The first person got in line at 8 p.m. Wednesday night to get a seat at Chuck Brown’s public memorial, held Thursday afternoon at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
By morning, thousands had queued up for the scheduled four-hour service, that started at noon, to honor the Godfather of Go-Go, which included performances by the Chuck Brown Brand, Raheem DeVaughan, Ledisi, Maysa, gospel star Tye Tribbett and go-go stars Gregory “Sugar Bear” Eliot of Experience Unlimited, Andre “White Boy” Johnson and “Big Tony” Fisher of Trouble Funk.
Brown died May 16 in a Baltimore hospital from complications of pneumonia. He was 75.
More than 13,000 people braved heat-advisory temperatures in the mid-90s on Tuesday for the public viewing at the Howard Theatre. Lines snaked around the block from late morning until severe thunderstorms and lightning forced officials to disperse the crowd at 9 p.m., an hour before the scheduled end of the wake. Temperatures on Thursday started off milder, in the high 50s before moving into a beautiful, low humidity day in the low 80s by afternoon.
The service kicked off with gospel music, including a go-go rendition of “Can’t Nobody Love Me Like Jesus.” Video of Brown meeting and entertaining schoolchildren, performing at various venues, interviews and photographs were interspersed between speakers and entertainers.
“The outpouring of love you have shown for this man has been amazing,” radio personality Donnie Simpson, who emceed the service, told the crowd.
Speaker after speaker praised Brown’s talent, generosity and humility, punctuated by the familiar refrain: “Wind me up, Chuck!” the four words from a crowd that Brown frequently said kept him energized.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said he would introduce legislation next week to the D.C. Council asking that a city park be named for Brown and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she would introduce a resolution in the House of Representatives to make Aug. 22, Brown’s birthday, national Chuck Brown Day. Council Chairman Kwame Brown said the designated park should include a Go-Go Hall of Fame.
Motivational speaker and Sirius radio host Willie Jolley said in an interview with Chuck Brown, Brown focused on his upbringing and his rise from poverty and a stint in prison to a musical icon and talked about the three things that kept him going strong: faith, family and friends.
Brown made a decision, Jolley said, “he could either serve time or let time serve him” and he made a decision that while he might have been “in the penitentiary, the penitentiary was not in him.”
Brown was praised for giving thanks to God every day, his devotion to his family – including working his schedule around his children’s activities – his love for his fans, whom he considered extended family, and his loyalty to anyone he considered a friend.
“Everybody says they are your friend through thick and thin and when it gets thick, they get thin; but Chuck Brown was a friend through thick and thin,” D.C. Council member and former Mayor Marion Barry said.
“He was the true family man, a husband who loved his wife, a father who loves his children, a loyal friend and a grandfather who loved being a grandfather. He was a band leader and he kept the Soul Searchers together for 45 years,” said Nat “the Bush Doctor” Mathis, a local personality, hairstylist, entrepreneur, D.C.-area community activist and the first African American to win the International Hair Styling competition in Cairo, Egypt in 1981.
“Chuck was from old school and was new school. He was a pool player, nobody could beat Chuck,” Mathis said. “He was a singer, songwriter and humanitarian. And he tipped big! He was a genius and he was genuine. He was the real deal.”
A string of comedians and local personalities shared their memories of Brown, including TomJoyner Morning Show regulars Chris Paul and Huggy Lowdown, as well as Mike Epps.
Brown’s daughter, KK, urged mourners to support the Chuck Brown Foundation and shared that Brown had been in pain before entering the hospital, but instead played one of his usual, long sets at his final show because he loved his fans.
“One thing he didn’t want you doin’ was cryin’,” KK said. “I love y’all …Y’all called him Chuck Baby but we’re Chuck’s babies….if y’all got your mother and father, tell them you love them and thank God you have them because tomorrow’s not promised.”
The service was brought to a rousing close when Brown’s casket was wheeled out of the convention center as Sugar Bear and the go-go stars, joined by Brown’s family, ran through a medley of Brown’s hits, including “I Need Money,” “Run Joe,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got the Go-Go Swing,” “Chuck Baby,” led by KK, and, of course, his first major hit, “Bustin’ Loose.”