Chuck Brown, the bandleader, singer and guitarist who combined a unique mix of funk, soul and Latin party sounds to create go-go music in the nation’s capital, died Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after suffering from pneumonia. He was 75 and had been in the hospital since April 18.
Thanks to Brown and his deep, gravelly voice, go-go music was uniquely identified with Washington, and Gray remained a prolific performer in the city late into his life.
“Go-go is D.C.’s very own unique contribution to the world of pop music,” said Mayor Vincent Gray. “Today is a very sad day for music lovers the world over.”
In 2007 Brown told the Associated Press that go-go was influenced by sounds and fast beats he heard early in life, growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, combined with his later experience playing with a Latin band. “Go-go is a music that continues on and on, and on and it’s a call and response communication with the audience,” Brown said at the time.
One of the most enduring of regional urban music genres, go-go remained intensely popular in D.C. even as hip-hop became the dominant youth musical force in other urban areas. Go-go is a dense, slippery hybrid of numerous musical styles involving marathon performances and substantial call-and-response audience interaction, and though Brown often acknowledged other bandleaders’ roles in its development, he was far and away its most visible symbol.
Having lived in D.C. since age 8, Brown endured a difficult childhood, turning to petty crime and eventually spent eight years in prison. While behind bars, he traded five cartons of cigarettes for his first guitar. After he was freed in 1962, Brown played with several bands — including Latin act Los Latinos — and later formed the Soul Searchers. To comply with terms of his parole, Brown’s group couldn’t play where alcohol was served, so they went to churches, recreation halls and youth centers.
The Soul Searchers cut their first record, “We the People,” for Sussex Records in 1972, followed by “Salt of the Earth” in ’74. But it was 1979’s “Bustin’ Loose” that helped define the sound of go-go, and it spent several weeks atop the R&B chart.
Numerous live and studio records on a variety of labels followed. In 1992, Brown cut “The Other Side,” a duets album with then little-known jazz vocalist Eva Cassidy.
Brown’s recordings have been sampled countless times by hip-hop producers — samples of the drum break from Brown’s 1972 track “Ashley’s Roachclip,” for example, can be heard on records ranging from Duran Duran and Eric B. & Rakim to Milli Vanilli. Pop-rapper Nelly sampled “Bustin’ Loose” for Grammy-winning 2002 single “Hot in Here,” and Eve used Brown’s “Brown Your Whistle” for 2007 single “Tambourine.”
Brown told the AP he admired such artists.
“Go-Go had some influence on rap because a lot of rap musicians come to my shows,” he said. “Some of them were students at Howard University. People like Puff Daddy, he’s been to see us when he was a young Howard University student.”
Spike Lee, a fan of Brown’s, used go-go for his movie “School Daze.”
In 2005, Brown was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. He received his first Grammy nomination in 2011.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)