Arlington’s Hottest Musicians
Meet the biggest names in local music, from rising stars and Grammy nominees to legends of blues, bluegrass and reggae.
Chester Chandler’s life story reads like a blues song. He was born in Memphis, the second youngest in a family of 14. “A loaf of bread would go through our house quickly,” jokes the musician, now 60, who lives in Ballston and goes by the stage name Memphis Gold.
When he was just 4, Chandler picked up a guitar and started strumming. By the time he was 8, he was out busking blues tunes on Memphis’ famous Beale Street strip. “It’s really hard to get people to gather around you, listen to you and then give you money,” he says. “That’s why they call it paying your dues.”
After graduating from high school in 1973, he put his music on hold, spent time in the Navy and then worked for the U.S. Postal Service in a job he “hated.” In 1991, he set his sights on D.C., where he had been briefly stationed while in the service, and came to town with a one-way bus ticket and $100 in his pocket. The first year he was homeless and panhandled, he says, before he began doing yard work to earn money.
One day he passed the now-closed Sam’s Pawnbrokers on 14th Street NW in the District and saw a black-and-white Fender Stratocaster in the window. He walked in to inquire about the price of the guitar. It was $600. “I don’t have 6 cents in my pocket,” Chandler replied. Determined to have it, he spent five months working overtime, doing yard work, until he could purchase it.
By 1993, Chandler was re-equipped with his instrument of choice and formed a small blues band he dubbed Little KD King, double-timing as its guitarist and singer. He landed gigs at D.C.’s Vegas Lounge and the now-shuttered Tornado Alley in Silver Spring, and was the first live act ever to perform at Whitlow’s on Wilson in Clarendon. His sets were made up of cover songs, including B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” but he had bigger plans.
“The only way to make a name for yourself is to write your own music,” he says.
He began walking around with a cassette player (these days he uses his iPhone) so he could record ideas whenever inspiration struck. Usually, the lyrics came first, followed by the bass line. Songs poured out of him, inspired by the Delta blues traditions of Howlin’ Wolf and R.L. Burnside.
After self-releasing his eponymous debut album in 2002, Chandler signed on with Stackhouse Recording to record the follow-up Prodigal Son two years later. Fortuitously, his wife, Barbara, knew the talent booker for U.S.O. tours—a connection that sent Chandler to nearly 40 countries, where he entertained the troops alongside big-name talents such as James Brown, George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic All Stars, the Temptations and Robert Cray.
In early 2008, Chandler had a muscle spasm while trimming trees at work and fell more than 30 feet, breaking his back in three places. His doctors told him he might never perform again.
Unfazed, he wrote two albums’ worth of material, going on to release Gator Gon’ Bitechu! in 2009 and Pickin’ in High Cotton in 2011, both of which earned some of the best reviews of his career.
Currently, he is recording a new album, tentatively titled The Blues Is My DNA, which he hopes to have out this summer. “I’m going back to my roots on this one,” he says. “It’s sanctified Beale Street urban gutbucket blues.”