Chuck Brown fans waiting in line for the public viewing of his body at the Howard Theatre on Tuesday morning welcomed D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) like a folk hero. They scrambled to shake his hand.
“You the last one standing!” someone shouted. “Back up, Bruce! Let the man get some air!” someone else yelled, chiding WUSA reporter Bruce Johnson as he closed in on Barry for an interview. “We love you Marion Barry!” Chuck Brown fans sang. “Weeee looooove you!”
Brown — like Barry — validated them. Fans standing in line included hard-scrapple D.C. residents with missing teeth and well-fed residents in business attire, a glamor girl in a swanky long dress and sisters in blue work shirts and suits.
Some fans waited in line for hours to get inside the recently restored theater to pay respects. Linda Boyd had arrived at 6 a.m. She was the second person in a line that would swing around the corner. Fans laughed, chatted, joked and sang Brown’s tunes. When Boyd spotted swirling police lights escorting a dignitary, she stirred the crowd into an old Chuck Brown song: “The policeman is on the premises. What is he doing in here? I said the policeman is on the premises, what is he doing in here!”
They shared a hearty laugh and sang the famous refrain. “Run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, the policeman’s at the door.”
Brown acknowledged a community’s conflict with the establishment. His song, “Run Joe,” gave lyrics to a popular experience of outcast young people hustling to survive, using an underground economy — and an underground mental-health-care system: drugs.
I gazed at the various expressions of love, got a whiff of funnel cake wafting from a vending truck across the street, noticed a woman munching on french fries drenched in ketchup and marveled at a parade of vendors selling everything from Chuck Brown buttons, T-shirts and hats, to cold water and what some were calling “Chuck Punch,” plastic quarts of red juice on ice.
“Chuck Brown would appreciate a good hustle,” I thought as I looked around, tuning in and out of other people’s conversations, chatting with a guy standing next to me.
“This is like when Michael Jackson died. It’s not somber like when an official dies. Chuck brought so much joy to people. It’s a celebration at the same time you’re mourning,” said Darrell Johnson, a Ward 1 resident, who co-produced a few of Brown’s tunes. A nine-hour public viewing, to be followed by a funeral on Thursday seemed sufficient. “This is appropriate. He was Washington’s Elvis.”
Other D.C. officials — including Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) — and celebrities arrived before noon to pay their respects.
“Chuck had the unique ability to make a thousand people at a time feel good but also to make the individual feel good,” said Rock Newman, a boxing promoter and longtime friend of Brown. “Although he was onstage, Chuck wrapped his arms around this city and just said, ‘everything’s going to be all right.’ ”
Evans said: “Chuck Brown was one of the most famous musicians to come out of D.C., right up there with Duke Ellington. . . . He inspired a generation, all of us from when we were kids. . . . He was a legend in this town, and he will be missed. Bye Chuck. We love you.”
Others spoke of the music man’s humanity. “Chuck was such a good person,” said, Sandra Butler Truesdale, longtime D.C. cultural activist and vice chairman of the Howard Theatre Restoration Community Committee.
Brown had visited Truesdale’s dying husband and attended his funeral. “He means a lot to me, like he means a lot to so many,” she added. “Chuck Brown was D.C.”
Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a blogger for The RootDC. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.
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