This week, Behind the Beat focuses on the song credited with creating the blueprint for an entire musical genre, “Bustin’ Loose”, released by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers in the fall of 1978. Despite the fact that this song is over 30 years old, it is still as infectious today as it was in 1978. Although the Soul Searchers released two prior albums, it was “Bustin’ Loose” a single from the third album of the same name that brought Go-Go, this new musical creation from the nation’s capitol, Washington, DC, into the spotlight of the masses. The group, who had by then changed the name to Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, enjoyed the nationwide success as “Bustin’ Loose” stayed on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart at #1 from February 17, 1979 to March 10, 1979 when it was replaced at the number 1 spot by Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)”.
Chuck Brown just knew that “Bustin’ Loose” was going to be the breakout hit for the group. He says, “I just had that feeling. We had been playing the song for two years before we were ready to cut it in the studio. I had been searching for my own sound, like James Brown had his own sound, and go-go was just catching on when we first started playing the song live at the Maverick Room.”
John “JB” Buchanan and Donald Tillery, who both added their talents to the hit song with background vocals and Buchanan with the ARP 2600 synthesizer and Tillery with trumpet and tambourine, concur that Brown came up with the actual concept for “Bustin’ Loose”.
Brown relays, “I came up with the concept for the song. I was feeling uptight at the time.I felt like I had to get a hit record, things were really tough, I was booking the band for a while, and I just felt like Bustin’ Loose! That was the way I felt. ‘Bustin’ Loose’ makes you feel fine, regardless of how you feel!”
“The whole band co-wrote and arranged the song. The intro chords, in particular, were my creation,” states Buchanan regarding his contributions.
“Everyone in the band at that time came up with parts of the song,” Tillery agrees. “The groove itself started with an old Grover Washington, Jr. tune called ‘Mr. Magic’. ‘Mr. Magic’ was actually one of the first songs we did at our shows. The idea just came about from grooving to the ‘Mr. Magic’ instrumental and we just added our spin to it in a way. I give credit where credit is due and I’ll give credit to the late great Grover Washington, Jr. for the instrumental.”
He continues, “Basically, Chuck came up with the words and the title for it. Ricky Wellman, the drummer, came up with the beat. He was known as one of the best drummers around. We all kinda put in with the tambourine. Leroy (Fleming) added in that cowbell, Jerry Wilder came up with that funky rhythm cover for the bass and the horn lines were something that Leroy, Buchanan and I created. We knew each other’s vibes so if one person started with a horn line we’d be able to pick it up. By us being friends on and offstage and also great musicians, it also helped us. Chuck added the raps to it because he could rap off the top of his head. Curtis Johnson came up with that rhythm. Again, we were close on the stage and off the stage which helped us make it better.”
Everyone was thrilled to record the song in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound, at the request of producer James Purdie. At the time, this was where Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Stephanie Mills and many others were recording hits.
One little known fact about the recording session is that John Buchanan was not actually present the first day the group went to Philadelphia to record “Bustin’ Loose”. He explains, “I was a band director and science teacher at Kelly Miller Junior High School in DC at the time. I actually missed the first recording session due to DCPS standardized testing that was scheduled at the same time. I was shocked to find out that Chuck went on without me, and hence why Lincoln Ross was hired to play trombone. I came up the next day and overdubbed the background vocals.”
Brown explains that there were previous incarnations of the Soul Searchers prior to the release of “Bustin’ Loose”, which included four original Soul Searchers- Frank Wellman, Lloyd Pinchback, John Euwell and Brown, himself, the group that had been put together by 1978, then Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers was comprised of some legends in their own rights.
He recalls, “John Buchanan came out of Notre Dame. About a year or so after he came from college, he got with us. Frank’s son Ricky Wellman joined the band in 76. He started playing the beat I was trying to put together. Leroy (Fleming) came with us around 76. He was great man, a great horn player, had so much soul and so much feel. When he came off the road with Eddie Kendricks, I asked him if he would come with us. He stayed with us around 13 years. His solo fit that sound on ‘Bustin’ Loose’. Nobody sounded like Leroy! Tillery was versatile. He could sing those high falsetto songs, he could sing background and he could play two trumpets at the same time! Lincoln Ross played trombone on ‘Bustin’ Loose’. Jerry Wilder was a great bass player at the time. This young man was awesome then. I knew he was going to be hot. He had a great sound. At that time Jerry and Ronnie Hudson (who played with Isaac Hayes) were the best bass players in the area. Skip Fernell played keyboards on ‘Bustin Loose’. He was blind, a great keyboard player. He was doin the chops on that record, he had that church feel…great jazz pianist also. On congos, we had Gregory “Bright Moments” Gerran. We had Curtis Johnson on organ. We hired him in 77 and he fit in very good. He played that Hammond B3…he could handle it!”
Specifically, on “Bustin’ Loose”, Buchanan details that “Skip Fernell played the Fender Rhodes, Leroy Fleming played the tenor sax” and that Fernell, Fleming, Curtis Johnson, Tillery and Buchanan all contributed background vocals as well.
As far as stepping into his father, Frank Wellman’s shoes as the drummer for Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Ricky Wellman smiles, “It was fantastic to step into my dad’s footsteps knowing he was the original drummer for the Soul Searchers and he taught me everything I knew about drumming. I am especially appreciative for that and it’s truly a blessing from GOD.”
Both Wellman and Brown recall what “Bustin’ Loose” actually did for the group. Wellman emphatically states, “The record was the number one record nationally back in the day and because of that, the group toured some in the United States which gave the group national exposure. Also, the group appeared on Soul Train hosted by Don Cornelius to perform ‘Bustin’ Loose’. You know, I am proud to be a part of ‘Bustin’ Loose’ and anytime a record can reach number one, you have made a tremendous mark musically. Back in the day, to have a record become number one was not easy!”
And Brown elaborates, “Our appearance on Soul Train was a highlight for me and touring all around the country. We shared the stage with so many great artists of the time, The Jacksons, Gladys Knight and the Pips, War, Tyrone Davis, Earth Wind & Fire, Patti Labelle, Instant Funk…Oh Man! We toured with all those people. There were so many of them. We were playing at the Coliseum, packing every place we played. It was an exciting time, something that you couldn’t get used to. The energy was just there. Every place we went to was a new experience and the record was a hit everywhere we went. I liked opening for all those people and it was a great experience watching all those other bands after we played. All the love we got on the road, we could never wait to get back to DC. We played the Howard Theatre when we got back from the road. It made us feel like we never wanted to leave DC again we got such a great reception.”
As far as the tremendous reception that “Bustin’ Loose” received from DC, Tillery reveals, “It felt great to hear it on the radio and really the people of DC who actually bought the record, who called the stations to request the song- it was really a beautiful thing. Also, people going to record stores to buy the album- if it wasn’t for the young folks who bought our record, the song wouldn’t have been as successful.”
“It was a real thrill to hear it for the first time on the radio. We had heard our tunes before, but this was the biggest sound we had ever produced”, claims Buchanan.
Wellman had a little different reaction as he had experienced prior success at age 11 with the group, The Famous Jaguars. He explains, “I was home and heard Bustin Loose playing on the radio and yes it was exciting, but not overwhelming. The reason was because I recorded my first 45 record when I was 11 years old called “Crazy Things and Banana Fana” and the record received a tremendous amount of air play. Also, I recorded my first Gospel album, “Save Thyself”, when I was 14 years old with DC’s own gospel singer Myrna Summers. I had also been playing with Peaches and Herb during the weekends while I was still in High School. But, yes, it was still exciting.”
Tillery has a very interesting take on just how socially relevant “Bustin Loose” was at the time. He explains, “At the time, there were lots of young folks on drugs, drinking and getting into trouble. It was rough for young kids. There were lots of shootings which was very bad in those years because lots of kids got into the drug game. I’m hoping in doing some of those Go-Go shows that these kids will be at our shows instead of being out in the streets. Lots of teens were having a lot of trouble and turned to drugs which took a lot of young people away from us.”
Everyone in the group enjoyed the success to various degrees. Wellman shares, “For me, the entire musical experience from playing live locally to traveling and performing for crowds and to see the crowd hyped with the group was overwhelming for me. It’s like your own induced kind of high that no other drug can replace. All I can say is that it was a hell of a roller coaster ride and ‘Bustin’ Loose” is a part of music history in the fact that the record was in fact number one.”
“Bustin’ Loose”, the Soul Searchers and Chuck Brown continue to make history. In early 2011, the DC Government issued a Recognition Resolution confirming the “Soul Searchers Band, along with Chuck Brown, as the true originators of Go-Go”. The Resolution was sponsored by Harry Thomas, Jr. (DC City Council- Ward 5).
The Resolution recognized “the creative and genius talent of the band members who successfully wrote and performed great hits such as ‘Bustin’ Loose’, ‘I Need Some Money’ and ‘We the People’… and Whereas the District of Columbia residents and City Council, the most appreciative and dedicated fans of Go-Go, recognize the Soul Searchers Band, along with Chuck Brown, as the true pioneers of Go-Go.”
Tillery reflects, “Yes, it opened a couple of doors for me. People recognize me and I’m doing recordings with other bands. But, yes, it also closed some doors. A lot of people wanted to see the Soul Searchers back together instead of seeing us as individuals as part of other bands. I would like for the Soul Searchers to come back, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen any time soon, so, time moves on.”
Never say never. Brown thoughtfully says, “If a reunion was put together in the right way- I think all the fellas are still working and still playing- maybe we could lock that flavor back in. We had a lot of history together! It would be a wonderful thing if it could happen.”
To read other articles in the Behind the Beat series, click here for “Sardines” and click here for “Take Me Out to the Go-Go”.