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"We the People," the title track from the Soul Searchers' 1972 debut album, features future "Godfather of Go-Go" Chuck Brown on lead vocals and guitar. But there's a portentous horn vamp, too. The man playing trumpet is Donald Tillery. He'll tell you he's been playing "20-30 years." But in fact the 68-year-old has been playing since grade school.
In the 60s, Tillery had his own group, The Epsilons. Chuck Brown was already a figure of legend, a guy who'd served eight years in prison for killing a man before he founded the Soul Searchers in 1966.
"I'd heard about the Soul Searchers," Tillery remembers. "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."
When 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 to five nights per week -- every night, some weeks. When the group started recorded, their debut album included one of Tillery's original songs, "When Will My Eyes See."
But Tillery was still had a day job, as a counselor in a group home for abused children. He had to be at work at eight a.m., and some nights he wasn't getting home until four.
"I didn't have that much time to sleep," he says. "I actually wound 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. I had a Firebird, and I slammed into the pole"
Tillery totaled his car but escaped the wreck with only bruises. He thinks it was 1974 when he finally quit to perform with the band full time.
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 eventually their frontman was persuaded, as Tillery puts it, to position himself as a solo artist. The Soul Searchers came home to DC 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 left in 1986. He freelanced as a horn player, but by the end of the 80s he was back in a 9-to-5 job, 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 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 Wednesday night jam session at a nightclub called Felix on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. The regulars eventually coalesced into the Truth Groove Band. The club's owner promoted them to regular Friday and Saturday-night slots.
"People started coming in," Tillery says. "The word got out. It was getting packed, and we started being Truth Groove."
Eventually Truth Groove signed with Elan Artists, a booking agency that got them playing at weddings and corporate events. Tillery was thrilled. These kinds of gigs pay better than clubs, and the types of music Tillery gets to play are more diverse.
"That's the best part of the wedding circuit," Tillery says. "You get to mingle with other people, and you get to play stuff that you want to play. I love jazz. We play the jazz and we'll start getting into the funk stuff. And we wear nice suits, uniforms. "
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, always between April and November, out of 20 or 30 annual performances overall.
Meanwhile, he's got a new band he's playing with, the Hungry Jacks. He'd like to get into producing. He wants to play trumpet less, and to sing more. He only ever sang backup with the Soul Searchers.
"I'm just a working musician now," Tillery says. "In this business, you never know. You can be down one time and up the other... As long as I'm working, I'm cool."
"If It Ain't Funky" by the Soul Searchers from Salt of the Earth