REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM WASHINGTON CITY PAPER, NOV. 20, 1992. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Side by Side
If, as Chuck Brown says, his "go-go swing" records, which funked up Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and James Moody, "opened the door" for young music fans unfamiliar with vintage jazz and pop standards, his new album, The Other Side, closes that door behind them.
The Other Side doesn't contain a single go-go beat. No Woody Woodpecker theme either. Just Brown, several studio musicians whose names will be familiar to jazz buffs who follow the local scene, and Eva Cassidy, his duet partner whose name may not be familiar at all, performing standards like "Over the Rainbow," "Dark End of the Street," "Red Top," "Fever," and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You." All of which will flummox the music-store clerks who might stock the album in the go-go section--as well as potential customers.
"There are some people that will buy any new record that I put out just to find out what's on it, see how interesting it is. And I appreciate that," says Brown. For this one, he says, music shoppers will pick up the CD and look at the title. "Then they'll turn it 'round and look at the other side." He breaks up laughing as if he hasn't told that joke before.
Brown's easy laugh punctuates his conversation and occasionally interrupts that of Cassidy, who seems to laugh very little. Their partnership is a study in contrasts. He's as dark and weathered as she is pale and raw. Posing for a photographer, Brown's a natural ham; Cassidy nervously twists her purse while waiting for her turn. He's as gregarious as she is diffident. Brown has been performing longer than his 29-year-old collaborator has been alive. And yet, as she rations out her Marlboro Lights to him, their partnership seems to be an ideal one.
Ask Cassidy which of The Other Side's 14 selections is her favorite, and Chuck gives his answer--"God Bless the Child," one of two Side tracks on which she sings alone. Cassidy names "You Don't Know What Love Is," one of the two tracks Brown does without her: "I think that one just says it all right there," she says. "It has so much feeling in it."
You almost don't believe them, except that when Brown boasts about how talented Cassidy is, anyone who's heard Side knows he's right. And when Cassidy gushes that doing this album "has been the biggest thrill in my life," what would sound like a show-biz quote coming from anyone else is credible because she has already fidgeted her way through stories about singing four-part harmony with her family (her brother, Dan Cassidy, plays violin on Side's "Fever") and performing in her junior-high-school chorus. She currently works a day job in Behnke's Nurseries not far from where she lives in Upper Marlboro; before she met Brown, she says, her career was comprised of "things where you meet record people but nothing really happens" and gigs with her own Eva Cassidy Band: "I wish that it had a different name," she says, "but that's what it ended up being."
One of the members of the Eva Cassidy Band is Chris Biondo, who works as an engineer at Black Pond recording studios. One night last year, Biondo played a Cassidy demo tape for Brown, and before the first song ended, Brown had already started making plans. "The minute I heard her voice, I was very impressed," he says. "Right then, I knew; my thoughts started coming to me. Because the type of stuff that I wanted to do, which was stuff I used to try to do years ago, she was doing.
"Listening to her voice, I thought she was much older," he adds. "Yes indeed, she really took me back. I said, "This lady needs to be heard.' "
Within a few weeks, Brown and Cassidy had finished recording their first duet, "You've Changed." Their first session together, says Cassidy, was daunting. "We were both in the room singing--"
"We were both nervous," interjects Brown.
"And he started singing "Red Top' and doing this intense scat thing, and it was like, "Right, I'm gonna sing with this guy?' He blew me away--"
"She blew me away," interjects Brown.
"It was intimidating," she concludes, "but Chuck is so friendly, you get used to him real quick."
Brown and Cassidy's desire to record enough tracks for an album was stymied by negotiations her manager had commenced with a record company for a solo deal. The contract didn't happen and Brown found enthusiasm for the duet project at Liaison Records, the Laurel label that released his recent go-go albums, including last winter's Chuck Brown Live at Kilimanjaro Summer of 1991 and last year's This Is a Journey Into Time Live.
Though it's unlike anything he has ever recorded, The Other Side may energize Brown's career. The go-go scene isn't the same as it was in 1985, when his "We Need Some Money" was D.C.'s red-hottest song. The market is flooded with younger groups now, and go-go must compete with rap for teen-age dollars. And it cannot be disputed that D.C.'s endemic violence continues to plague go-go shows. Yet Brown remains go-go's "Godfather" (though not the only one: Former Rare Essence keyboardist Mark "Godfather" Lawson appears on the album).
Brown doesn't consider The Other Side a creative departure. "My roots is blues and jazz, and as everybody know, I created go-go music so that I could continue to eat. Because back in those days when I was doing blues and jazz, I couldn't eat. That's the bottom line."
"Most of the songs that we're doing has always been done by one artist, either a man or a woman, but never with two people. Her voice and my voice had such chemistry," he says. "I listened to her range and I said, "She sings this in the same key as Billie Holiday, and I can sing it an octave below that key.' I just knew it would work, and it worked."
Liaison can market The Other Side to "people that I grew up with, people that I went to school with, the same people who knew the same kind of music that I grew up with," says Brown, who is now 57. He thinks young people who were raised on their parents' records will want to own this album: "Some of the young people are very hip to this type of music. And they love it. Some of them are waiting for something like this."
The duo hopes to showcase the album soon, backed by a band that will include Side contributors Tom Crawford, Gilbert Pryor, and Roy Battle. (The latter, who is the musical director for Hot, Cold, Sweat and Pleasure, isn't the only go-go regular on Side; former EU members JuJu House and Kent Wood played on it, and "Little" Benny Harley, C.J., and Rare Essence's Donnell Floyd all blow their horns on "I'll Go Crazy.")
"Even if this one don't be a gigantic hit, we're gonna be doing another one," says Brown. "I've got about 300 more tunes in my head."
But Brown's not giving up on the music he's known for; another go-go swing project is already in the works. "I'm not going to get away from go-go completely, but I wanna be able to do it not because I have to, but do it when I want to," he says. "This is just a chance for me to relax a little bit before I blow my voice completely away hollerin' go-go every night.
"Go-go, you have to work so hard. You have to project so much energy in order to keep the crowd motivated. There's no such thing as relaxing go-go music. You can't relax and play go-go music; it's too energetic." Young go-go bands have that energy, he says, and some--Pleasure, Young Groovers, Backyard Band, Total Control--can "play music," not just beats. And now, it's their turn. "Hey, let the old man chill out for a while, slide to the side and do something a little more relaxing, and then come back and join the little go-go crew when the time is right."
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