The crowds came out Tuesday to bid a final farewell to D.C.’s favorite musical son, Chuck Brown. The godfather of go-go died May 16 after being hospitalized for pneumonia. He was 75. Fans paid their final respects to Brown at the Howard Theatre, just around the corner from where Brown used to shine shoes for tips during an impoverished childhood, long before he invented a new style of music that was called go-go because “the music just goes and goes.” The funeral will follow Thursday.
Post reporters filed reports from the scene all day:
9:27 p.m.: Rain stalls viewing
A sudden storm shut down viewing temporarily at the Howard Theatre, but after crowds returned once the rainfall stopped, the viewing was reopened until 10 p.m.
6:26 p.m.: After hot day, the line reforms
After a late afternoon lull, more people are starting to gather in the street outside the Howard Theatre. The line to see Brown’s body which at one point wound around the corner to S Street, had dissipated to nothing a few hours ago. But a new one formed, as more people arrived, many just off work.
A street festival pulsed around them, as locals showing off their moves shook to the music blaring from speakers. One woman still shimmied even though she had a cast on her right legs
“I fell on the Metro,” said Young, 41, who lives in Southeast. “It wasnt Metro’s fault, I want to set that straight! I tore some ligaments, but I will dance to Chuck Brown all day!”
4:51 p.m.: Howard releases public viewing photo
2:51 p.m.: Gray: Brown a great asset
Standing next to Brown’s open casket, Mayor Vincent Gray called Brown “one of the greatest assets the city has ever had.”
Brown’s step-daughter, KK Brown, and Charita Whiting, who Brown considered like a daughter, are outside the theater shaking hands with some of fans who have come to pay their respects.
“He loved everybody,” said KK Brown when asked why she wanted to greet the fans. She said if her father could see the crowd, “He would be crying.”
2:16 p.m.: Flags to fly at half staff
Mayor Vincent C. Gray ordered that the District flag fly at half staff over city government buildings from sunup to sundown on Thursday, the day of the memorial service for Chuck Brown.
2:13 p.m.: Remembering Brown with a tshirt
Jessie Watkins started the morning with six dozen Chuck Brown T-shirts to send, and is down to her last couple dozen which she has started to drape over the metal gate that separates her from the hundred of well wishers filing past to see Brown’s body.
Watkins, like most of her competitors, is an experienced T-shirt vendor. For Brown’s wake, she had an artist come up with a design that features the musician’s face against a blue backdrop. His head is larger than the Washington monument that appears next to him.
Another T-shirt has Brown against a backdrop of clouds. And another has marionette strings reminiscent of the black-and-white posters for the Godfather. They cost $10 to $20.
Public mourning has a way of loosening the purse strings and there is plenty of business for everyone. Most expect to be on hand for the funeral Thursday at the convention center.
Clarence Shields of Baltimore usually sells Orioles merchandise at ball games. He is, as he proudly notes, the only one selling calendars with Brown’s face and his “sunrise” and “sunset” dates at the top. The souvenirs that look fresh off his laser printer are $3 each. He started out the morning with 100 and is down to 15.
The product people are keenest on, however, is anything to keep them hydrated. “Where is the stand for free water?” a woman asks Shields, who shrugs.
Watkins comes up with her own name for it. “Can I get some Chuck water? I need some Chuck water!”
1:50 p.m.: At Brown’s casket
Chuck Brown’s gold casket is behind a red velvet rope, on a section of red carpet at the foot of the Howard stage. The lights in the theater are dimmed, but Brown is almost glowing under the concert spotlights.
He is dressed for his farewell the way he almost always dressed in concert, in pictures, in public: in a suit (black, with black shirt, orange vest and orange tie) with wraparound shades covering his eyes and that signature fedora atop his head. His jet-black goatee is neatly trimmed and his hands are crossed over his stomach.
12:56 p.m.: Filing past the casket
At midday, a Howard spokeswoman estimated that 20 people per minute were passing through the theater. They came through in suits and RIP Chuck Brown T-shirts, in fedoras and straw sun hats, shuffling past the open casket. Men in dark suits were positioned on either side of Brown’s body, 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. Still, it was more funereal than festive, as a hushed mix of Brown’s jazz ballads played over the sound system.
Photos flashed on the giant, balcony-level screens that flanked the stage: Chuck pointing a microphone at his audience, Chuck reaching out to fans, Chuck grinning in his fur coat, Chuck posting for a portrait at Blues Alley show.
One photo showed Brown outside the Howard, before the historic theater’s $29 million restoration. He last performed at the theater in 1980, the year it was shuttered. His homecoming concert never happened: a sold-out date in April was postponed to June, then into perpetuity. His wake was his final encore.
12:05 p.m.: Street pole memorial starts
One has already started forming on a street pole by the Wells Fargo not far from the theatre entrance.
The first night his mother let him stay out late, he went to see Brown play. He was 18. (”Mom was strict.”)
“Chuck is one of our role models,” he said. “When we was dancing, we stayed out of trouble.”
Brown is still keeping him out of trouble. “This is a survival crew out here,” he said, surveying the men and women by hawking everything from Brown signs and lanyards to water and straw hats. “We’re all trying to make a living.”
11:58 a.m.: Mayor Vincent Gray greets fans
Inside the theater, just before noon, Mayor Vincent Gray stood in front of Brown’s Gibson guitar, quietly shaking each person’s hand. The guitar lay on the floor, near the casket.
11:26 a.m.: Inside the Howard Theatre
Chuck Brown is lying in a gold metallic coffin adorned by a spray of flowers. His stepdaughter, KK, and the woman who’s like a daughter to him, Charita, are seated in front of the coffin behind a velvet rope. People are filing past in a quick pace.
Sheila Burch Welch of Capitol Hill was one of the first to see Brown inside the Howard Theatre. “He just look like he was asleep,” she said, as one of her grandchildren sat on her lap. “He had on sun shades. He looked like himself.”
11:10 a.m.: Marion Barry on Brown: Fabulous
As D.C. Council member Marion Barry walked out of the Howard Theatre, he was stopped by a cameraman who asked, “How’d the body look?”
“Man, fabulous,” Barry said. “Chuck was as big in death as he was in life.”
Barry said people forget Brown had a brush with the law (he served eight years for murder after shooting a man in what he said was self-defense) and still went on to success.
“Don’t judge your future by your past. Don’t let your past shape your future. He did that,” Barry said.
11:00 a.m.: Doors open at Howard Theatre
The doors opened to admit the first viewers into the theater. The line snaked around the building, with people braving the hot summer day. On Twitter, fans implored people to bring water to the line.
10:50 a.m.: Fans line up to see the godfather of go-go
Fans of guitarist and singer Chuck Brown began lining up outside the Howard Theatre before 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, chanting lyrics from his biggest hits.
Lifelong District resident Michael Berry, 57, who lives in Brookland, was first in line, holding a colored-pencil portrait he drew of Brown wearing sunglasses, a red shirt and tipping his blue hat. Berry said he had watched Brown perform a dozen or more times over the years.
“You couldn’t help but dance,” he said. “If you weren’t dancing, you were tapping your feet. I appreciate all he’s done, entertainment-wise.”
10:30 a.m.: Marion Barry visits the viewing
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) arrived and walked along the outside of the metal gates where people were lined up, shaking hands. Many began cheering the former mayor.
“Barry for president!” One man shouted.
Another stopped and handed him a Chuck Brown T-shirt.
Police officers led Barry underneath a line of police tape, escorting him to a side door of the theater.
“You’ll always be our mayor!” a woman yelled as he moved past.