Only in Washington, DC
August 3, 2010
2005 NEA National Heritage Fellow Chuck Brown. Photo by Tom Pich
You might think that---unlike Chicago or Nashville or New Orleans---the only "music" to be heard in DC is the sound of official motorcades or pontificating politicians. But, in fact, thanks to 2005 NEA National Heritage Fellow Chuck Brown, Washington, DC was the birthplace of "go-go," a distinctive musical blend of Latin beats, African call-and-response chants, rhythm and blues, and jazz. In this interview excerpt, Brown talks about how his early days playing in diverse styles with a host of bands led to the innovative sound of go-go.
I was playing top 40 when I started out playing with other bands, the Los Latinos, the Earls, the Rhythms. The Los Latinos had a unique sound. It was on guitar, a bass player, Joe Manny the timbale player and head of the group, and Thomas Smith, the main percussionist. We didn't have a regular drum set. We had a great sound, it was top 40 with a Latin flavor.
After we came up with the go-go disco faded out here in Washington, D.C. The next thing you know every band around was playing go-go. Even little groups, guys that couldn't even play, got interested in learning how to play so that they could play go-go. That was so great.
I replaced the keyboardist when I joined Los Latinos. It's hard to replace a keyboard player with a guitar. I had to work real hard. I learned a lot from that, a lot of chords I never would have normally played, and changes, and other things.
When I put my own group together I decided to take some of those ingredients with me. Of course, you had to sound like the radio otherwise you weren't going to get many gigs. Whatever cover tunes we did had to sound as close to the original as possible. There were a lot of bands around at that time so the competition was very strong.
As time went on I decided I would try to get my own sound together. When disco came out around '71, '72, I had a tune out called "We the People" and another, ?"Shaker Town Lorraine," summer time songs, you know, little partying songs. Kids getting out of school and all. And everybody related to it. But there were go-go clubs and go-go girls. They had everything but go-go bands. Then Smokey Robinson had a tune out called "Going to the Go-Go," you know. That also inspired me.
I started breaking the tunes down. We were doing 25 or 30 tunes a night so we started playing the percussion ingredients, the same Latin flavor that I had when I was with the Los Latinos. Everybody started liking that and that way we didn't have to play as many disco tunes. We slowed it down, broke the beat down to about 60 beats a minute, and everybody loved it. Then I wrote a tune called "Bustin Loose" and we played it for almost a year-and-a-half before we decided to record. It was released and the rest is history. Everybody jumped on it.
Visit Chuck Brown's NEA National Heritage Fellows page to read the complete interview and to hear a sample of go-go music. And don't forget to check out the most recent edition of NEA Arts , which spotlights artists and arts organizations right here in the District.