MR. JONATHAN WILSON
The guy we'll meet next also loves his work, and good thing, too, because he's been at it since the 1960s. His name is Donald Tillery. And he's a musician who survived all sorts of ups and downs in the D.C. music scene. Chris Klimek, brings us his story.
MR. CHRIS KLIMEK
This is "We the People," it's the title track from The Soul Searchers' debut album from 1972. That's Chuck Brown, the future of Go-Go singing lead. Let's meet the guy playing that trumpet.
MR. DONALD TILLERY
My name is Donald Tillery. I'm a musician here in Washington, D.C. I played with the original Soul Searchers of Chuck Brown, The Soul Searchers Band. I've been playing over 20, 30 years.
A lot longer than that, right? Because you were…
It's been longer than that, yeah, but, you know, I'm cheating age. Yeah, it's been longer than that. It's been longer than that.
In the '60s, Tillery had his own group, The Epsilons. Chuck Brown was already a figure of legends, a guy who had served eight years in prison for killing a man before he founded The Soul Searchers in 1966.
I'd heard about The Soul Searchers. And I knew about Chuck. All the musicians in the city knew, because they were top group around playing, gigging. Every time you turned around you heard them on the radio and all this.
Brown turned up at one of the Epsilons' regular Friday-night gigs, he liked what he heard. Brown invited Tillery to rehearse with The Soul Searchers, and soon he was playing with the group four or five nights per week -- every night, some weeks. But Tillery was still getting up at 7:00 in the morning for his day job. As a counselor in a group home for abused children, he had to be at work at 8:00 a.m., and some nights he wasn't getting home until 4:00.
So I didn't have that much time to sleep. I actually wind up coming from a gig at the Squad Room, and I fell asleep at the wheel. I had an accident right around the reservoir, near Howard. I fell asleep in the car. I had a Firebird, and I slammed into the pole.
The car was totaled, but Tillery escaped the wreck with only bruises. He finally quit his day job to go fulltime with The Soul Searchers in 1974.
By the time of their third album in 1978, The Soul Searchers had become Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers. The title song from "Bustin' Loose" was their biggest hit.
They were invited to Los Angeles to play on the TV show "Soul Train" in 1979. And their frontman was persuaded, as Tillery puts it, to position himself as a solo artist.
The Soul Searchers came home to D.C. and played gigs without him for a while, but it's hard to keep a band together. There were legal problems. There were drug problems. Their drummer left to play for Miles Davis. Tillery finally quit the group in 1986. He freelanced as a horn player, but by the end of the '80s he was back in a 9-to-5, as an animal care technician with the National Institutes of Health.
While he was taking dead rats out of cages, the song "Ashley's Roachclip" from The Soul Searchers' second album, "Salt of the Earth," was becoming one of the most oft-sampled tracks in pop music. Tillery played trumpet and percussion on the tune, but he wasn't earning royalties. Several years passed before he started playing in a regular Wednesday night jam session at a nightclub called Felix, on 18th Street, in Adams Morgan. The regulars finally coalesced into the Truth Groove Band. The club's owner promoted them to regular Friday and Saturday-night slots.
Around 2000, Truth Groove signed with Elan Artists, a booking agency that got them started playing weddings and corporate events. Tillery was delighted. These kinds of gigs pay better than the clubs, he says, and the variety of music he gets to play is more diverse.
That's the best part, to me, of the wedding circuit. You get to mingle with other people, and you get to play stuff that you want to play. And, you know, I'm a jazz -- I love jazz. So we play the jazz and we'll start getting into the funk stuff. And we wearing nice suits and uniforms.
Truth Groove is on winter hiatus right now, but here it is covering Beyonce from a gig.
Tillery says business is down in the years since the recession hit. He also thinks marriage itself is less popular than it used to be. He says Truth Groove plays 10 to 15 weddings a year now, always between April and November, out of maybe 20 or 30 annual performances overall.
I look at it as I'm just a working musician now. In this business, you never know. You know, you can be down one time and up the other. As long as I'm working, I'm cool.
I'm Chris Klimek.
You can take a trip back to the '70s on our website. We've got a Soul Searchers promotional photo and album covers on metroconnection.org. And if you've got a favorite memory of the D.C. Go-Go scene, we'd love to hear it. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.
After the break, the perils of seeking a soulmate in the digital age.
MS. ERIKA ETTIN
A client once told me that online dating was like ordering a pizza. And at first I laughed at him. And then I thought about it for a second, I was like, that's kind of a sad truth because online dating, unfortunately, does make pickier than they might normally be.
It's coming up next on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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