Wednesday, September 4, 2019

On The Block Or By Bike, Meet The Two Legendary Music Men Of Columbia Heights

See below, this awesome article written by one of our very own, Leigh Giangreco!

Published on 9/4/19 on DCist.com

George Whitlow, pictured with his trademark music-playing bicycle has become the de facto mayor of Columbia Heights.
Leigh Giangreco / DCist
It’s close to 8 p.m. on a recent weeknight, but at Anthony Burley’s home in Columbia Heights it’s “Round Midnight,” or at least it is on his stereo.
The sun is setting over Rock Creek Park, enveloping the rowhouses on Park Road in a pink glow. With the sound of Miles Davis echoing down the road, everything seems rosier than usual: the salmon-colored house across the street, the pink button-down that Burley wears with a paisley pocket square peeking out, and, it seems, the neighborhood’s mood.
If you’ve ever walked down Park around dusk, you’ve no doubt heard Burley’s music projecting from his front porch. If you had air pods jammed in your ears, then you’ve at least seen an African-American man with a manicured mustache, likely wearing a colorful suit, lip-syncing along to Dean Martin, Doris Day, or The Temptations.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, perhaps you’ve run across George Whitlow, a 72-year-old Petworth resident who blasts music from a distinctive bicycle, replete with a homemade stereo system and pulsing lights .
Kevin Lambert, a Columbia Heights resident for the past 20 years, says he loves hearing James Brown as Whitlow winds his way through the Malcolm X drum circle or Tivoli Square.
“My daughter grew up coming to the square with me and having her day brightened and my day brightened by this gentleman,” Lambert said. “There are certain characters in the neighborhood that make it more lively.”
While the two have never had a conversation, save a friendly wave as Whitlow passes by on his bike, the pair have nonetheless become the neighborhood’s legendary music men.
George Whitlow pedals around the neighborhood to spread happiness with funky tunes.Leigh Giangreco / DCist
There are few more distinctive sights in Columbia Heights than the roving spectacle of George Whitlow, his lanky frame pushing a bike blinking with red, yellow, green, and orange lights and pumping the bouncing beats of Chuck Brown and Michael Jackson.
Born in southern Virginia, Whitlow has lived in Petworth for more than 40 years. He retired about five years ago after working in a printing press for Columbia Federal Savings & Loan Bank and later as a bike courier. During his years delivering messages and packages, Whitlow says his status as something of a city celebrity gave him easy access to government buildings and offices.
“I’m a local and I know everybody,” he said, sporting a t-shirt featuring a photo of himself embracing former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, whom he called a friend. “I knew how to get in, they didn’t ask me a whole lot of questions.”
Whitlow started cycling seriously in his forties, and he says he still logs about five miles per day along different routes that cross the Anacostia River, Maryland, and Virginia borders. He owns six bicycles now, including his famous musical bike, and has amassed an arsenal of tools so that he can fix everything himself.
“I have never gone to a bicycle shop to spend money on my bike,” he said. “Because I know how to work on the bike completely.”
Between his unforgettable ride and regular appearances by the Giant on Park Road, Whitlow has become a de facto mayor of Columbia Heights, so much so that our interview was regularly interrupted by neighbors and policemen walking the beat to say “What’s up, George?”
Even with Whitlow’s music turned off during our conversation, a Giant employee nodded to him and did a little dance as he walked by.
“If they didn’t see me yesterday, they say ‘George, where you’ve been? I’m glad to see you, man,’” he said. “They can’t resist dancing. Every time they pass by with their kids, older people, everybody.”
After Whitlow strapped a radio to his bike one day about a decade ago, he decided to create a more professional sound system. He’s been a mobile music man ever since, with the sole purpose of spreading happiness across the region.
His taste leans on the funky side, and on a recent evening he wooed Metro commuters with Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.” People have offered him money for his playlists, which he refuses, and have invited him to play at neighborhood parties, which he obliges, as he did when he played “Bustin’ Loose” from his bike at the most recent Chuck Brown Day in D.C.
“When people smile, that’s my money,” he said, adding a slight caveat (“Check this out, if they keep insisting, I’m not going to say no.”)
But like Willy Wonka guarding the recipe for his euphoria-inducing chocolate, he will never reveal the secret to his homemade stereo.
“My project is my project,” he said. “They want to duplicate it, but I want to be the one who makes people happy.”
At the close of our interview, Whitlow turned his music back on. He fiddled with the cluster of speakers cloaked in knit sacks before asking me for a pen. There’s another speaker on the rear rack housed in a metal cage that’s topped by a Toyota medallion and pulsing with tiny lights. He took off the pen cap and stuck the fine tip through a small hole punched in the cage.
“What does that do?” I asked.
“Ahh,” he smiled at me, wagging a finger at my question.
Anthony Burley plays music from his stoop for his own enjoyment, but he’s nonetheless become a neighborhood fixture.Leigh Giangreco / DCist
While Whitlow’s location varies, Anthony Burley adds his own, no less distinctive contribution to the Columbia Heights’ soundtrack from his stoop on Park Road.
Burley will tell you that he is not your friendly neighborhood DJ. He is not here to play music for you. He is not actually waving at you; that greeting is meant for his neighbor’s kids across the street.
Burley is on his porch because he invested in a hi-fi system for his home several years ago and his wife told him that if he blared that music, it would ruin his children’s ears.
So he took his tunes outside, where he could relax after a long day at work or just kick back on the weekend with a book. But even though Burley says he’s doing this for himself, he has nevertheless become a neighborhood fixture.
“The funny thing is, I’ll get compliments or I get nasty stares. There’s nothing in between,” Burley said one evening sitting on his steps. “I’ll have a random person say, ‘Hey, thank you for that song!’ or ‘Man, you make me happy.’ You’ll get a neighbor, and they start looking at me really hard, it’s the weirdest thing. I’m so tickled by it.”
The most extreme response to Burley’s music came a decade ago when four cop cars pulled up to his home and told him to cut his music off. Burley looked up the noise ordinance after that incident and hasn’t had a problem with the cops since, with the exception of one officer who couldn’t say whether she was asking him or telling him to turn his music off one day.
“If she said, ‘I’m asking you,’ I would have done it, but the mere fact that she couldn’t answer that question, it was disturbing to me,” he said. “I would prefer a neighbor who doesn’t like it say turn it off or down. That I would do right away.”
The D.C. Council attempted to legislate amplified sound last year, amid complaints from downtown residents, but the emergency legislation was pulled. A new bill is still making its way through the legislative process.
While Burley hasn’t experienced the same friction with his neighbors over his stereo sound as other longtime D.C. residents, his outdoor performances do often perplex pedestrians. In addition to the sound, the sight of Burley does demand a second look. He doesn’t set out to follow a certain dress code, but someone once told him that his mix of patterns and Victorian apparel could be described as “Black Dandyism.”
One day, while sporting a top hat and cape, the director of software development for the tax division of the Department of Justice was mistaken as the master of an older profession. (“This lady said, ‘Oh my god, a pimp!’” Burley said, laughing. “I thought it was hilarious.”)
But he doesn’t see a connection between his eye-catching attire and the way he puts himself out there with his music.
“I hope not. I’m going to do who I am and what I like, as long as I don’t hurt anybody,” Burley said. “What I’ve learned over the years working in the federal government, people love conformity and if you’re an individual and you’re not afraid to be an individual, it bothers people.”
The music that streams from Burley’s stoop also doesn’t conform to genres or eras. He loves the flow of Biggie Smalls and Bad Bunny. He plays bebop when he’s reading. He adores vocalists, from Hall & Oates to Anita Baker, and when he looks like he’s singing outside, he’s either lip-syncing or trying to imitate their voices.
Ask him to list his favorites and Burley doesn’t rattle them off; each one is lovingly enunciated as though he were closing his own radio program.
“Ella [Fitzgerald] is in a category all by herself,” he said. “I think Doris Day is highly underrated. Probably because she was also an actress and that girl next door, but if you listen to some of her music, she had a beautiful voice.”
Burley’s playlist crosses so many generations and genres because it’s guided by his mood. He doesn’t invite requests, though he will sometimes take them, as he did when he decided to play Salvadoran music for his neighbors or an SWV song for a passerby.
“She was so nice, she said, ‘Can you play this song by SWV and I’ll leave you alone?’” he said, and told the woman it wouldn’t bother him at all to play it. “I think music is a healer. Music can actually take you to another place.”
Burley also uses music to heal himself. The Monday after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, he biked to work playing only Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” throughout his 20-minute commute.
“It’s a song that people need to listen to, “ he said. “Something about those two shootings, I decided to play that song. It was the song that was on my mind.”
The reasons behind Whitlow’s and Burley’s public performances certainly vary, but the results are often the same.
One Saturday evening, I passed by Burley’s home as Ella Fitzgerald’s “S’Wonderful” rang out over the block. It was overcast and it had been a long week, but I smiled as I turned at the intersection and the music carried me home.

Click HERE to read the original article. 

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