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.