw it at the Lincoln theater in 1972. And that melody stayed with me.
BYT: You’ve got some loyal fans. What is it about Go-go that inspires brand loyalty?
CB: Well you have your own unique concept of Go-go. That’s what I like about some of these new bands coming out, they have they’re own style. But there are a couple of them, or I should say more than a couple of them, that are sort of similar. You know they sound basically alike. But they all sound good. Still there are a couple that I can’t tell which one is which.
BYT: Go-go bands still do that, playing R&B songs in the middle of their jams. It’s almost like sampling. Given that so much modern R&B is made with computers, do you think kids now have the same desire to learn how to play real instruments?
CB: Well that’s a shame if they don’t. But I like the fact that some of the new bands are putting instruments back into Go-go. Putting the horns and the tunes back. Go-go music, you know, it’s called that for a reason.
BYT: Growing up around the city, I had friends whose whole identity was defined by go-go. How does it feel knowing you’ve inspired not just a kind of music, but a lifestyle in this town?
CB: I’m just so grateful. Washington DC has the most loyal precious fans in the world. I’ve been around the world and I’ve been all over the country and we have great DC fans everywhere. Any city we go to, we find some DC fans there. I don’t care what city it is. We went to Vegas and found some DC fans. Up north, in Germany, we had some DC fans there. Even in Japan we had some DC fans in the audience. It’s a good feeling. Ain’t nothing like DC. Love my DC fans. Maryland and Virginia too! God bless ‘em, I love them all.
After we speak we go out into the street and shoot some more pictures, Chuck holding his guitar in various poses, soloing softly. A crowd gathers of course, people asking for their own pictures or charity or just a moment of his time. “They got me modeling, y’all!” he yells to them and they break up laughing. As he walks to his car, a father brings his young son over to meet the Godfather. The boy looks at Chuck with wide eyes—full of the glamour of meeting DC’s most accessible celebrity. Whether down the road the meeting might inspire him be a musician who makes a new sound of his own, or only to become just another fan, there’s no chance he’ll ever forget it.
all photos: Joel Didriksen www.kingpinphoto.com