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Chuck Brown on Being the Godfather of Go-Go by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“Go-go is a groove, man. It is a mixture of Latin percussion, jazz, blues, and African call and response. To me, it has also always had a spiritual vibe because the roots of go-go came from a church that my Mom used to take me to as a kid. At our church, people used to jump and shout, just like they do now when they are listening to go-go.

“D.C. is where go-go got started. I always say that D.C. is my hall of fame. I was raised in all four corners of this city. When I was a kid, we used to live in a little shack by the railroad tracks. I used to beat on a rock to the beat of the train going by. Everyone in my family could sing, but my Mom could outsing anyone. We used to sing at church together, and she took me around to sing at house parties. We would pass around a hat to make some money. Then, I started shining shoes around town. One time, I shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes outside of the Howard Theater. Back then, I would make $2 or $3 in a day, as shoe shines only cost a dime. I remember he gave me a whole dollar tip. I will never forget that. I told myself that one day I would play at the Howard Theater.

“I left home and school at 13. I had all kinds of jobs and got into a bit of trouble. I spent my share of time behind bars, and then I did an eight-year stint at Lorton Reformatory. I had been to several other jails before, but all those experiences taught me was how not to go to those same jails no more. When I went to Lorton, it changed my whole life. That was over 50 years ago, and I ain’t never been to jail since. I am proud of me for that. To me, Lorton was college. There, I got a high-school diploma, learned a trade, and learned the guitar. In Lorton, I paid a young man five packs of cigarettes to make me a guitar in the wood-working shop. I watched some of the cats there play, but pretty much taught myself the guitar. At Lorton, chow time and showtime used to both be at 5 p.m. on Saturdays. After about six months of practicing, I made it onto the show. When word got out that I was playing, they had to change the chow time to 7:30 p.m. because no one was at the mess hall when I was playing. That let me know that I could put on a show. Continues after the jump.

“When I got out, I used to play in a group called Los Latinos and the Earls of Rhythm. In 1966, I started my own band, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. I liked to keep the music going in between songs, so there was not a break. See, the music just goes and goes. I mixed up the Top 40 with a lot of the Latin percussion and the call-and-response. At the time, they had go-go clubs and go-go girls, but no go-go music, so I decided to call it go-go. When they heard my music, people started coming out of their clothes and moving the tables and chairs out of the place, so there was more room to dance. The music really caught on in 1976. After that, we put out a tune called Bustin’ Loose. That was our biggest hit. In 1979, we were on Soul Train, which meant that go-go had arrived. Then, some of the other bands started catching on, like Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, and the Junkyard Band.

“Still, when I get on the stage, I become enraged and forget about my age. A lot of people ask me when I am going to retire. I say, ‘Come on, I still got the fire, the desire, and I am getting hired. Ain’t no need to retire.’ People call me the Godfather of Go-Go. I didn’t give myself that name; it was the fans and the DJs. They made it all happen and I appreciate it. Looking back, I still would have been happy had go-go just been popular in D.C. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but it went all over the world. I will always be grateful to D.C. for that — and for my family. You got a lot of love in D.C. I found my first wife here. We stayed married for 27 years. I then got remarried and have been with my second wife for 25 years. Both of them were great. I am the one that wasn’t so great, but I am cool now because I am too old to be anything else. Now, I have four kids. I lost one son in an automobile accident 20 years ago. We have five grandkids and another grandkid on the way. I really feel lucky.

“Last thing I gotta say is that for all of you who want to be on your feet dancing for hours, you need to go to a go-go.”

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