Hundreds gathered to remember Brown, who died Wednesday at 75, at the Soul Factory church in Forestville, and on Chuck Brown Way near the Howard Theatre.
“It’s like JFK,” said Rodney McManus, 40, of Anacostia, who used to sneak out when he was 12 years old to hear Brown play at the Masonic Temple on U Street NW. “D.C. lost its president. If you live in D.C., you love Chuck Brown.”
Brown’s “Eye Candy” boomed out of the jukebox at Ben’s as news of his death came over the TV behind the nine-seat counter. Ben’s manager, Maurice Harcum, filled the queue with the icon’s songs as soon as he learned of his death.
“We’re sad, but we’re going to celebrate Chuck,” Harcum said as grill cooks shouted along with the music. Harcum, 36, grew up listening to the Godfather of Go-Go, whose marathon, all-night concerts were a multi-generational ritual to much of black Washington. “I couldn’t wait to become old enough to come to his shows.”
Over the years, as Harcum became a familiar face behind the counter at Ben’s, he began to rate a mention in Brown’s famous onstage roll calls — a 2:30 a.m. sermonette in the middle of the party when the beat would keep on keeping on but Brown would lower his guitar and call out the names of kids in the audience, their mothers, their streets, their crews, their neighborhoods. Any mention endowed the mentioned with boasting rights for weeks to come.
“He’d say, ‘Big Mo, Chili Bowl,’ ” Harcum said. “To have Chuck Brown, the D.C. icon, say my name?” He shook his head. “Awesome.”
“Y’all get together and repeat after me,” Brown would sing, year after year, and for most of that time, he’d hardly bother calling out the lyrics, because everyone in the house knew every line.
Christopher Wade, a retired District police officer and onetime go-go musician himself, knew Brown for 25 years, adored his music and admired the man. Wednesday night, Wade just happened to have with him a framed photo of Brown from a years-ago police event. But his most meaningful memory of Brown resides in his mind’s eye, an image of Wade’s father, Rudolph Wade Sr., “dancing, doing the call-and-response” at age 95 at a Brown concert two years ago at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
“Chuck Brown, that’s my dad’s favorite artist,” Wade said. “It was the best experience.”
As Wade and his family sat down to eat, their sippy-cup-clutching 18-month-old, Christopher Jr., nodded to the go-go beat. “It’s in the blood,” his dad said.
D.C. police Capt. Kevin Anderson patrolled some of the city’s most dangerous spots during the late ’80s and early ’90s, reporting to the scenes of more than 100 shootings. He also worked go-go events at Anacostia and Watts Branch parks, and what he saw was very different from the connection that some news reports drew between go-gos and gun violence.
“Chuck Brown always preached nonviolence,” said Anderson, 47, who as a teenager would follow the singer around the District and Prince George’s County, trying to sneak into clubs where the Soul Searchers were playing. “He always brought a more mature, laid-back crowd. We lost a positive spirit.”
Brown, who brought other go-go artists together in 1988 to record an anti-violence single called “D.C. Don’t Stand for Dodge City,” sang of block parties, barbecues and kids who hungered for cash and the dignity they thought it might bring them. He took jazz standards and made them uniquely Washington. He sang so people might dance away their troubles, and he played “as long as the beat don’t stop, as long as the wine keep popping.”
“Just let the house keep rocking,” the crowd would answer, “until the cops come knocking.”
“Chuck Brown made go-go to D.C. like jazz to New Orleans,” said D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (no relation), 41, who grew up watching the musician perform. “He put it on the map. I still have live Memorex tapes from ’83, ’84, ’85.”
Those bootleg cassettes — sold, traded and hoarded by Washingtonians across three decades — were superseded by digital technology, but the hunger to connect with Chuck Brown transferred to the new generation.
At his office in the John A. Wilson Building, Kwame Brown showed off a photo taken last summer of his 8-year-old son, Kwame Jr., with the singer. “Can I get a picture with Chuck Brown?’ ” Brown recalls his son asking. “It’s the only person he’s ever asked me to get a picture with.”
In the last decade, the crowd at Brown concerts would usually span three generations, including the go-go veterans who had seen him at Deno’s in Northeast, at the glorious and much-lamented Panorama Room in Southeast, at the Masonic Temple in Northwest, at the Crystal City Marriott, at Mayor Barry’s street fairs in parks all around Anacostia. For much of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, on many weekends, you could follow Chuck around town, and the set would be more or less the same, but the experience was always different.
Hey the man’s at the door
Hey man he won’t let me go
Run Joe as fast as you can
These police holding me hand . . . ”
Linda Wilkes, 58, and her brother James Wilkes, 57, had Brown on the car radio in Anacostia Park. “This is going to be the weekend jam,” she said. “ ’Peat and repeat!” James Wilkes remembered spending summer nights as a teenager going to cool off at the Banneker Pool near Howard University, then going to see Brown perform at clubs such as the Maverick Room. Seeing Brown inspired him to take up the bass guitar.
Therese Reese first saw Brown in concert at the Black Hole at Georgia Avenue and Park Road NW. She was 16 and used to sneak out of her house. “I’m devastated,” said Reese, 41, a hair stylist and native Washingtonian. “His music was the soundtrack to a lot of our lives.”
Yolanda Moore would wander over to the Triples nightclub on Branch Avenue in Temple Hills. She was 14. “It was the fun thing to do without getting in trouble,” Moore said.
The city named a street for him, and Brown just shook his head. Me? he’d say, and his throaty laugh would bubble up from a very deep place. In later years, once the District’s business establishment had figured out just what a hold Brown had on black Washington, he was invited to perform at ever-fancier places — on the Kennedy Center’s plaza, in front of the Library of Congress, on the Capitol lawn — and there, the crowds would be a mix of black and white, Southeast and Northwest, people for whom a Chuck concert represented an oasis of safety and people for whom going to hear Chuck meant taking a walk on the wild side.
They loved him in Japan, the promoters said, and he traveled there, had a blast, but always came home to the one place where his music was more than a curiosity, the one place where people came — mothers and daughters and even grandmothers in the last years, all together, all ready to keep going all night long.
“I’ll make all you little girls turn your heads around
Then I’m gonna take you little girls
Gonna take you right on down with me, yeah
Oh, you just wait and see”
They knew their parts in a call-and-response chorus that included not only places for the crowd to sing, but also long passages where the beat kept going. But Brown put aside his guitar and read from the tiny scraps of paper that fans pushed up onto the stage.
“Barry Farms, in the house,” he’d say, and the guys from that forlorn project east of the river would step up.
He’d name one street crew, and then its rival, and the turf wars that too often turned bloody outside were put aside for a time at least as long as the beat kept going.
At Uniontown Bar and Grill in Anacostia, Steven Maudlin, 45, recalled welcoming in 2012 with Brown at a New Year’s Eve show in Crystal City. Maudlin remembers declaring himself a Brown fan at age 10. To this day, he marks the holiday season with Brown’s go-go takes on Christmas songs. “Even in June, I put on Christmas Chuck Brown,” Maudlin said.
Brown played the Howard Theatre before it fell into disrepair, and after, and he was scheduled to play this month in the splendidly renovated version of the historic venue.
Although he was palpably a folk hero in the city’s poorest quarters, Brown also played a curious role as the connection to black Washington for many white residents. In Georgetown, the Govinda art gallery immediately posted on its blog photos from its exhibition on Brown.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who, like most city politicians, made every effort through the years to squeeze onstage with Brown to try to catch a whisper of his popularity, issued a statement calling go-go “D.C.’s very own unique contribution to the world of pop music,” and labeling Brown its creator “and arguably its most legendary artist.”
Three women — lifelong Brown fans — placed a bouquet of carnations on Chuck Brown Way. As they taped balloons to a lamppost, they recited the venues where they’d seen him: the Panorama Room, Marshall Hall, Green Acres.
In upper Northwest, at Lafayette Elementary School, third-grade teacher Lisa Jensen recalled the day exactly a year ago when Brown surprised her by showing up to hear her students present a project about the man and his music.
“You should have seen Chuck Brown’s face when the children started dancing to his music,” she said. Most of the kids hadn’t heard of Brown before taking on the project, but they loved the beat, and appreciated his story — including his deeply troubled upbringing, his time in prison, and his resolve not to perform at clubs where violence had broken out.
Plans for a citywide tribute to Brown were already being discussed within hours of his death. “Nationals Stadium, RFK Stadium, anything,” Kwame Brown said. “You’re talking about a parade around one area of the city to the next.”
Outside Ben’s, as word of Brown’s death spread, William Boone smiled as car after car drove past, blasting Brown’s go-go beat. “I don’t even know how many speakers I blew with his music,” said Boone, who grew up in Shaw and often missed school the morning after Brown’s Soul Searchers shows at the Knights of Columbus hall downtown.
“You’d clean up, get your gear together — what you were going to wear — and go see Chuck, baby,” he said. “I don’t care what worries there were. You didn’t pay the rent? When Chuck baby came on, you forgot about it.”
Boone, who works for the District government, is a grandfather now, but he said Brown’s groove will never leave him. “Chuck’s music is the music you don’t stop moving to,” he said.
As night fell, a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the historic Howard Theatre. A vigil had been announced by the venue on T Street, where Brown shined shoes before he founded his own genre and became a hometown hero.
Anybody expecting a somber affair here clearly didn’t know from go-go. When radio station WKYS began playing a Brown mix on a mobile PA just after 8, an impromptu block party broke out on the sidewalk — a moving memorial befitting a funk icon.
“He is an amazing man who has amazing fans,” said Brown’s daughter, Cherita Whiting.
The raucous party paused only for a public prayer.
“Thank you, dear Lord, for such a great man,” Edith Muse said to the assembled. “This brother brought us through all the frustrations and trials and tribulations. . . . Lord, he had us rockin’!”
“Rest in peace, Chuck!” somebody shouted.
Brown’s daughter sobbed.
The crowd chanted. “Wind me up, Chuck! Wind me up, Chuck!”
Then, the music resumed.
Staff writers Mike DeBonis, Hamil R. Harris, Adam Kilgore, Annys Shin, Cheryl W. Thompson and Clarence F. Williams contributed to this report.