Friday, 18 May 2012 I was sad to learn yesterday of the death of Chuck Brown "The Godfather of Go-Go."
(For a while, around '85/'86, some commentators thought that Go-Go was going to grow to be a bigger genre than hip hop.)
I met and photographed Chuck Brown several times, in the mid '80s, in Washington DC and in Baltimore, where he lived. He'd had a colourful life, including an 11 year jail sentence, but I always found him charming and extremely polite. I can't say the same for some his friends.
The first time I met him was in 1985 when I'd been commissioned to go to Washington, with the writer David Toop, to shoot all the major players on the Go-Go scene for a big feature for The Face magazine. Island Records had put David and myself up in a really grand hotel, right on the edge of Georgetown, but it was winter and bitterly cold. The Potomac River was frozen over.
We met Chuck and his label boss cum advisor Maxx Kidd within hours of our arrival. Maxx, a very voluble, expansive man, turned up in a chauffeur driven stretch Lincoln with a enormous, bear-like bodyguard called Big Al, who we later learnt was a martial arts expert.
Over dinner, David interviewed both Chuck and Maxx at some length and by the time I got some time to do my photographs it was getting close to midnight. In those days, I was always looking to shoot my photographs with available light, almost no matter how dark it was. I liked to travel light and didn't bring any lighting with me.
My idea for the photo shoot (if I could dignify it with such a term as "idea") was to find some sort of late night local atmosphere somewhere and try to imbue the photographs with a specific sense of time and place. I'd had in mind a photogenic, Edward Hopper type urban nightscape. But it was way too cold to shoot in the street, so I hoped we could find a cosy bar somewhere close.
It sounded like a simple enough plan. Maybe I should have explained my scenario more fully because almost any busy open bar would have done. But Chuck and Maxx said they had a friend who owned a bar and it was suggested we do the photos there. The five of us piled into the back of Maxx's limo and we set off. Somewhere along the line, we made a stop and picked up Chuck's saxophonist Leroy. So then there were six of us and one, Big Al, was at least the size of two.
Our next stop was at the bar owner's house which seemed to be quite a long way out of town. Complicating matters somewhat, it turned out that it was the bar owner's birthday and his bar was closed for the night. It turned out he'd been celebrating his birthday all evening with his girlfriend and by the time we arrived they’d both gone to bed for the night. Whilst David, Big Al and I waited in the limo, a delegation managed to persuade the guy to get up, get dressed and come with us to open his bar.
When he got to the car, it was plain to see that the bar owner was heavily refreshed verging on the legless. He seemed pleasant enough to begin with and only too happy (almost) to do us a favour. But somewhere along the journey back to the bar, things started to turn ugly. I don't exactly know what was said but half way there, the bar owner started to get aggressive.
I honestly have no idea what the problem was. There was obviously no real room to start a fight but the bar owner had a small hand gun, which had been concealed in his sock, and he started waving this threateningly in the faces of Chuck, Maxx and David.
I was sitting right next to the guy and he didn't at any time point his gun at me. For some reason he didn't speak to me at all. God only knows what I'd done right.
Either way, seven people squeezed tightly into the back of a limo, one of then being a drunk with a gun, is not a recipe for a doing anything harmoniously. It's also not a good portent for a photo shoot. Big Al, who I understand never carried a gun himself, managed to gradually and diplomatically talk the guy around and we all went on our way.
The bar owners "bar" turned out to more of a large, featureless dance hall with all the atmosphere of a doctor's waiting room. And it was just about the last place I would have wanted to shoot photographs. Even though it was late February, the bar was still heavily bedecked with Christmas decorations.
The photographs I took there were not good (the one above is from a happier, later shoot in '87). Neither Chuck nor Leroy look particularly radiant in any of the photographs in that bar. The argument in the car seemed to have put paid to that. They just weren't usable.
I guess the whole situation was partly my fault. We never needed to go all that way and wake someone up. My excuse was that I was a little jet lagged and just went along with the flow.
Over the next few days, David and I went all over Washington checking out the then burgeoning Go-Go scene. I even went around some housing projects shooting a lot of the local street kids. It was two decades before the era of 'The Wire' but I don't think David or I fully appreciated the degree to which drugs had rendered a lot of American housing projects such dangerous places. Even though we found everyone to be very friendly, I don't think I'd go and try to shoot those sort of photographs now.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that we were accompanied on all our jaunts by Big Al, who'd been lent to us for the duration by Maxx Kidd. I'd like to put on record that Big Al did a fantastic job, even guarding us when went into the bathroom in some of the Go-Go clubs.
About a year after we got back, I learnt that Big Al had been shot and killed by a kid in a record store. He was a very sweet man and deserved so much better.
RIP Chuck Brown. RIP Albert ‘Big Al’ Butler.