A cross section of Washington — from officialdom to thousands of fans who couldn’t hear his homespun funk without moving their feet — soon followed, braving brutal heat to celebrate Brown’s life and mourn his death during an all-day public viewing.
Brown fell ill in March and spent several weeks in the hospital before he died May 16 at age 75. A memorial service is scheduled for noon Thursday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Outside the Howard, it was a street festival, a celebration of a cultural legend set to the only sensible soundtrack. Chuck Brown’s syncopated songbook boomed out of speakers across T and up and down Seventh Street NW as people traded Chuck Brown stories and shouted Chuck Brown lyrics and stood in line at the funnel cake truck that parked between tables covered with dozens of different Chuck Brown tribute shirts selling for $10 each.
Inside, the atmosphere was far more funereal: A hushed mix of the singer’s jazz ballads burbled over the sound system as the crowd — largely black, and older than it was younger — quietly streamed into the theater, single file.
They came through in suits and “RIP Chuck Brown” T-shirts, in Redskins caps and straw sun hats, walking slowly past the open gold-colored casket, which sat behind a velvet rope on a section of red carpet at the foot of the stage.
How’d he look?
“Man, fabulous,” said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). “Chuck was as big in death as he was in life.”
“He just looked like he was asleep,” said Sheila Burch Welch, one of the first fans to see Brown at the wake. “He had on sun shades. He looked like himself.”
Brown was dressed for his farewell the way he almost always dressed in concert, in pictures and in public: wearing a suit (black, with a black shirt, orange vest and orange tie) with wraparound sunglasses covering his eyes and that signature fedora atop his head. His jet-black goatee was neatly trimmed and his hands were crossed over his stomach.
People passing in front of his body crossed themselves, shook their heads, blew kisses, stared. A few sobbed.
At midday, a theater spokeswoman estimated that 20 people per minute were passing through the Howard.
A rainstorm Tuesday evening prompted officials to stop people from joining the line outside the theater, but those already there got in. And fans kept coming when the rain gave up. At 9:15 p.m., about 300 people were still waiting. In all, an official at the Howard said, more than 12,000 came to pay their respects.
People arrived in wheelchairs and baby strollers, carrying hard hats and folding chairs. Some wore Department of Transportation safety vests, others Department of Public Works jumpsuits.