Chuck Brown’s music captured church’s spirit
By Robert Samuels,
The news of Chuck Brown’s death stunned Pastor Deron Cloud.
“I’ve probably been to every club in the history of Washington, D.C., and saw him perform,’’ said Cloud, who leads the congregation at The Soul Factory, a proudly unorthodox church in a Forestville strip mall. “So when I found out he died, I felt I needed to celebrate his life with the people I love.”
So he called his friends, who called a radio station and posted an invite on Facebook: At 9 p.m., Cloud was going to clean out the semi-circle where the women’s fellowship finished up their weekly Bible study and use its speakers to blast the incessant percussive sounds of go-go.
Ushers would play bouncers to tend to the flock who’d inevitably show up to shimmy to the funk sound that Brown created and the region called its own. They’d warn people not to curse, smoke or drink in a place devoted to the presence of God. It was their music, but this was still His House.
“I know some people might be upset at this idea,” Cloud said as “Bustin’ Loose” played over the speakers. “But this church is for the community. I could talk conservative, but look at what’s going on.”
In front of him, men and women of all ages were singing along to Brown’s guttural voice, while popping their backs and bopping their heads. Pink and green neon lights illuminated the darkened worship auditorium, casting a shadow on the typical guitar and drum set that typically lead the service.
On a typical Sunday, there are about 1,500 people at a service. On Wednesday night, there were 2,000 to honor the godfather of go-go.
They waved their hands high. They dropped their booties low. Men held women by the hips and they shook their shoulders together, oblivious to a plastic bin, tucked in a corner, filled with Bibles.
Beads of sweat dripped down 48-year-old Carlton Miller’s face as he swayed to the sound, one armoutstretched and limp, his elastic legs bending to the red carpet. Brown had a relationship with this church — he had visited several times and once played for the pastor’s birthday. A quarter of the worship songs each Sunday are typically set to a go-go beat, at a place that bills itself as a church for the unchurched.
And Miller was certainly unchurched before he started attending, growing up in the projects in Alexandria and running with gangs. When Brown came to deejay, “there was simply peace.”
“He had a saying, “If there’s a fight, good night,’’ Miller said. “So we didn’t fight. We didn’t want the music to end. It’s a music that brought our community together.”
Outside, a line of at least 50 waited to get into the church while a bouncer shouted “We’re at capacity!”
A man walked around selling $10 “R.I.P.” Chuck Brown T-shirts. A woman with her hair dyed red started singing “Run Joe” while doing the running man. The parking lot , as gravelly as Brown’s voice, pulsated with groups of people reminiscing about the great moments set to a Chuck Brown beat.
“The best moments? Sneaking into clubs at 15 to see him!’’ 27-year-old Toya Cook recalled to her group of friends.
“And all the cookouts, when even grandma would be dancing,’’ said Javier McCoy, 23.
They were disappointed they couldn’t get into the church, but were happy that Brown’s spirit was alive and well. Later that night, they vowed to hit up some D.C. clubs to listen to his music.
Even further down, Charles Sawyer and his friends guzzled Miller Light while he blasted go-go from his Ford Expedition.
“Chuck, I’mma tell you,’’ Sawyer said. “Chuck is D.C. Obama? I love him. He’s the first black president. But he ain’t Chuck Brown.”’
“I got a Chuck Brown story,’’ James Means, 56, told him. “One time, I saw him, he told me to come with him to get some fish. He knew a place where you could get it for 50 cents a pound. I ate fish with Chuck Brown. Croakers. No one believed me.”
He told the tale of driving his green Oldsmobile with his friends to Washington Harbor in the summer of ‘72, when Brown was opening on the Whistleline boat for the Ohio Players.
“We came back with so many girls, we had to fit them in the trunk!” said Means, on his fourth beer of the night, with no interest in stepping foot in the church.
Inside the Soul Factory, the partying lasted for about a half-hour. The pastor himself wiggled to the ground until he asked the DJ to cut the music, so he could pray.
“Let’s remember his immediate family who are very sad right now,’’ Cloud said. “They can’t dance tonight.”
He prayed that “politicians wouldn’t politicize this funeral. .. they would not take advantage of a man who did not take advantage of us.”
The DJ spun another hit and the music blasted, before cutting himself off — it was an accident.
“[The DJ’s] a little too hyped now,’’ Cloud said, continuing to pray. He thanked Brown for “the history he brought to our children’s children.” He thanked God for the invention of the bass drum and the bongos, two instrumental parts of the infamous Brown rhythms. He invited everyone to worship with them at Sunday, even if they got too drunk the night before.
The “Amen” resonated all the way to the back of the auditorium, where 21-year-old Kaya Rawlinson had a revelation.
“I didn’t realize this was a church!”
If you have an idea for a story about the D.C. area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels.