Chuck Brown, known as the "Godfather of Go-Go," in 1987.
Chuck Brown, known as the "Godfather of Go-Go," in 1987. David Corio/Redferns
If you are from the Washington, D.C. area — D.C. to the locals — or if you just follow popular music, then you must have heard of Chuck Brown, the much loved musician who died last month at the age of 75.
We ran a brief tribute right at the time of his death, but after his memorial service last week, I found myself thinking more about him.
To the uninitiated, Chuck Brown was known as the Godfather of Go-Go. Check out a little taste of one of his hits, "Run Joe," a go-go-ized remake of a classic calypso song.
Chuck Brown performs at NPR.
Chuck Brown performs at NPR. Amy Ta/NPR
When I interviewed him last August, I asked him to describe exactly what go-go is, and this is what he said:
Well, it's another concept of funky music, and mixed with Latin and African ingredients, and percussion. The thing about my type of music, of course, I grew up in a church, and my mother didn't allow me to sing anything but gospel, at that point in time. And so, as I got a little bit older and I left home, I was on my own, I wasn't interested in music no more, until I was 24, and that's when I got interested in playing the guitar.
And the rest as they say is history, but not quite. You see, Brown got interested in playing guitar when he was in prison, where he had landed after a childhood marked by the kind of poverty so intense he remembered his mother taking him to a neighbor's house to beg for a meal for him, though not for herself.
When the family moved north, he shined shoes, sold newspapers and did other odd jobs to help make ends meet. At some point, he drifted into crime, eventually landing in prison, where he famously traded cartons of cigarettes for another inmate's guitar.
When he got out, he started playing with different local bands until he formed his own, The Soul Searchers, and found his own style. He called it go-go, he said, because, you would go and go and go.
And at this point you might be thinking, "OK, he had a few hits, that's nice, so what?" To which I say, in this area, he was not just a musician; he was local royalty — generous with his time, energy and attention, giving his all to any gig.
Once when he came by our studios to play a small concert, something we call a Tiny Desk Concert — which is literally set up at somebody's desk — he brought a nine-piece band.
When I interviewed him last August, he was being honored at the Kennedy Center for his 75th birthday. He played one or two songs for us and when I said thank you, he said, "That's all you want?"
And now my question is: Of course Chuck Brown was one of a kind, but could this country create another one these days? Could a kid get out of prison after eight years, for a shooting no less, and work his way back into a reasonably respectable life?
Could a kid with no degree, but a work ethic, creativity and a passion for what he does, become not a megastar but even just somebody? I'll tell you what Brown said when I saw him last. Now you tell me.
Since I've been out here, I've learned so much, I mean, through experience. People that listen to other people get wisdom. Pay attention to people that are trying to teach you something. That's what I did. My kids have taught me an awful lot. They're in college and I've learned more from them than I've learned all my lifetime. You see, my thing is stay focused, and trust in God, and be confident in what you're doing.
Rest in peace, Chuck Brown. We miss you already.