Ballou Senior High School student Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott wanted to be a boxer. Recognizing that he wasn’t all that good he decided to pursue his back up dream of being a rock star instead. A huge Led Zeppelin fan, 15 year-old Elliot taught himself to play bass and formed the band Experience Unlimited with kids from his Southeast DC neighborhood. The young group struggled to get gigs but things finally started to move when they won “Best Rock Group” at a Duke Ellington School of the Arts talent show. As they played around town Elliott became a fan of many of the older bands he saw on stage, especially The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, Aggression, Mixed Breed, 100 Years Time, and Father’s Children.
In 1976 Experience Unlimited—Elliott, Donald Fields, Andre Lucas, Phillip Harris, Clarence Smith, Anthony Easton, Michael Hughes, Greylin T. Hunter, and David Williams along with Melva Adams, Marvin Coward, Wayne Davis, and Bobby Owens recorded “Free Yourself,” an LP of original material on Black Fire Records at Bias Studios in Falls Church, Virginia. Elliott wrote the album’s title track.
Even with an album under their belt and Elliott in a new frontman role, Experience Unlimited struggled to find a fan base as black artists playing rock and roll. They were just too different. A turning point came when they played with Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers at the Panorama Room and the late “Godfather of Go-Go” convinced Elliott to switch to the emerging genre.
Throughout the 20th century until today Experience Unlimited (EU) has been one of DCs most successful go-go bands along with Brown, Trouble Funk, and Rare Essence. EU’s lineup changed over the years, but Elliott remained constant.
“I kept going because I love to play,” says Elliott. “That’s my high, I don’t care if it’s five people or 5,000, I love to play.” In 1988 EU brought go-go to national attention with the #35 Billboard Hot 100 single “Da Butt,” which was featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze.”
“My mother thought I was making noise and told me to shut that stuff up, but once she finally saw me on TV she was in awe,” says Elliott.
“Da Butt” attracted record companies from Motown to Warner Brothers to Virgin Records, which they eventually signed with, releasing their sixth LP “Livin’ Large” in 1989. EU has shared the stage with Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and New Kids on the Block. The band records and performs constantly but Gregory laments the status of go-go today.
“This is the go-go capital of the world but everything is still neutral. I have to do something to bring it back to national attention.”
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