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.
“Wind me up, Chuck!” they shouted, as they had on so many nights, at the Ebony Inn and the Kilimanjaro, the Panorama Room and the Masonic Temple.
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.
At this funeral, even the hymns came with a go-go beat, that
that Brown had invented from the rhythm of his hard years at Lorton Reformatory.
“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.”)