Chuck Brown

NEA National Heritage Fellow
Chuck Brown
Photo by Ameen Howrani

Transcript of conversation with Chuck Brown

Jo Reed:  We're going to hear one more song and this is a familiar one.

<music plays>

Jo Reed:  I love that, I love that "Gimme the bridge now".  Where did that come from?  That is so cool and I don't even know why it is so cool but it just is.

Chuck Brown:  Well, you know why it's so cool?  I stole it from James Brown.

 That was the father of go-go and National Heritage Award Fellow, Chuck Brown, talking about the song that put him on the map, "Bustin' Loose." Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Chuck Brown is a musician with deep roots in Washington DC - he's the creator of the music genre, go-go- a style of music that is indigenous to DC. It's beloved in the city and while it's traveled around the world, no one has embraced this music like the folks in the District.  But people all over have embraced Chuck Brown; he's recorded more than 20 albums and sold 1.5 million records since his first hit, "We the People," in 1971. Still, it's Chuck's live performances that set him apart.

Go-go is a musical style that feeds off the audience; it relies on call and response - the audience and the musicians interacting and it's fused with funk, latin rhythms, and hip-hop, all tied together with a relentless beat. Although music always had a part in Chuck Brown's life, he developed his musical chops in an unlikely place - Lorton Penitentiary, Washington DC's main correctional institution.  

Chuck Brown:  Everybody know I've been to jail, you know what I'm saying, and out of all the other institutions that I've been through, they only taught me one thing, how not to go back to those same institutions again.  But when I went to Lorton, that's where I found myself.  That's where a lot of inmates found themselves.  You were presented with all kinds of opportunities, you know?  You could learn a trade. Guys have come out of there and became lawyers.  I got serious about music while I was down there because I've been around music all my life and everybody in my family could play some kind of instrument, harmonica, you know, we're from the south, from North Carolina, you know?  Walking down those old country roads playing your guitar or blowing your harmonica or playing your accordion.  My mother, she played an accordion and she played a harmonica and she played a little bit of piano and I played a little bit of piano when I was seven years old. By the time I was 13, I didn't play piano any more.  I left home at a very early age but, when I got to Lorton, that's where I found myself. 

Jo Reed:  Your family moved to D.C. area when you were a kid.

Chuck Brown:  Yes, ma'am.  We migrated up here.  I was born in Gaston, North Carolina, and my mother took me to Charlotte at the age of about- I was about six months, she said and she got a live-in job as a maid.  She was making seven dollars a week, no, six dollars a week as a maid.  She met my step-father and he took us to Richmond, Virginia.  That's where I started school, in Richmond and started playing a little piano at the Seventh Day Adventist Church down on 7th Street in Richmond, Virginia.  Then my step-father had a job, well, I say my father, you know what I'm saying?  Because he raised me, he's the only daddy I know.  He had a job working at the Lucky Strike cigarette factory, seven bucks a week was what he was making but he brought home about $40 a week worth of cigarettes.  Cigarettes were 10 cents a pack then.  He sold them, two packs, for 15 cent and that's how he made a little money and fed us, you know? 

Jo Reed:  And your mother used to take you around singing.

Chuck Brown:  Yes, ma'am.  Yes, she did.  It was the good old days.  I was about two, three years old, you know?  I can remember some of that stuff but yet I can't remember where this place is.  I can't remember what happened yesterday, you know?  But I have long memories.  She used to take me around to different houses and different little churches and I used to sing, you know, with my mother, you know?  We'd be singing all the spiritual songs, you know, and people were just, "Oh, that little boy going to be someone some day." <laughter> That used to feed us, you know what I'm saying?  Yeah, they used to feed us and that's all I wanted was some food but they used to take up a little collection for us, too, you know?

Jo Reed:  So that's sort of how the house party started.

Chuck Brown:  Yes, ma'am.  Exactly.

Jo Reed:  I mean, when you were, you know, at two and three.

Chuck Brown:  That's right.  Yes, indeed.

Jo Reed:  What gave you the motivation to focus on music while you were in Lorton?

Chuck Brown:  Well, I'll tell ya, I didn't have anything else to do except obey the rules and I was good at helping other guys stay out of trouble, you know what I mean?  Them guys want to fight and some of them had little old knives or something like that. I was good at stopping that and I enjoyed stopping that, knew I've accomplished something, you know what I mean?  I learned how to play that guitar, I got serious about it within about six months.  A young man named Scotty, Bill Walker, Shannon, these guys were three great guitar players, used to play with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, you know, played with a lot of the big bands.  I used to sit there and watch those guys and they'd show me a few chords and I never forgot what they showed me because I never learned how to read music, you know?  It was all come from here, you know?  Come from inside.  So, within six months' time, I was good enough to get on the show.

Jo Reed:  So this was a show put on by the prisoner's inside the prison?

Chuck Brown:  Yes m'am. Showtime every Saturday over at the auditorium at 5:00. Chow time on Saturdays was 5:00. So it got to the point, if I was on the show, you know, Peter Green was the disk jockey and he broadcasted over the loud speakers all over, if I was on the show at 5:00, wouldn't be nobody in the mess hall.

Jo Reed:  They were all there to see you?

Chuck Brown:  Absolutely.  And that's what made me know that, hey, when I get out of here, I know what I'm going to do this time, you know?

Jo Reed:  How did it feel when you stood up on the stage there?

Chuck Brown:  It's the greatest feeling in the world.  Of course, nervous, you know what I'm saying?  And I'm always nervous, right now, every time I hit the stage, I'm nervous but, once I get into it, it's all gone, you know what I'm saying?  Once I get into it, when I hit that stage, I become enraged, I know I'm on the right page so I forget about my age. <laughter> It got to the point, that's the way it was.  They changed the chow time to 7:30.  That was a thrill to me. "I know I'm going to do something when I get out of here this time," you know? 

Jo Reed:  So what were you playing then?  What were you singing then?

Chuck Brown:  I was singing blues and ballads, jazz.  One of the first ballads I did was "My Funny Valentine." <laughs> I loved that song.  And then, of course, when I recorded it, I did it on the go-go groove.  I recorded.  I like to do jazz on the go-go beat, you know?  I learned how to play a little jazz and blues is my roots, of course, blues and gospel.  I learned how to play a little jazz and I decided to incorporate it in that go-go groove.

Jo Reed:  Now, you said you got a guitar while you were in Lorton.  How did you get a guitar?

Chuck Brown:  Young man named Bunny.  I can't remember his last name but his name was Bunny.  It's a funny name for a man, Bunny, in jail, you know what I'm saying? <laughter>

Jo Reed:  He had to have been tough.

Chuck Brown:  But he was a great guy.  Everybody loved him.  Great guy.  He made me a guitar in the carpenter's shop.  I hope he's listening.  He made me a guitar in the carpenter's shop for five cartons of cigarettes.  I sat there on my bunk and I plucked when them guys came up and showed me a few chords.  It was easy for me to learn because, you know, once you know something about keyboard, you can go to most any instrument, you know?  I could have been a trumpet player.  I had a bugle.  My mother bought it for me from the Salvation Army.  I used to wake everybody up in the area every morning.  We were living down on Jay Street in Fairmont Heights, Maryland, and I used to come out in the morning time <laughs> <makes bugle sounds> <laughter> I mean, my chops got strong, you know?  Little boy could blow that bugle, you know?  Actually, I wanted a trumpet so I could really learn to play.  If I'd a had a trumpet, I might have been a trumpet player because I had developed, you know, you have to develop that knot there on your top lip and that's what I did.  I had all of that.  My chops got real strong and said, "That boy won't get- boy, why don't you get a real horn?" <laughs> The people in the neighborhood, they didn't, they didn't complain.  Wake them up on time, 6:00 in the morning, you know?  I'm ready to go to school anyway.

Jo Reed:  You and Louis Armstrong.

Chuck Brown:  Yeah. <laughter> Yes, indeed.

Jo Reed:  So, you got out of prison, ya knew what you wanted to do.  You wanted to play music.

Chuck Brown:  Absolutely, yes, ma'am.  I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got out.  I got out, I made parole and, well, I took that guitar with me and I used to play in peoples' backyards, cooker house and things like that and people would invite me to their house, "Chuck is going to be over our house this week."  When I left Lorton, the guys were telling me, they said, "Charlie Brown, we don't want to see you back in here."  I said, "Well, you will see me back in here."  "Oh, yeah?"  I said, "Yeah, I'm coming back here to play for you guys."  I went back down there off and on for, like, 15 years and gave a nice show for them, you know, right out on the field, on the ball diamond.  A lot of the guys that were down there then, you know, they're old guys like me, you know?  Some of them are musicians and some of them are lawyers.  You go down the courthouse right now, you'll see a couple of them that was down there with me. <laughter> Lawyers, you know what I mean? 

Jo Reed:  Where you could play music was restricted?

Chuck Brown:  Right.  I was on parole.

Jo Reed:  You were on parole.

Chuck Brown:  And I wasn't allowed to play in any places that sold alcoholic beverages.  I was only allowed to play in places like, you know, churches and recreation centers and schools and I did that. I would just play in a little cook outs, acoustic guitar.  People used to call me up, "Chuck, come on.  Come to our house this weekend.  We got some barbeque and beer for you."  I said, "All right," and all the liquor I want to drink, you know?  And next week, somebody would invite me to their house, next week, somebody would invite me to their house.  Finally, people was telling me, said, "Chuck, you good enough to get in a band.  Why don't you join a band?"  I said, "Yeah, I'm going to do that."  "Okay."  I joined a group called the Earls of Rhythm. My man, Jessie, it was his band, you know, and he used to give me instructions and tell me what songs that we needed to learn, that I needed to learn to play.  Then, after that, I left him, I went with a group called Los Latinos.

Jo Reed:  That gave you that Latin beat.

Chuck Brown:  There you go.  This is the idea.  This is, when I left them, I took that idea with me.  Joe Manley, Thomas Smith and Paul Hawkins.  They were the three most popular Latin players and dancers in the city.  I grew up with Joe Manley. So Joe asked me to come on and get in his group and he had lost his keyboard player. I was, like, "Man, I can't replace no keyboard player with no guitar, man."  He said, "Yes, you can, Chuck.  All you need is confidence in yourself, man, you can do it."  He said, "Learn these songs and come on and play with my band."  So I learned about five or six songs and I got in his band.  It went down pretty good, you know?  It went down very good and I stayed with him about a year and a half and people were telling me to get my own band.  I said, "Okay, I'll try that" and in 1966 was when I started putting my band together.

Jo Reed:  And that's the Soul Searchers.

Chuck Brown:  That's Soul Searchers.  Then, as time went on, the fans and the radio stations started calling me, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.

Jo Reed:  What was music like in D.C. then?

Chuck Brown:  Top 40, rhythm and blues, all bands did rhythm and blues.  Back in those days, original tunes were hard to present to the fans at that time.  They wouldn't know what you was playing if it hadn't been playing on the radio.  So it was kind of hard for them to set so everybody had to do top 40.  The bands that did top 40 the best and closest to the record, those are the ones that lasted long and got the most work.  If you didn't do James Brown, of course, you might not get that gig no more.  He was my idol.  So we got to be pretty good doing the top 40.  Worked quite regularly.  There was one point in time where we worked seven nights a week.  I used to play three/four hours a night and money wasn't that great but you work seven nights, you're going to be okay.  That little bit of money add up. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Did you have a yen to do your own music?

Chuck Brown:  Absolutely.  Yes, I did, yes, I did, and I was working on that.  I was working on some originality and writing some tunes so, in 1969, I started writing a tune.  I wrote a tune called "We the People" and we didn't record it until '71 and it came out in '72.  It was a good hit and then we came back with "Blow Your Whistle."  He said, Max told me, he said, "Man, you know, the kids riding around here on their bicycles and blowing whistles and things, I think you ought to hook up something and write a song about blow your whistle."  I said, "Okay," and I did that.  I sat down and wrote that, put a few hooks together and there it was, you know?  Well, '76 is when go-go started really took a hold.  I wrote Bustin' Loose and we played it from '76 to '78 before we recorded it, went in the studio and recorded it.  Came out in '78 around about I think it was October in '78.  It was a gigantic hit, all over the country.

Jo Reed:  Now, I do want to talk about "Bustin' Loose" and I think we're going to hear some of that in a minute.  Here's what I want to ask you.  I really would love you to talk about go-go.  If somebody had never been to Washington, D.C., and you had to describe go-go to them.

Chuck Brown:  Well, it's just another form of funky music.  That's number one.  Number two, that Latin African sound was the idea that I took from Los Latinos and added them big congos in there to mix that Latin with that African feel and did top 40 with that.  Then we'd break down.  It got to the point we'd break down, this was in '76, of course, we was breakin' down before '76 but it really caught on in '76, when Grover Washington came out with a tune called "Mister Magic."  That beat that it had, I recognized that.  It had a spiritual feel to it because that was the beat that the saints and I would use to jump and shout off and it was real fab. <makes beat noises> Everybody jumping and shouting, you know?  That was the beat that I wanted and it worked perfectly.  '78, we recorded "Bustin' Loose."  It came out in '78.  It was a gigantic hit in the country and across over to Europe.  Then, after that, had a few problems, you know, before I came up with anything else.

Jo Reed:  Back to go-go because, Chuck, not many people have developed an entire genre of music.  I mean, that is so rare.  Did you know what you were doing when you were doing it?

Chuck Brown:  Well, yes, ma'am, I was trying to create a sound of my own but it ended up being a sound for the town and all the other bands jumping on it, you know?  Everybody like that groove, you know?  Break down and you caught a response to the people, you know?  And that's what it's about and it just goes and goes.  It got to the point we didn't have to do no more ballads, didn't have time to do no ballads, everybody wanted to stay on the floor.  Once you come through that door, you're gonna get on the floor.

Jo Reed:  And you started the shout out.

Chuck Brown:  That's it.  I started calling their names out.  They loved that, you know?  Dedicated, special dedication to this person, that person.

Jo Reed:  To parts of the city, neighborhoods?

Chuck Brown:  Yes, ma'am and to the people in the audience, you know?  You'd call somebody's name out, that make people feel good when you call their name.  "Oh, he said my name," you know what I mean?  I feel the same way somebody say my name.  Back in those days, the little kids, man, they had those buckets, they had pots and pans, they had the best rhythm you ever wanted to hear.  The minute you hear it, you're going to move.  That's what go-go is designed, to make you move.  

Jo Reed:  Now, where did the name go-go come from?

Chuck Brown:  I just thought of it because, you know, you got night clubs, go-go clubs, go-go girls dancing in the club but there was no go-go music so I decided to call it go-go music simply because it don't stop, it just keep going and going and going and I've seen people- I got some cousins in Richmond, Virginia.  One is about 94 and another one is about 91 and, let's see, 88, 89.  They'd been on about I was some kin to them.  They seen me on TV and went, "That's Lila's boy.  We used to feed him.  Change his diapers." <laughter> That was about 65 years ago, more than that maybe, 70 years ago, you know?  So finally we got to meet, we got to know each other and they got on that floor dancing the go-go.  They didn't think that they were going to stay on that floor that long, you know?  They're 90-some years old.  They stayed on the floor the whole time we played.  We played about maybe hour and 45 minutes there in Richmond.  They stayed on the floor.  They said, "Hey, never had that much exercise since they've been..." <laughter> since they've been in the world.

Jo Reed:  When you started playing, there were still tables and chairs in clubs.  

Chuck Brown:  Tables and chairs, yes, ma'am.  Everybody used to come in there dressed all up, you know, ladies come in with their mink coats and things and fellas with their suits and neckties and things and everybody sit around until they got a little tipsy.  We up there playing, you know, might do a little jazz, you know, just warm 'em up.  They're relaxing.  But, as soon as we started that go-go thing, and as soon as they hear that beat, next few weeks, they were coming in.  No mink coats, no suits and ties, tables and chairs moved out of the way because they started dancing on top of the tables and chairs so they had to get them out of there.  All the tables and chairs was gone, nothing but people on the floor partying.  Wind me up, Chuck!

Jo Reed:  Well, you kind of took a house party and you brought it to a club.

Chuck Brown:  Yes.  That's the way it was. One great big family affair.

Jo Reed:  And we're going to hear a little cut now from a cover that you did and it's a very famous song, you covered it but, boy, did you make it your own, so I want us to hear a little bit.

Chuck Brown:  All right.

<music plays  - Day 0 >

 Chuck Brown:    I changed the lyrics, you know?  I had to change those lyrics.

Jo Reed:  You listen to it and you know that it's "Day-O" but it's not a "Day-O" that you've ever heard before.

Chuck Brown:  Right. That's what I was feeling and, with that particular rhythm, you know, and with the percussion in there, it made it quite different from the original.  I was excited about it. We had a lot of fun doing that, I'll tell you that.

Jo Reed:  And how much fun was it to write "Bustin' Loose?" 

Chuck Brown:  It took me, like, two years to get "Bustin' Loose" to the way I wanted it.  I'd change the lyrics 100 times.  I wrote "Bustin' Loose," and we played it from 76 to 78 before we recorded it.

Jo Reed:  Were you scared somebody was going to steal it and record it ahead of you?

Chuck Brown:  Yeah, I was scared of that, too.  I had to change a couple of drummers in order to get the beat the way I wanted because, when we finally got the drumming that I needed, it was Little Ricky Wellman, I called him Sugar Foot, his daddy was my first drummer when I put my band together.  He was, like, five/six years old.  He was a good little drummer then.  So his daddy said, "One day, he might be playing with you, you know?"  He was right.  So, when Rick came that night to sit in with us, he was about 19 years old, and I told him to play this in one particular beat because the drummer that I had, he wasn't feeling it, you know?  He was a jazz drummer, a great drummer, but go-go is so simple, at that point in time, a lot of people didn't want to play it, you know?

Jo Reed:  What's the beat? 

Chuck Brown:  <makes beat noises> And it goes on all night long.  You can play 100 songs off that one beat. <laughter> So, when Rick sat down, you know, Ricky got fast hands and everything he plays up tempo, back at that time, when he got with us, it was disco.  Disco was happening.  So, when he sat in with us and I told him don't play no- don't get busy, don't play all that stuff, you know?  Just play that one beat, that one groove and hit that crash cymbal, and then close up on the sock. <makes beat noises> And he did exactly that.  He said, "Hey, Chuck," I turned around.  "I feel so empty."  "Yeah, but look at the floor." <laughter> That's the key, look at the floor.

Jo Reed:  It's all about the beat.

Chuck Brown:  Yes, ma'am.  It's all about the beat and my drummer and congo player, bass, that's your backbone.  They're the ones that holds it together.  Everything on top- coloring, you know?

Jo Reed:  Well, Chuck, what's it like when you go into a studio to record? Because go-go is so interactive you really rely on the audience response in a lot of ways.

Chuck Brown:  Well, you have to be prepared, mentally prepared and motivated and, you know, energetic in order to project that energy through that studio, through that microphone.  That's not an easy thing so you have to feel what you're doing.  A lot of studios don't have no, you know, that atmosphere that you might be looking for.  Some studios have that club atmosphere, which is a good atmosphere.  But who knows whether you're going to get a good track or not, you know? And it's hard to do go-go in a studio.  It's hard because you don't have that crowd participation.  If you get a crowd in there, you know, if it's big enough, you can get a good feel, good sound.  But it's not easy to get go-go out of a studio.  Go-go, you know, the best results is live.  That's when you get really good into it.  But, the studio, you have to know what you're doing and, of course, there's no freedom there, it's thinking.  You got to think, you know?  You want to put things together in a neat way.  Sometimes go-go can be too clean.  You don't want it too clean, you know?  You got to have a little looseness in there, you know?

Jo Reed:  A little grit.

Chuck Brown:  There you go, a little grit.  Yes, indeed.

Jo Reed:  Well when you played music live there was no break. You kept that music going.

Chuck Brown:  No break.  No break.  We'd stopped doing slow songs, you know?  We stopped doing ballads.  They didn't want no more ballads, they wanted that beat.  They wanted us to break it down.  They didn't want no whole bunch of songs.  We used to do 20, 24, 25 songs a night but, when we started that beat, had to break it down, they didn't want us to stop and do no slow songs.  Broke that beat down and just called a response, holler back at the audience, they holler back at us.  Later on, Bootsy Collins came up with a song called "Wind Me Up" and I used to do the song exactly like him and so, soon as we end the song, people start hollering, "Wind me up, Chuck, wind me up, Chuck."  I ended up doing the song three, four times a night and they loved it and so did I.  And, ever since then, they've been hollering, "Wind me up."  The minute I hit the stage, that's the first thing you hear.  Wind me up, Chuck.  I just love it.  I'll never ever get used to it.

Jo Reed:  Now, Chuck, you also keep that drum beat going between the songs.

Chuck Brown:  Right.

Jo Reed:  So that it literally is relentless.  It never stops.

Chuck Brown:  Absolutely.  That's go-go.  That is go-go, continuous, call and response, continuing that groove but you can come out of one song and go to another.  I like that "Moody's Mood" thing, that's why I arranged it like that.  The go-go swing thing, you know, "Don't mean a thing if you gotta go with swing."  "It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that go-go swing.  That's the original but I put the go-go swing in there and it worked and it's still working.  It's one of my favorite songs.  I never leave the stage without doing it. <laughs, sings a bit ….>

 Jo Reed:  Well you got a good shout-out from Washington DC. It named a street after you: Chuck Brown Way.

Chuck Brown:  Oh, wow, that's better than Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. <laughter> Nothing can top that.  Of all the awards that I've received over the past 35 years, that one, I think that one really got to me, you know?  That's going to stay with me forever and ever. 

Jo Reed:  What is it about go-go that just speaks to Washington, D.C.?

Chuck Brown:  It just keeps you going, it originated here.  It's theirs, it's ours, it was born here.  It's become history here and spread across the country and across the world.  I'm just so happy about that; something that was created here in this town.  And, you know, the fans, they're the ones that also made it happen, you know? Every time I hit the stage, it's just like, you know, it's just like the same energy just comes back, you know?  Of course, I'm always a little nervous before I hit the stage but, like I said before, when I hit that stage, I become enraged, I'm on the right page, I forget about my age….

That was Chuck Brown, the father of go-go and National Heritage Fellow. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt of "Day-O," based on the song by Irving Burgie and William Attaway, performed by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers; from the release GO-GO SWING LIVE, used courtesy of Future Records.

Excerpt of "It Don't Mean a Thing If it Ain't Got That Go-Go Swing."  Based on the song by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills.  performed by Chuck Brown, from the release We Got This, used courtesy of Raw Venture Records & Tapes, Inc.

Excerpt of "Bustin' Loose," composed and performed by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, from the release, BUSTIN' LOOSE, used courtesy of Raw Venture Records & Tapes, Inc.

Special Thanks to Manager TOM GOLDFOGLE.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U, just click on Beyond Campus and look for the National Endowment for the Arts link.  

Next week,  a conversation with artist Frank Stella.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Musician Chuck Brown talks about his career, from honing his chops in prison in Lorton, Virginia, to developing his own musical genre in DC: go-go music.