Friday, February 15, 2008

"Chuck Brown is good to Go-Go"

from - by Wayne Gabel

Meet the Washington go-go innovator who learned guitar in prison and then gave his hometown its own syncopated soul

Chuck Brown doesn't know when to quit. That's not a character flaw — it's a trait that gave the world the musical equivalent of a marathon.

The 73-year-old guitarist and singer, dubbed the "Godfather of Go-Go," is still a man on the move thanks to the funk-based sound he created in the 1970s with his band, the Soul Searchers.

"Go-go music just keeps going and going and going," Brown says by phone from his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

To residents of the U.S. capital, Brown is as much of a local icon as the monuments that dot the cityscape. But outside of the greater Washington area, go-go's birthplace, the man and his creation have a lower profile. That's despite the props Brown has gotten from rapper Nelly, who's sampled his music, and other hip-hop stars he's influenced.

Aside from a flirtation with the international spotlight in the mid-1980s, go-go has remained a regional form of music. Significantly, however, it has showed few signs of losing ground to national trends.

"We're About the Business," a 2007 release that's available as an import in Japan, helps explain why that's the case. Produced by Carl "Chucky" Thompson, a former Soul Searchers drummer who's helmed records by Mary J. Blige and Busta Rhymes, the album incorporates hip-hop influences while remaining true to go-go's syncopated soul.

Some argue that go-go, with its horns and Latin-style percussion, is best experienced in concert. It's an opinion that seems to be borne out by the fact that Brown has issued umpteen live albums during the decade that elapsed between his latest disc and its studio predecessor. His Japan tour, which starts Feb. 16 in Tokyo, is his first since 1988, making it a rare chance to hear the real deal.

Go-go, as its name suggests, doesn't stop. Rather than pause between songs, the musicians typically fill the gap with timbales, congas and other percussion instruments as they segue into the next tune. It's a technique Brown began using to keep people on the dance floor back when he paid the bills by playing Top 40 covers. It was also a way to lessen the burden on his band.

Though urban legend has it that he came up with go-go because he despised disco, Brown remembers differently.

"It wasn't that I couldn't stand disco. It's just that I got so tired of playing disco because you have to keep up with the Top 10," he explains. "The work was so hard. Every week, they were coming out with new tunes. If it was a hit, we had to learn it."

Brown, who recalls playing up to 30 songs a night in those days, found a way of out of the grind. By having the band break into a percussion groove and engaging the audience with call-and- response chants between songs, he could stretch things without having to constantly update their repertoire.

"When we locked into that go-go groove, people liked it so much they didn't care how many songs we did," he says.

The beat that inspired the groove is one that Brown first heard as a child while attending church. He says the memories of "people jumping and shouting off that beat" never left him. He heard it again in "Mister Magic," the title track of a 1975 album by saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., whose music straddles R&B and jazz.

Brown slowed down the beat and topped it off with horns and Latin-style percussion. Mindful that audiences wanted to hear what they heard on the radio, he had to be careful about putting too much of himself into the music. But once he noticed the reaction of the audiences who frequented D.C.'s "cabarets" — social events held in venues such as hotels and fraternal halls — there was no holding him back.

"Everybody used to come to the cabaret with their suits and ties and their mink coats. They'd sit down, and most of them wouldn't dance until they had a few drinks," Brown recalls with a laugh. "But once we started doing that go-go beat, they'd come through the door dancing. I knew then it had caught on."

Brown, who taught himself to play guitar during a four-year stint for assault in Virginia's Lorton Prison in the mid-1960s, hit No. 1 on the U.S. R&B charts in early 1979 with "Bustin' Loose," a single that predated the so-called golden age of go-go. He charted again in 1984 with "We Need Some Money."

"I wrote that song in 15 minutes because I was deeply inspired — my pockets were empty," he says, laughing.

By the early 1980s, go-go had attracted the attention of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and the man who helped turn Bob Marley into an international star. His label signed go-go acts Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited, and he was hoping "Good to Go," a 1986 film he produced, would make the sound a worldwide phenomenon. But it ended up as a poorly executed crime saga set to music.

"That movie sucked," Brown says. "I'm sorry I allowed myself to appear in it. It didn't have nothing to do with go-go — cars turning over, people shooting one another and all that crap. You come to go-go to have a good time, it'll make you move. When you hear go-go, you're going to feel it. That's the bottom line."

Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers play Feb. 16 (6 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and Feb. 17 (6 p.m. and 9 p.m.) at Billboard Live Tokyo; ¥7,500 and ¥9,500 (tel. [03] 3405-1133); Feb. 20 (6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) at Billboard Live Osaka; ¥7,000 and ¥9,000 (tel. [06] 6342-7722).

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