Chuck Brown’s birthday celebration nearly got rained out. Just before 10 a.m., radio stations were erecting their promo tents, along 20th Street NE. The sod around the stage at Langdon Park was barely laid. It was all in preparation for the ribbon-cutting for the new memorial dedicated to the Godfather of Go-Go in Northeast.
Around the periphery, people told old stories of seeing Brown’s shows. “We used to make sure we only shot dice when the girls were watching,” said a man in camouflage shorts and a bucket hat with Washington’s NFL team logo on it. Some people wore their Chuck Brown remembrance shirts from the day he died, just over two years ago.
Under another tent, Brown’s sons took pictures with fans. It looked more rote than anything, but they obliged The Godfather’s fans. Shoeless kids ran around the playground. To the west of the stage, toddlers played the little instruments set up near the playground: Two steel drums, some bongos and a stand-up xylophone. Even over the din of the generators, before the stage show starts, there is music, even if infantile.
The purpose of the event was also to unveil the photo work of Chip Py, a photographer who closely documented Brown during the last year of his life. Py says he probably shot Brown two dozen times. When the legend passed, Py was the only person the family trusted to take a photo of him while his body was on public viewing at the Howard Theatre.
As the venue filled up, Jackie Braitman, the Takoma Park-based sculptor and designer of the memorial explained her work to news crews.
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The memorial stands generally in the shape of a figure 8, with the upper circle, stretching nearly 20 feet. There, you can see the lights. That component is designed to “create a rhythm,” she said. “The interactive lighting is directed upon the call and response of go-go.” More simply, you step on stuff and different lights play per its programming. But frankly, the sculpture is ugly.
From the street side, an image of Brown in his signature outfit holding a mic out to the crowd is displayed along the serrated metal. The earth tones make it seems like Brown was some crunchy dude. The rest of the “monument” is a drab taupe, with words “Wind me up, Chuck!” adorning a metal box around the back length of the circular platform.
It should be a statue of the man whose look was so iconic that he was buried in it. Elaine Robinson, who grew up near the park and followed Chuck in the 1970s and 1980s, was not impressed.
“I think they could have done a little better than that. I really do,” Robinson, 55, said. “That’s kind of disappointing to me, it looks like it’s so cheaply done.”
Robinson now lives off Benning Road, and showed up alone to honor The Godfather. “Most people do a little fame and success then go away,” Robinson, a housekeeper at Marriott Marquis said. “I’ve seen him on Soul Train, and I pretty much followed his career and everything. I got some CDs, even one with his daughter on it.
The most recent one, I haven’t purchased the album yet, but I plan to. But, it’s a good day.” “Most of the people that followed Chuck HAVE to work,” he continued. “Luckily it’s my day off.” For her, this homecoming was a bit awkward because she saw more TV cameras than she did recognizable faces. But for Joe Clair, the popular TV and radio personality from D.C., it was a day of celebration.
“Chuck Brown’s story, coming out of prison, becoming a superstar here in D.C., taking jazz roots, mixing it with the emerging go-go sound, to dominate for 40 years, and then in his passing to have a park erected in his memory, that’s like the story you need to tell every child from D.C.,’ Clair, who now lives in Atlanta, said. “That’s redemption, excellence, creativity. Look at all the things that he touched on, and we’re out here celebrating today. I think it’s a tremendous thing.”
Then came the politicians. Over the course of an hour, it went from a neighborhood event to a political one. Of course, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie was there, but it’s his ward. It makes sense. Mayor Gray was there awkwardly saying “Wind me up, Chuck!” off beat, and of course Muriel Bowser and David Catania were, too.
More annoyingly, all the other political gadflies who seem to show up everywhere a candidate does were ever-present. Yes, it’s campaign season, but I’m not trying to think about city politics when honoring Chuck. Just throw a party and get out of the way. As the rain continued to fall, the crowd swelled.
A lot of familiar faces from the go-go world were there. And just over the hill looking east, workers were toiling away with rakes. They were finishing off the refurbishment of the horseshoe courts that sit underneath the sign on the tree that reads “Chuck Town.”
Long after all the cameras and opportunists were gone, the “pitchers” as they’re known would still be there. They proved to be a far more interesting lot than the stiffs that took the stage that afternoon.
James Cunningham, 56, president of the D.C. Horseshoe Pitchers Association was beaming. Standing with a friend in the league, they marveled at the new pits. New dirt, new stakes, and they were all evenly aligned and the correct distance. The league worked with the Department of Parks and Recreation to get it right.
“This is great, man. This is super,” he said. Cunningham, a Ballou grad lives in Southeast and works as a Community Resource Director for the Georgia Avenue Family Support Collaborative. “We got some courts that were built for us by the National Park Service down at Anacostia Park. We have six of those.
The league is growing in such a way that we really need, we really could have used five courts up here because it’s so many guys that come to play.”
And for as much as Chuck Brown obviously deserved to be honored in the city he called home for so long and forever changed in so many ways, if I go back to Langdon Park, it won’t be to look at his memorial. It’ll be to play horseshoes.