Remembering Chuck Brown

Previously published in The Washington Post

Chuck Brown: “I Became Deeply Inspired with Empty Pockets”

By Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery

“Wind Me Up” Chuck needed to wind down by the time he arrived for an afternoon interview with me at The Washington Informer in 2007. “Chuck Baby” had spent the previous two hours pumping up a capacity crowd at a free lunchtime concert outside the D.C. Lottery headquarters on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast. Chuck Brown “the Godfather of Go-Go” chatted with me for almost two hours about his life, his legacy – and his relationship with my dad.

Chuck was part of The Soul Searchers, when my father, the late Joe Tate, produced their album, “Salt of the Earth,” featuring the breakout tune, “Blow Your Whistle.” (Click here to hear a very young Chuck singing “Blow Your Whistle”: http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=7339143). My dad had also co-produced Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers on their first song that hit the Billboard R&B charts.  The song was, “We the People,” a hit in 1972. Chuck’s love for the people grew over the next four decades and the people reciprocated – filling clubs to capacity when he performed. Crowds swelled and cheered him wildly at summer concerts and summertime festivals.

I found his story inspiring. His love for music began when he was a tot. As a toddler, he sang and entertained his mother’s neighbors at picnics, cookouts and parties. “That’s how we ate,” he said laughing, during our 2007 interview. He leaned back in the fold up chair across the table from me and laughed heartily recalling his life and music career. “My mamma used to carry me around to different houses. Sometimes they passed a little hat around, take up a little collection for us…my mother took real good care of her little boy.” At seven-years-old, he learned to play piano in church. But, he began running away from home at 13, and left home for the last time at age14, he said. He landed in jail, and that changed his life for good. He learned to play guitar in jail. His friends encouraged him to join a band when he got out.

He recalled playing with Jerry Butler, the Earls of Rhythm and the Latino band Los Latinos in the 1960s, which prompted him to create a new sound fusing R&B, Latin beats and jazz. He tested his new sound at nightclubs and cabarets around D.C.  He noticed his crowd relax as he drove hard rhythms and engaged them in African-styled call-and-response. “People would come in there in minks and neck ties, but when I started that Go-Go thing, the mink coats disappeared, they started coming in more relaxed,” he told me. “The neckties and all that disappeared, and the tables and chairs disappeared off the floor and the floor was cool. I knew it was going somewhere.” They danced non-stop as long as the music kept going. The craze became known as Go-Go.

Chuck performed live and recorded – live and in studio.  He told me the heartbreak that followed the success of his third album, “Butsin Loose,” (which my father did not produce.). Bustin Loose hit the national charts, but Chuck felt cheated out of $13 million. “I just felt bad. I couldn’t do nothin’ for five years,” he said. He continued performing seven days a week around D.C., but he couldn’t write. Then in a snap one day, he wrote a song in 15 minutes.

“I was deeply inspired with empty pockets,” he said, laughing. “Guess what song I wrote in 15 minutes?”

The song he wrote in 15 minutes, “I Need Some Money” became a national hit. Meanwhile, he continued his fight with his previous record label, and prevailed after 27 years.

My favorite Chuck Brown CD was the one he recorded with Eva Cassidy. I loved his fusion of jazz standards and Go-Go beats. He introduced a couple of young generations to some old ballroom standards without them even knowing it. My favorite Chuck Brown tune: “Let the Good Times Role.”

At 71 years old, so much in his life had come full-circle. As a teen, he had sold Washington newspapers – The Washington Herald, and The Washington Afro – earning pennies. But in his 70s he had a lucrative Washington Post contract, starring in their commercials. He had played “the numbers” before there was an official lottery, playing two cents for a chance to win $3. But in the end he was paid big bucks to endorse D.C. Lottery. His career had begun for pennies as a little boy. In the end, Chuck included his children and grandchildren on one of albums that would do quite well in the market place.

I found Chuck Brown as entertaining up close and personal as he was onstage. On stage he was mesmerizing. I had not been to see him in clubs, but I enjoyed his magic on outdoor stages – the Stone Cold summer festival, at Fort DuPont Park.

Facebook and twitter began buzzing with well wishes for Chuck last week. Community activist Elwood Yango Sawyer (a.k.a. “Yango”) has been posting stories and insights from their 40-year friendship on his Facebook page, and last week launched a prayer vigil for his dear friend.

Thursday morning he posted recollections of a conversation he had with Chuck when the Go-Go Master returned from Japan, where people had paid $1,500 a pop to see him. Yango hopes Chuck’s tenacity and determination to succeed will inspire others. “Chuck shows us what can happen, if you give yourself a chance to enjoy the beauty of life,” Sawyer posted. “A guy made a guitar for him in Lorton, and he took that skill and became world known.”

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Butterfly Inspirations

One Sunday evening earlier this month, I received what felt like direct inspiration from God. I was on the job at Barnes and Noble, learning my way around the children’s section, straightening books on the shelves when one book caught my attention.

It was “The Hungry Caterpillar”. I began reading the book, fascinated by its colorful illustrations, and found myself transported back to when I was seven-years-old. I remembered my delight at the neighborhood library, walking home with an arm full of books. But as I began reading the story, something else occurred to me. “Hey! This is the story of my career!”

The story told of an egg hatched one dark night. The sun shined on it and it hatched and grew legs. It began to crawl and eat. It ate fruit the first several days, then binged on a feasts of everything edible and got a stomach ache. It created a cocoon and hid a while then hatched again, this time a beautiful butterfly. This story hit me like a divine message put in my path to explain something I had been struggling to understand myself – much less explain to others in upcoming job interviews. In the moment, it made perfect sense:

* The egg – my idea, inspiration to pursue a career in journalism.

* The sunshine – encouragement from family, friends and mentors. *Growing legs and crawling – education, learning the skills and theory of the trade and moving through entry-level jobs.

*Eating fruit – the jobs where my innate talent and passion for communication was nurtured. Feasting on everything edible – after the journalism industry crumbled, I took any job available – some good for me, some frustrating and some down right traumatic.

*Stomach ache – I could not digest it all. Could not understand it all. I ached, felt like a failure.

*Cocoon – I withdrew, shunning party invitations and visits with my grandparents who I believed must be privately judging my failures.

*Cocoon breaks – I could see the light through my dark, self-condemning thoughts in this moment that Sunday. I can break out of the condemnation, old judgments, sense of failure.

*Wings – my beautiful appreciation of all the job experiences I’ve had and my bright optimism about new job experiences, including this seasonal job at a book store allows me to see me career as the big, beautiful butterfly that it is.

Ironically, by Tuesday I had decided against reading so much into the book about the caterpillar which had caught my attention. But, on my way to the post office (a message distribution center, right?), I noticed a caterpillar in my path. I could not ignore the irony.This wasn’t even caterpillar season. We mostly see caterpillars in the spring time, right?

The caterpillar on Oct. 11, crawling across my path could only have been a wink from heaven, right?

Waving the Flag on Six Flags

It was more than a mid-life crisis that drove me there last year.  I took a trip to the Six Flags amusement park near me for several reasons. For starters, I wanted to celebrate the end of the summer season and the end of a particularly challenging season in my life. Also, I dreamt that I was enjoying myself in a large swimming pool with tall, twist-filled water slides that generated much fun and laughter. It was the second dream I had in a week that showed me in a large pool with people laughing and cheering.  My quickest and easiest interpretation of this dream was this, “Go to Six Flags!” So I went.

Thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon. So, I did not take the time to coordinate with friends or family. I would go alone. Instead, I decided to pack the Sunday newspaper, my journal, a towel, a hairbrush and some snacks. I planned to arrive early, when the park first opened, so I could beat the after-church crowd to the rides. I planned to get on all the water slides and roller-coasters I could stand, then rest at the big wave pool for a couple hours readings and writing, and I would leave fully satisfied.

There were no lines for the Calypso Cannonballs, slow water slides with just enough twists and drops to get you going. I grabbed a big yellow tube, marched up the wooden stairs, grabbed the sides of the slide and gave myself a good push. Weeeeeeeeee! I plunged into the cool waters at the bottom and felt refreshed. Next!

I found a prime seat under an umbrella at Hurricane Bay, billed as “one of the largest wave pools in the country.” I stretched out on a lounge chair, flipped open the park map and marked the rides I would try. The sounds of amusement park music – old Broadway standards and jingles, patriotic marching band music – and the music of laughter and delighted chatter washed over me as the scents of hotdogs, popcorn, and sugar, and the bright colors all around lifted me to renewed heights of delight.

But before long, I would realize why grown folks don’t take trips to these amusement parks except to oblige the young folks in our care. These parks are for them! The season for us to enjoy these delights is gone.  While, on the one hand I had grown smart enough to know that by getting ahead of the crowds, I could avoid the long waits in lines for the rides. On the other hand, climbing long flights of stairs in a single bound left me gasping for air before I could even get on the rides. I waved kids ahead of me, as I leaned on the rail catching my breath.

I loved standing above the tree-tops, a thrill I don’t remember fully appreciating as a kid, but after what seemed like a ten second thrill down the water slide, I considered the climb hardly worth it.  One water slide pumped my heart so fast, I decided against braving the roller coasters I had loved as a girl. On the Whistlestop Whirlybirds ride I did as the conductor asked, “Lift your arms and flap like a bird!” Yaaaaaaaaaay! We laughed and obliged. The conductor reminded us that we could upgrade our daily ticket for a season pass and I realized I was being pitched at every turn and opportunity at this park. I was wholly unaware of these tricks when I was a kid. My awareness of this now put a damper on the fun.

Meanwhile, I could not help but analyze the opportunities of the young people working at the park. Did they know what they were learning in these jobs and how they might leverage that learning in their future pursuits? I wanted to chat with them about this.

I left the park just as thunder began to clap, signaling the onset of showers and lightning. I left realizing there’s a reason adults get our thrills on cruises, at island resorts, and closer to home at restaurants and live theater. There’s a reason we delight in fine art and enriching education offered at museums instead of amusement parks. My season for rollercoaster rides is over – and I’m cool with that.

When Honesty Prevails

Without thinking about it I picked up a credit card I saw on the floor and called out the name on it.

“Donald,” I said standing near the check-out line at the library. A short, thin fellow turned to see who was calling his  name.

I offered the card. He reached for it with a smile. I was reminded of someone turning in my wallet the day before. First I left my wallet on a bin next to yogurt-covered pretzels I enjoyed at Fresh Market. I was in another part of the store sampling fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade when I realized something was missing. I rushed back to the snacks station and was happy to find my wallet exactly where I had left it. Inside, the cash and credit cards were still there. I thanked God privately.

I realized I probably needed a nap to clear my clouded-crowded mind, but instead, proceeded with other errands on my to-do list. I stopped at Safeway and as I stashed my groceries in the car I made a mental note, “don’t forget your wallet.” Five minutes later, when I stopped at the gas station to vacuum my car, I realized I had left my wallet again!

I prayed, “God do it for me one more time.”

When I returned to the parking lot at Safeway, I was dismayed to find the cart with my wallet gone. I rushed into the store anyway to ask if it had been turned in. Maybe one of the store workers who tends the carts had seen it and turned it in for brownie points.

“Excuse me mam. Did anyone turn in a walle…” I asked, panicked.

“What’s your last name?” the young woman wearing a store apron asked.

She smiled and explained that they had just announced it over the intercom.  Within seconds she was handing it to me.

“Did the carts clerk find it?” I asked. No.

A customer had turned it in. Didn’t leave a name. The cash and credit cards were still there, and I doubted that the person honest enough to turn the wallet in would have taken time to steal the numbers off my license to steal my identity. I was glad the old axiom, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” had not ruled the day.  Goodness, godliness, prevailed in the individuals who saw my wallet unattended and left it alone or turned it in.

I was happy to get three successive reminders that honesty can prevail. But, if my wallet had been stolen, leaving me desperate and angry when I spotted the credit card the man dropped, would I have passed on that desperation and anger, as well? I hope not.

“How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours,” says Wayne Dyer, an international motivation speaker and author.