Chuck Brown packs them in one last time
By Marc Fisher and Hamil R. Harris,
At Chuck Brown’s homegoing, a four-hour dance party at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Thursday afternoon, there was a lot of talk about “old D.C.,” a city that was slipping away, a black Washington whose heroes and habits were being swept away by a wave of change.
But the thousands of people who took a day off to celebrate the life and music of the city’s musical godfather, who died May 16 at age 75, were nobody’s idea of a disappearing act.
They laughed and cheered at memories of long nights spent moving to the go-go beat; they hugged and prayed over stories of the bonds Brown helped cement over half a century of playing at nearly every venue within 50 miles of the District; and they leapt to their feet and shouted in praise of a man who for many represented the aspirations of those born with less.
There was hardly a moment of somber in this memorial, a rollicking show that featured comedians, preachers, gospel shouters, Brown’s own band, a breath-stopping a capella performance by Brown’s three brothers, and a passel of politicians making promises.
“Old D.C. has lost one of its giants, someone who does not have a peer in terms of his universal appeal,” said boxing promoter Rock Newman, a native Washingtonian who flew in from Las Vegas for the memorial. “In this city, Chuck could call by name thousands of people. When he called Felicia from the stage and said, ‘Felicia got a big old butt,’ she went to work Monday morning and told every single person there that Chuck Brown called her name and she was proud of that forever.”
With Brown at rest in a golden coffin at the lip of the stage, thousands of people, some of whom had been waiting for hours, filed into the hall in blue work smocks and janitorial uniforms, union shirts and hard hats, T-shirts and shorts, crisp black suits and the latest fashions in the most electric colors.
There was a VIP section up front, where some of the city’s most storied figures paid their respects. Virginia Ali, matriarch of the Ben’s Chili Bowl family, recalled doing a TV commercial for the D.C. Lottery with Brown, “and everybody sang that jingle. Oh, that Washington’s already disappeared. But change is inevitable, and it’s all okay. Chuck’s music will live on.”
Donnie Simpson, the longtime WPGC deejay who officiated at the memorial, explained the emotional connection between Brown and the city that almost uniquely appreciated his music. “It was for the world, but the world had to come and get it,” he said. “He didn’t change it for the world.”
Political leaders vied to promise the biggest tributes to the musician. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he’d name a park after Brown. (“It will be a place where there’s action,” he said, “a place where we can back it on up, a place where Woody Woodpecker can find a home.”)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she would ask the House to name Brown’s birthday, Aug. 22, “Chuck Brown Day.” D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) proposed a Go-Go Hall of Fame.
As much as the crowd loved the game of one-upsmanship, there was a persistent undercurrent of tension about the city’s direction. Kwame Brown drew cheers by reviving the slogan Marion Barry tossed at white Washingtonians in 1994, when voters returned him to the mayor’s office after his prison term on crack cocaine charges: “For all of the people who just moved to Washington, D.C., and have a problem with go-go music,” the chairman said, “get over it.”
The crowd roared with delight, but Janette Harris, the D.C. city historian, noted that “Chuck Brown is one of the few personalities to bring all races of people together in a positive way.”
Brown was always apolitical, a diplomat representing the universality of music, an ambassador from the worlds of jazz and standards to the nations of pop and funk.
“So much of what he did was totally unique to him,” said Brown’s longtime manager, Tom Goldfogle. Who else could get 21st-century teenagers to dance to 1940s melodies? “I don’t think anybody’s going to pick up on that.”
The convention center crowd was Barry’s Washington. The Ward 8 council member, repeatedly introduced as “mayor for life,” was the only one among dozens of celebrities whose entrance brought the audience to its feet. Chants of “Barr-y! Barr-y!” filled the hall again and again. Mayor Gray and eight other council members could only watch.
“People say they’re your friends through thick and thin,” Barry said. “But it thickens up and they thin out. Chuck Brown never thinned out.” Barry recounted Brown’s story, a kid who grew up in a tough place, took the wrong path, ended up in prison and traded cigarettes for a guitar, teaching himself to play and inventing a beat that blended R&B, funk and Latin music.
“Chuck Brown was about teaching people, letting them know they could be anything they want to be,” Barry said. He challenged the audience to think about the dash between the birth and death dates on their tombstone: “What kind of dash are you going to have in memory of Chuck Brown?”
Comedian Mike Epps broke up the audience with backstage tales of smoking something illegal at one of Brown’s shows. “Where can I get me some more of that?” Epps recalled asking Brown, to which the singer replied, “Let me get Marion Barry on the phone.”
Barry, likely the nation’s only elected official who could comfortably guffaw at such a joke directed at himself, bent over in laughter, and the crowd again broke into chants of adoration.
Brown, said Louis Limes, a landscape worker for Metro, was more than a musician. “He was like Marion Barry, he was always out with the people. If somebody got shot, he would come out and talk with people. He always came into the community to see everybody.”
The service ended with a medley of Brown’s hits, played by his own band plus big names from the city’s other go-go acts, all of them “Chuck’s kids.” From Brown’s jazzy take on “The Theme from ‘The Godfather,’ ” on to “Run, Joe,” his classic tale of the renegade life, to Brown’s happiest tune, his “Woody Woodpecker” theme, the crowd danced as if Chuck himself was onstage.
His daughter KK sang her loving tribute, “Chuck Baby,” with her own son joining in, and the beat that never stops kept on going, the convention center floor shaking like it used to at RFK Stadium, a D.C. feeling of togetherness like no other. Old men twirled around in the aisles and young women bounced against each other. “I feel like a brand new groove,” they sang, as if the beat that is D.C. would never stop.
And then it did.
Staff writers Chris Richards and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.
More about Chuck Brown’s memorial service: Eva Cassidy band member: How I got to know Chuck Brown Chuck Brown’s legacy for a non-native Washingtonian