Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers
Reviewed on this page:
We The People - Salt Of The Earth - Bustin' Loose - Funk Express - Live - Go Go Swing Live - Any Other Way To Go? - 90's Goin' Hard - Take A Journey... Into Time - The Other Side - Timeless - Your Game... Live At The 9:30 Club - Put Your Hands Up! - We're About The Business - We Got This
After working a variety of odd jobs, Chuck Brown spent his thirties playing guitar in soul and Top 40 bands, then in his early forties invented Washington DC's gift to popular music - go-go - with the hit "Bustin' Loose." In certain (albeit limited) ways, go-go is a link between funk and hip hop, including spoken vocal hooks, brief bites from popular songs in all genres, and a non-stop percussion base (which Brown had encountered during a stint in Los Latinos) linking one song to the next, like a live DJ set - and Brown pioneered each of those innovations.
Brown relied heavily on jazz standards and blues, and his use of horn solos, romantic themes and slower tempos position his work in the "groWn and sexy" subgenre, contrasted with the harder-edged, hook-based, less melodic approach of Trouble Funk and E.U., not to mention later acts like Rare Essence and Junkyard Band. While I will confess a preference for the harder stuff (Trouble Funk and E.U. were also more prolific songwriters), Brown was not only the originator but the elder statesman and a reliable stabilizing presence on the scene.
Go-go never became a sales phenomenon (apart from E.U.'s quasi-novelty hit "Da Butt") but Brown stuck around long enough to receive at least some of the respect due him; after decades of leading the Soul Searchers, he died as a result of heart disease in May 2012.
Chuck Brown, vocals, guitar; Hilton Selton Jr., organ; Lloyd Pinchback, sax, flute; Donald Tillery, trumpet; John Buchanan Jr., trombone; John Euwell, bass; Kenneth Scoggins, drums; Lino Druitt, percussion. In 1974, Selton left, replaced by Benny Braxton. By 1979, Braxton, Ewell, Scoggins and Druitt had been replaced by Curtis Johnson, Jerry Wilder, Ricky Wellman and Gregory Gerran respectively. By 1986, Wilder and Gerran had been replaced by Glenn Ellis and Rowland Smith. Wellman left in 1987; by 1991 the drummer was Ju Ju House.
We The People (The Soul Searchers: 1972)
I believe the group had been working since roughly 1965, but I'm not aware of any earlier releases.
As the band name implies, they were - like many an act trying to get off the ground - searching for an identity, and were willing to try just about anything: The title track is a Chambers Brothers-style peace and love anthem; "Your Love Is So Doggone Good" has the slow tempo, quietly burning guitar and extended running time of classic Isaac Hayes. There's one James Brown cover ("Think") and one rip-off ("Soul To The People"), while "1993" is a clone of the Temptations' "1990."
None of those avenues produce anything worthwhile, though, as the band doesn't show any particular ability on the writing, performing or arranging fronts.
Apart from Chuck, Donald Tillery (trumpet, percussion, vocals) is the only member who would stick around for the go-go glory years - he does contribute the nadir, though: the treacly "When Will My Eyes See."
Salt Of The Earth (The Soul Searchers: 1974)
Overall there's more mellowness ("Ain't It Heavy," which cops the bridge from "Carry On") and less funk than People, and again they fumble around for a style that fits them, by and large coming up short ("Funk To The Folks").
But you've already heard "Ashley's Roach Clip" (by wind player Leroy Pinchback) whether you know it or not: the JB-style groove has been sampled in a ton of hip hop records including LL's "Jack The Ripper."
There is more percussion in the mix, which is a precursor to Brown's breakthrough sound ("Blow Your Whistle").
Unfortunately, Tillery gets two chances to demonstrate his horrendous Russell Thompson Jr. imitation ("(They Long To Be) Close To You," which BT Express tackled around the same time).
Bustin' Loose (1979)
If Brown is the Godfather of Go-Go, the title track was the bris, or the christening, or something: New rhythm section (Ricky Wellman on drums, Jerry Wilder on bass, Gregory Gerran on congas) are knocking out the overlapping syncopations that define the form, and Brown's half-spoken, half-chanted vocals kick off the proceedings with confidence. Latin elements also crop up on the concluding "Berro E Sombaro."
Other than a couple of love songs (a sappy cover of Gamble/Huff's "Never Gonna Give You Up), though, the rest of the LP is funk, and it's the good stuff ("Game Seven")... The band sounds far more relaxed and comfortable on "If It Ain't Funky" and "I Gotcha Now" than they were on Salt Of The Earth, and as a result the album isn't just propulsive and inventive - it's fun.
Funk Express (1980)
For some reason - perhaps producer Wayne Henderson - a step backwards into formulaic, disco-fied lite R&B ("Come On And Boogie") and dreadful ballads ("Time Has No Ending").
"Sticks And Stones" is in the same vein as the previous release, and there is one terrific, funky love song ("Slow Down (You Keep Telling Me)"), but virtually nothing go-go about the disc, and more importantly, almost nothing worth hearing.
Brown did put the rest of the classic Soul Searchers lineup together at this point, and their live shows were already transfixing the DMV area though there's no recorded evidence I know of.
I may be missing something, but it appears Brown didn't release anything from 1981 to 1985 except for a couple of 12" singles on T.T.E.D. ("We Need Some Money"; "Sho Yuh Right").
A half-hour live performance spread over two sides, finally capturing the genre Brown created in the live context that it requires: Audience interaction, including call and response, is fundamental to the form ("Sho Yuh Right"). Starting from the opening nod to fellow Washingtonian Ellington, Brown brings a bunch of old-school jazz under the go-go umbrella ("Moody's Mood"). The most startling blend of tradition and innovation is his unexpectedly funky arrangement of "Harlem Nocturne," with an interpolation of "The Message." In line with Brown's jazz predilections, the Soul Searchers also leave much more room for horn solos than the other go-go acts I've heard.
As far as I can tell, none of Brown's live albums released during the period include his biggest hit, "Bustin' Loose" - I'm guessing that's related to snarled music publishing rights.
Re-released under the title Go Go Swang, which can be yours for the price of $1.98 (various e-tailers are selling each side-long track for $0.99).
Go Go Swing Live (1986)
Some of the material is repeated from the previous release (an edit of "Harlem Noctune") but mostly it's new.
The band is in fine form ("Take The Go-Go Train"), and Brown lays down some nifty solos, scatting along like a funky George Benson ("Moody's Mood"). My gripe, though, as with all of the Soul Searchers' live output, is that there's very little dynamic range and no real surprises. Though the easy-rolling groove is always pleasant, there are none of the dramatic breaks that make Trouble Funk and E.U. so thrilling - the disc is like riding a roller coaster that never drops, so the wind in your hair builds anticipation but there's no payoff.
There's one studio cut at the end, a version of "The Banana Boat Song."
Around 1987, Wellman split to join Miles Davis, and I think a bunch of the horn players disappeared as well.
Live '87: D.C. Bumpin' Y'all (1987)
I haven't heard this double-LP, which features many of the same tunes as on the other live discs cut during this period ("Boogie On Go-Go Woman"; "Stormy Monday"; "Harlem Nocturne").
Any Other Way To Go (1987)
Another live album, with covers of funk ("Family Affair") and jazz (an exceptionally good "Stormy Monday"). Chuck and the band are solidly enjoyable, but the other contemporaneous records of the same material are a notch better, and the routine reggae "Run Joe" is perhaps my least favorite Brown tune.
The two studio tracks are a mixed bag: "Be Bumpin' Fresh" doesn't go anywhere and takes its time doing so, but "Go Go Drug Free" is a message tune with a solid riff and a guest rap from then-mayor Marion Barry (!).
In 1988 and 1989 Brown released a couple of new singles, both essentially covers: "That'll Work (2001)" and "Hoochie Coochie Man."
90's Goin' Hard (Ivan Goff featuring Chuck Brown: 1991)
I don't know why it's credited this way, as it's really a Chuck Brown album produced by E.U. keyboardist Goff. And the disc
has the same problems as the E.U. albums Goff was working on during the same period: too much tepid electro-funk with pre-programmed tracks ("Goin' Hard").
Even the one live cut, "Going To The Go-Go," is just a rewrite of "Da Butt."
There are a bunch of styles covered - the reggae "Summer"; the nightclub jazz "You've Changed," a duet with Eva Cassidy - but as none of them work, that's a dubious consolation.
Fortunately, Brown's good cheer is unstoppable, and there are a couple of pleasant tracks ("Charlie Brown" - actually "Linus And Lucy," not the Coasters hit; a go-gofied "Misty"), so it's not a total loss.
Re-released as Goin' Hard In The 90's, a change that certainly doesn't seem worth the trouble.
Take A Journey... Into Time (1991)
Indeed: on this live disc, backed by the P-Funk Horns (Greg Boyer, Greg Thomas, Bennie Cowan), Brown & The Soul Searchers tackle everything from recent jazz (Miles Davis's "Tutu") through their previous hits ("We Need Some Money"), back though "One Nation Under A Groove," and all the way back to Lionel Hampton ("Red Top") and Gershwin ("Foggy Day").
Though not the most groundbreaking, this is the best overall representation of Brown's many charms: His voice is perfectly suited to the worn-but-still-vibrant material (Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell For You"), and the band is both extraordinary (Dr. Louie Oxley's keyboard solo on "Harlem Nocturne") and unusually well recorded (Glenn Ellis's butt-moving bass on "Stormy Monday"; swinging, sensitive drumming throughout from Ju Ju House of E.U.).
The Other Side (Chuck Brown/Eva Cassidy: 1992)
In the early 90s, Brown started working with ailing singer Eva Cassidy, and (not coincidentally) went deeper into blues and standards. Their first release is largely duets, though Brown ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and Cassidy ("The Dark End Of The Street") each get a couple of solo slots.
Apart from "Red Top," almost entirely material Brown hadn't previously recorded including some very frequently recorded tunes ("Over The Rainbow").
Cassidy's over-the-top style clearly impressed Brown, although it isn't my cup of tea, and his voice is comfortably enjoyable. I will say, though, that anyone tackling tunes identified with Ray Charles ("Drown In My Own Tears") and Billie Holiday ("God Bless The Child") is asking for trouble.
Hah Man (1995)
Brown's first studio LP in ages; the title track was the theme for a TV show featuring Sinbad. Several standards he hadn't previously recorded ("End Of A Love Affair"; "A Night In Tunisia") plus some originals ("Saturday Night Fish Fry").
Wellman came back and Robert Green settled into the conga chair as of this release.
Finally Brown put out his own straightforward vocal jazz album, focusing on some extremely well known tunes ("Nature Boy"; "Caravan" - the one number with go-go backing) and a couple he'd long been playing with the Soul Searchers ("A Foggy Day"). All the mellowness may throw you if you're coming from a funk perspective, but the tenderness suits Brown's voice better than all the city blues stompers on The Other Side.
The Second Chapter Band includes a couple of Soul Searchers (Juju House; Robert Green; Kent Wood) plus an eclectic array of players like Eva Cassidy associate Chris Biondo (bass) and Gil Scott-Heron sideman Ron Holloway (sax).
The arrangements are deft ("You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To") and Brown's vocals are tender but not sappy ("Hey There"), so if you're open to the genre at all you'll probably find this an unexpected pleasure.
The Spirit Of Christmas (Chuck Brown/Eva Cassidy: 1999)
This time Cassidy only appears on two tracks; the rest is unadulterated Brown, running through seasonal fare like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
Your Game... Live At The 9:30 Club (2001)
The hour-long disc covers many of Brown's big numbers - "Wind Me Up"; "That'll Work (2001)" - but the bulk of the running time is material he hadn't previously tackled: "Chameleon"; "It's Love" featuring Cherie Mitchell.
Perhaps most striking is a take on the Stylistics' "People Make The World Go Round" that maintains the original's eerie beauty while adding a hearty dose of funk. Apparently the Soul Searchers were broken up by now, and I'm not sure what the backing band was, but they provide all the steady groove, swinging solos ("One On One") and sharp arrangements ("Go Go Swing") you could hope for.
Several go-go eminences appear as guests: Big Tony on "No Diggity"; Rare Essence's Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson on "Do You Know What Time It Is" and Little Benny on "One On One."
Put Your Hands Up! The Tribute Concert To Chuck Brown (2002)
A two-CD set; the first disc contains each featured act running through their usual set, and then the bands take turns backing Brown on Disc Two. Of the Brown-less sets, E.U.'s takes top honors, with quality versions of "E.U. Freeze" and "Da Butt" in addition to unexpected pleasures like "Dog Star." Rare Essence spinoff 911 (which later changed its name to Familiar Faces) doesn't do as much for me ("Time To Party"), though it's respectable ("Brown And White"). Back Yard runs through the novelty hit "Thong Song," Maiesha makes the most of "I Want You Back," and Little Benny pops up here and there.
Brown's own performances are a mix of the comfortably familiar ("Family Affair"; "Midnight Sun") and unexpected covers demonstrating that he still had his ear to the ground (Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" with Junk Yard). (Big Tony's supposed to be around somewhere but I haven't figured out where.) Despite all the names and tunes to squeeze in, the show never seems rushed (Grover Washington's "Mr. Magic" is the runway for high-flying solos from each horn player), while everyone and everything is clearly audible in the mix ("Are You Ready For Little Benny?").
We're About The Business (2007)
It hardly seems possible, but I believe this was Brown's first album-length attempt to capture his live go-go sound in a studio setting ("The Party Roll").
With a couple of exceptions ("Chuck Baby"), most of the songs are either new ("Eye Candy"; "Block Party," derived from "On Broadway") or standards not previously associated with Brown ("Love Theme From The Godfather," a nod to his status as Godfather of Go-Go; "Everyday I Have The Blues," with Sweet Cherie Mitchell on piano).
The album sags in the middle with a few melody-impaired numbers ("Feelin' Good"), but overall it delivers a reliable good time ("Funky Get Down"). Produced by Chucky Thompson, who mixes things up a bit (viz. the nasty synth lines on "Jock It In") without losing the crucial go-go pulse.
We Got This (2010)
A three-disc set: a studio EP, and a CD/DVD documenting a live show. The studio cuts feature artists well known outside of go-go - Ledisi (a fine "Funky Stuff"), Jill Scott (the Grammy-nominated "Love"), Marcus Miller ("Moody's Mood For Love") -
and the approaches vary ("Senorita" is almost actual salsa).
The live show, on the other hand, features the folks you'd expect, including Little Benny, Whiteboy, and Brown's daughter KK ("Chuck Baby"). The material ranges from the first Soul Searchers LP ("We The People") to the latest Beyoncé hits ("Ego" and "Single Ladies," each sung by Cherie Mitchell), and the approach is more or less pure go-go ("Bustin' Loose" with Big Tony) with hints of Brown's love of old-school R&B and blues ("Hoochie Coochie Man," retitled "I'm Your Man" and also interpolating Marley's "Get Up Stand Up").
Not sure who the backing band is on the live or non-live recordings, but they're structurally sound without being showy.
But despite all the frills, and a few standouts (the cover of KRS-One's "Rappers R N Dainja"), the live stuff is rather similar to the 2001 and 2002 albums - it's the studio cuts that put this ahead of the pack.
Feel like bustin' loose?