2013 was a tough year for the Washington, D.C. music scene. As the year comes to a close, we reflect on the loss of musicians and those integral to the music scene that made their contributions and enjoyed success spanning decades. The summaries below are simply that- summaries. With all of the great work that each person contributed to the music and culture, each person deserves a full article. Everyone is listed in alphabetical order and some notable passings mentioned at the end, as, unfortunately, there was no information to be found. If anyone has been left out, it is certainly not intentional.
Wyatt Brown, guitar player most recently known for gracing the stages with such bands as Let It Flow and Godfather & Friends passed away on September 5th.
Hosea “Heartbeat” Williams remembers Brown as “a soft spoken, very talented young man.” Williams adds, “Back in the Central Groove days, my brother Rick and I would drop him off after rehearsal and just sit up in his room for hours and make up new grooves and songs. Since he knew that George Benson was our folks, he would always have questions about his idol because, like Benson, not only was Wyatt a great guitarist, but a very talented vocalist as well! He was indeed the most talented guitar player we ever had. But most of all, he was a God fearing brother who always had your back.”
Tyrone Brunson, who passed away May 25th at the age of 57, was best known for his single “The Smurf” which reached #14 on the R&B charts in 1983. He was a singer and bassist. "The Smurf" appeared on Brunson's debut album, Sticky Situation. The title track, “Sticky Situation” was the second single from the album and reached #25 on the R&B chart. In 1984, Brunson released his second album, “Fresh”, with the title track reaching #22 on the R&B chart.
Josh Burdette simply known as “That Guy” was the face of the 9:30 Club. Intimidating in stature, but a gentle spirit, Burdette suddenly passed away at the age of 36 on September 1st. Known for his many tattoos and huge earlobe rings, Burdette worked at the 9:30 Club for 16 years. He was a graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in Psychology.
Reggie “Polo” Burwell passed away November 26th, succumbing to a brain aneurysm from which he never recovered that he suffered in April 2010 after collapsing onstage at a TCB performance. Credited as being the “King of Bounce Beat”, he and his band TCB shifted the Go-Go genre away from the focus of the percussive beat of the conga to utilizing the drums as the primary focus capturing the attention of a new generation of Go-Go fans and birthing a whole sub-genre of Go-Go, Bounce Beat. Posing in a photo with legends Chuck Brown, Little Benny Harley, James Funk, Milton “Go Go Mickey” Freeman and Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl, signifies the status and respect that Burwell had earned. Burwell passed away at the Saint Thomas More Nursing Home where he had been for some time.
Joe “Big Weaze” Carter was a musician with a “strong passion and love for Go-Go and played the trombone and roto toms in such bands as Nature Boys and Superior Groove,” according to TMOTT founder Kevin “Kato” Hammond. Although Carter, who passed away February 4th, played in several bands, he will be most notably remembered for his contributions as a film maker.
Hammond continues, “Weaze was responsible for the writing, filming and directing of two films, ‘Keep It Gangtas’ and ‘Keep It Gangtas II’ , which both starred Polo of TCB. As well as directing music videos for such artist as 32's ‘Swag’s On A Hunnid’, Fatal Attraction’s ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘At Your Best’ and ‘Bar 2 The Car’ and a giant list of many more. Weaze also ran a weekly cable program called ‘Metro Video & Film Festival’, where he showcased local artists and their music. One of the last things that Weaze was able to accomplish before his passing was a film that was released straight to DVD, entitled ‘Dead Money’, which stars actor Clifton Powell (of Dead Presidents, Next Friday, & Ray), Anwar ‘Big G’ Glover (of Backyard & The Wire), and Tray ‘Poot’ Chaney (of The Wire)."
Glenn Ellis, bassist with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers for 22 years, passed away on December 21st. Ellis has also played with Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Grace Jones and Bernard Wright. As a member of Slug-go, Ellis co-wrote and produced their hit “Crazy”. He has also written and produced songs for SWV and Salt n Pepa, to name a few.
Fellow bassist, Terry Lambert recalls, “Glenn Ellis was so funky and jazzy at the same time. I learned a lot from Glenn and always told him how much I loved his style. He always replied by telling me how much he liked my playing as well."
Curtis Johnson, also a former Soul Searcher, adds, “Glenn was and outstanding bassist. He seemed to pick up in the music what the clavinet would play. He would say, ‘Hey Curtis, it sounds like a clavinet don’t it?”
John Euell, one of the founding members of The Soul Searchers along with Chuck Brown, Lloyd Pinchback and Frank Wellman, passed away at the age of 72 on June 15th. He can be heard on The Soul Searchers albums, “We the People” and “Salt of the Earth”.
John Buchannan, who was a band mate of Euell, describes him as “by far the coolest dude on the cabaret scene with his matching naugahyde covered bass speaker and amplifier cases, his cool rides and his cool man-bag. Very cool dude!”
LeRoy Fleming passed away on March 12th at the age of 63. Fleming was widely known as a saxophonist with The Young Senators as well as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. He was also a talented writer, arranger and publisher. Fleming performed with the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks when The Young Senators were hired to be his backing band and can be heard on the Kendricks classic “Keep On Truckin’” which reached number one on the Billboard Top 100. He was a staple and favorite in the sound of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers and can be heard on horn solos in both “Bustin’ Loose” and “We Need Some Money”. He was awarded a Gold Record for “Bustin’ Loose”. Fleming also received two Proclamations from two Mayors of Washington, D.C. with The Young Senators and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.
“We used to call LeRoy ‘Big Guy’, because he was so tall. He had a soulful sound that would lead the horn section," remembers Curtis Johnson.
Al Johnson, lead singer with the Unifics, passed away October 26th at age 65. The Unifics defined the R&B sound in the Washington, D.C. area during the late 60’s with hits “Court of Love” and “The Beginning of My End”. After the Unifics disbanded in the early 70’s, Johnson later produced and arranged recordings by such performers as Jean Carne, Roberta Flack and the Whispers. In 1980, He and Carne, recorded the hit duet, “I’m Back for More.”
Stanley Cooper, guitarist with 76 Degrees West and Chocolate City, remarks, “He was the musical director for the Four Kings of R&B which was Jerry Butler, Lloyd Price, Ben E. King, and Gene Chandler, and I'd sub on that gig from time to time."
Emmy award winning producer, Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, recounts, “I would sometimes see Al Johnson walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, with his head up in the air and moving back and forth. I knew he was creating music in his head. In 2000 I approached him and asked him to create some musical scores for my documentary in production 'Dance Party: The Teenarama Story'. There was no one else on this earth I would go to, to put music together for this documentary piece. What he contributed to turned into a documentary, which received an Emmy, broadcast over 100 PBS stations and received 3 other major television awards. I made sure he was credited and that he received the gold embossed certificate from NATAS for his outstanding contribution to the documentary."
Robert Levin, son of Chuck Levin died on November 25th of cancer. Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center has provided area musicians with instruments for decades. Chuck Levin’s has been in business for over 50 years.
Atomic Music left the following post on the Chuck Levin’s Facebook page. “We’re all very saddened by the loss of Robert Levin, and would like to send our condolences to the entire Levin family. I hope yu all know how integral and influential you have been to musicians in the area (and music shop owners!) We don’t take the time often enough to thank you all. ‘Chuck’s’ is and always will be the standard to which all music stores are held. THANK YOU Again and again. – With sympathy, all of us at Atomic."
Melvin “Butch” Lewis passed away on October 6th. A well-known drummer known for his drum rolls, Lewis graced the stages with Experience Unlimited, Little Benny and the Masters, the original Familiar Faces and Redds and the Boys. He also made guest appearances with Chuck Brown. He was 58 years old.
“Butch Lewis was a great friend and musician. We had a lot of fun playing together with Lil Benny. Don't forget about his distinctive drum rolls back in the day that have never been duplicated,” states former band mate Terry Lambert.
Steve Coleman fondly remembers, “Butch was the drummer with Experience Unlimited when I proudly joined the band in 1981. He had one of the best ‘pockets’ in the Go Go world. He was always a pleasant fella and a joy to be around. ‘Rock your Butt’, ‘EU Freeze’ and ‘Knock'em out Sugar Ray’ were some of the early Go Go classics that featured Butch's strong and steady beat."
Bobby Parker, incomparable Blues/ Rock guitar legend passed away on October 31st of a heart attack. He was 76 years old. By the 1950’s, Parker had played with the greats- Otis Williams and the Charms, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, the Everly Brothers, Paul Williams, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Jackie Wilson. He is best known for his 1961 single “What Your Step” which reached number 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It was later covered by several groups including Santana and the Spencer Davis Group and was performed by the Beatles in concerts in 1961 and 1962. Parker spent the later years of his life in the Washington, D.C. area playing Blues festivals and was a regular at Madams Organ.
Stanley Cooper shares, “I used to run into Bobby Parker up at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center from time to time. He'd be trying out guitars, and I'd be stealing all the licks that I could grasp. He'd just laugh and shake his head. He was another sweetheart of a cat."
Edward "Butch" Warren, double bassist in the jazz hard bop genre got his start in Washington, D.C. and could be seen performing at the legendary Howard Theatre. During his career, he was thee house bassist for Blue Note Records. He recorded with many legends of jazz such as Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock, to name a few. His most notable contribution was heard on Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man". Prior to Warren's death at the age of 74, on October 5, he could be found at his regular gig in Adam's Morgan's Columbia Station.
Ricky Wellman succumbed to pancreatic cancer on November 23rd at the age of 58. Wellman has been credited with birthing the infectious original Go-Go pocket when Chuck Brown asked him to continue playing the drums between songs. Wellman went on to play with Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Chaka Khan, Chick Corea and locally with Experience Unlimited, Little Benny and the Masters, Slug-go, Bits n Pieces, Dynamic Corvettes, Frank Hooker and the Positive People, Trouble Funk and the New Breed to name a few. He recorded his first 45 record when he was 11 years old called “Crazy Things” and “Banana Fana”. He recorded his first gospel album, “Save Thyself”, at the age of 14 with D.C.’s own Myrna Summers. On weekends in high school, Wellman played with Peaches and Herb.
Upon hearing of his passing, Carlos Santana, the family of Miles Davis as well as Rolling Stones bassist, Darryl Jones and other music luminaries sent notes of condolence to the Wellman family.
Band mate of the Soul Searchers days, Curtis Johnson says, “Back then, me and Ricky were like brothers and some people even said we looked alike. I got to hear him really play in the band Dynamic Corvettes because we weren’t as confined as in the Soul Searchers."
Stanley Cooper adds, “Shortly after Ricky Wellman got back home from touring with Miles Davis, Glenn Ellis, Louie Oxley, Greg Thomas who played with Parliament/Funkadelic, who was later replaced by saxophonist, Skip Pruitt, and Ricky formed a group by the name of Bits n' Pieces. They played regularly at Takoma Station Tavern and they immediately stomped a mud-hole in every band in the DMV who called themselves a smooth jazz group. They were a great example of what go-go could evolve to with great players and great material. Roland Smith of Slug-go and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, used to join them on percussion and vocals from time to time. I actually sat in with them a time or two, which was essentially them taking me to school. They all were wonderful cats who didn't mind sharing their gifts and time with a cat who was serious and showed potential."
Frank Wess, Jazz Saxophonist died on October 30th at the age of 91 of a heart attack related to kidney failure. In 1953, Wess joined Count Basie’s band playing both flute and tenor sax. During his career, he also played with Billy Eckstine’s orchestra, Clark Terry’s big band, The Howard Theatre big band and the New York Jazz Quartet. In 1968 Wess contributed to the landmark album The Jazz Composer's Orchestra. In 2007, Wess was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.
Other notable passings this year include keyboardist Frank Webber, Cornell Williams, guitarist Ron Hunt, and Roosevelt Smith who was a vocalist, keyboardist and trombonist.