Chuck Brown’s Howard Theatre wake draws thousands of fans; funeral Thursday

This wasn’t the way Chuck Brown drew up the set list.

The Washington music icon was supposed to return to the Howard Theatre — where he’d shined shoes as a kid, then headlined countless go-go concerts — to mark the historic music hall’s rebirth in April. Instead, the Godfather of Go-Go, who’d given the city its own style of song, made his Howard Theatre homecoming just after daybreak Tuesday in a hearse.

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.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) stood at the foot of the casket, quietly shaking each mourner’s hand. In hushed tones, he called Brown “one of the greatest assets the city has ever had.” As a tribute, Gray has ordered that the District flag fly at half-staff over city government buildings from sunup to sundown on Thursday, the day of Brown’s memorial service.

Guards were positioned on either side of the casket, in part to keep fans from snapping photos. Periodically, somebody shushed the murmuring crowd. Occasionally, people paid their vocal respects to a man whose concerts were master classes in call-and-response showmanship.

“Wind me up, Chuck!” a woman shouted.

Nobody responded.

Photos of Brown flashed on the giant, balcony-level screens that flanked the stage: Chuck pointing a microphone at his audience, Chuck cranking his guitar, Chuck grinning in his fur coat and Chuck reaching out to his fans, who are legion in Washington.

“He was such a great man for this city,” said Melodye Robinson, 53, an administrator at nearby Howard University Hospital. “He was everything for D.C., a son, a father, a grandfather, the godfather.”

“People holler ‘Elvis’ in Memphis; in D.C., we holler ‘Chuck,’ ” said Jai Morton, who’d left his receptionist job early, telling his boss he had an emergency. In a way, he did: An icon had died, and Morton had to say good-bye.

Morton, 41, also had some business to tend to: He showed up at the wake with a bandolier of oil-filled vials strapped to his chest, like scented shotgun ammo. He was pushing Egyptian Musk as Brown’s favorite scent. Just a guess, he said — “cause it’s an old scent and Chuck was old school.” Then, he decided the more likely bestseller would be a scent called “Money,” since Chuck Brown sang about money. It smelled like house-cleaning solution, but there was no underestimating the demand for all things Chuck.

“Last call for go-go punch!” a woman yelled as she wheeled a cart past the theater entrance.

T-shirts and posters and buttons and “RIP Godfather” caps were everywhere, but Jeffrey Rayford’s inventory consisted of stuffed animals for impromptu street-pole memorials like the one that popped up at the Wells Fargo branch near Chuck Brown Way.

The day wasn’t just about commerce for Rayford, though. Years ago, when his mother let him stay out late for the first time, he went to a Chuck Brown concert.

“Chuck is one of our role models,” Rayford said. “When we was dancing, we stayed out of trouble.”

And Rayford said Brown is still keeping him out of trouble. “This is a survival crew out here,” he declared, surveying the men and women hawking everything from Brown signs and lanyards to water and straw hats. “We’re all trying to make a living.”

There was dancing, too. Of course there was — even for Malika Young, 41, who had a cast on her right leg. “I tore some ligaments, but I will dance to Chuck Brown all day,” she said.

At the theater’s exit, Timothy Watkins was saying farewell to the godfather’s fans.

“Thank you so much, brother,” he said, shaking a man’s hand.

“Love you so much, sister,” he said, touching a woman’s arm.

Watkins, 43, grew up in Northeast Washington idolizing Chuck Brown. He was working — his eponymous security firm was staffing the wake — but reaching out to other members of Brown’s go-go family just seemed like the right thing to do, he said.

“It comes from the love that Chuck always showed us,” he said. “He always made us feel special. He always made us feel loved.”

Another woman exited the theater.

Watkins stuck out his hand.

“Love you,” he said.

“And we love Chuck!” she said.

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Mike DeBonis, Robert Samuels and Maggie Fazeli Fard contributed to this report.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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