In 1949, jazz saxophonist, James Moody remixed “I’m in the Mood for Love.” In 1952, Eddie Jefferson added lyrics. In 1984, before Bryant St., NW would become a one way, I am a third grader in search of candy and I hear Chuck Brown’s go-go version of this song blasting out of a blue Bonneville stuck at a traffic light. I slow walk up to the Sunbeam market so I can catch more of the song.
Light changes and the Bonneville bones out, but the music is still in my head - and it stays with me into the corner store. Later, I run the whole way home trying desperately to hold the melody in my head. I ask my Dad about it, but he plays a different version of the classic tune. I tell him that it wasn’t it. “Oh, he says, knowingly. “That was Chuck.”
One name: like Madonna or Prince or Oprah. Chuck.
A piece of D.C. history, an establishment, a legacy, a godfather and musical impresario passed away Wednesday. Nationally loved, local legend Chuck Brown lost his fight with pneumonia at the age of 75 and with him goes a Washington that will never be the same. My first experience with Chuck Brown was as a third grader, but it wouldn’t be my last as he was a constant in an ever-changing landscape. He was a bridge between African musical traditions- a D.C. I would never know- and one that I grew up in.
The classic “Run Joe” wasn’t just a song, it was a dance and T-shirt. It was a cultural movement and a testament to those making money outside of the law. It was “**** the Police” before NWA. It was coded song, and call and response that traces back to an ancestry that was there before slavery. It was as political as it was a cautionary tale and above all else a party song and it was everything that Chuck Brown would be known for in a city that can remember when D.C. wasn’t the DMV.
What is lost today is a musical history that can be traced back to D.C.’s early jazz roots and the problem with trying to classify his death in a musical context is that the only counterparts of a cultural magnitude are the American mainstream. So he wasn’t the Beatles or Elvis or Johnny Cash. He was Chuck. One word. One name. One man that can never been duplicated.
It is eerie now to think that the last time I saw Chuck play live he was onstage with Little Benny. It was 1995 and Chuck was performing after a hairshow which meant we had to wear dress clothes. My friends and I weren’t old enough to get in, so we paid a bouncer working the back door to let us slide. Chuck was cranking. The night was magical and my dress clothes were wrinkled in a way that only dancing and sweating can induce. I would have never thought that the two men on stage, two local heroes that were the musical equivalent to John Henry, would no longer be here.
Chuck always seemed old, not old in age, but old in a way that your parents have always been your parents. You don’t ever imagine them young and different. In fact Chuck has looked the same to me since I was in the 3rd grade. And death moves like that. I know that it exists, I understand that it happens on a philosophical level, but it just hurts more when it comes home.
The last time I saw Chuck was when my good, friend W. Ellington Felton’s father, another great area jazz musician, Hilton Felton, one of the original SoulSearchers passed. Chuck walked into the back of the funeral quiet and unassuming and my dad smacked him five and they hugged half way. He smiled a bit, and I asked my dad, “You know Chuck?” “Everyone who grew up then does,” he said. “It was a different time then.”
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