If there was ever any doubt about the depth of the affection D.C. has for Chuck Brown, last Thursday's memorial service and the thousands of people who bid the chief architect of Go-Go goodbye put that to rest.
At the Celebration of Life at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest, more than 10,000 people – dignitaries, celebrities, government officials and ordinary Washingtonians – crowded into a massive auditorium for the almost four-hour service. In keeping with Brown's wishes, the memorial was more party than funeral, more festive than somber.
Veronica Ambrose, her daughter Miya, 33, and granddaughter Kaiara, 17, stood in line for more than two hours to get in.
"Chuck is definitely a legend. I grew up with his music," said Ambrose, a 55-year-old program coordinator who works at Howard University. "I like his spirit. He's a very humble man who showed a lot of love. I wanted to be a part of history."
"Most importantly, I have the Go-Go swing," she joked. "I stood in line for two hours because I just like what he stood for," the Northeast resident said.
Brown, 75, fell ill in March, was hospitalized and died May 16 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Last Tuesday, an estimated 12,000 people paid their respects to Brown who lay in state at the Howard Theatre in the Shaw community. City officials, Go-Go legends, aficionados of D.C.'s singular music, and others folks walked past Brown's golden casket during a day-long public viewing.
Inside the Convention Center, a mixture of church music and Go-Go beats suffused the auditorium. Brown's casket on a catafalque stood before the stage, surrounded by large circular wreathes of orange and white. Along the length of the casket lay a bed of stunning white flowers. Seven large screens flashed images of Brown regaling the people he loved so much, others captured his trademark grin and his effusive, natural and unaffected manner, while more were snapshots of the Go-Go icon at various periods along his musical journey.
The largely African-American crowd was an almost even mix of young and old. People's dress ranged from funereal black suits and dresses to the very gaudy, from colorful summer dresses and sun hats to T-shirts and jeans. Many wore T-shirts with Chuck's visage, his sayings, song titles and expressions, such as "Wind Me up Chuck!" and "Old School Playa: Go-Go for Life."
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it was on display at the memorial service where a number of older men sported wraparound sunglasses and fedoras Brown popularized. Others wore silk do-rags, zoot suits, vests and baggy dress pants. And more than a few strolled around with carved wooden canes.
Radio and TV personality Donnie Simpson officiated, and reminded the crowd frequently just how much Brown loved D.C. and its residents.
"Chuck was always absolutely about D.C.," he said. "The music he created was for D.C. but [others] had to come here to get it. I have mad love for that ... The Godfather of Go-Go – we're gonna celebrate him today."
And celebrate they did, giving life to the saying, "Ain't No Party Like a Chuck Brown Party."
The music, whether it was a gospel number or Go-Go, was loud, brash and brassy. And most of the musical selections ended up being a cool blend of the sacred and the secular: Gospel infused with liberal splashes of the funky Go-Go beat.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Council Chairman Kwame Brown tried to one-up each other on how they planned to honor Brown. Gray, 69, announced that the city would name a park in his honor; Norton said she would spearhead legislation to make Brown's birthday, August 22, Chuck Brown Day nationally; and Kwame Brown promised a Go-Go Hall of Fame.
"It [the park] will be a place of action, people and sounds of the city, a place where you can 'back it up,'" Gray intoned. "It will be a place where you can say over and over, 'Wind me up Chuck!'"
Norton, 74, received a standing ovation and sustained applause from the audience.
"I come in thanksgiving first of all for Chuck Brown the man, the man who created himself following ... a tough upbringing," she said. "I come this afternoon in praise of Chuck Brown for what he gave to American music, and especially what his music gave to D.C. – vibrant, pulsating music."
Norton compared Brown's musical legacy to the stifling, overbearing manner in which Congress deals with the District.
"There's official Washington and hometown Washington," she explained. "... He rescued hometown D.C. from an image of a government that couldn't keep a beat, to a hometown with a funky beat."
Norton jokingly mocked New York, Chicago and San Francisco, saying none of the music that represents those cities comes anywhere close to D.C.'s.
"He gave us a musical genre, a unique sound. This is a town with dancing in its DNA," she said. "He gave us a hometown sound that won't let you stay in your seat and won't let you sit down once you get up."
"I'm gratified for the music from our virtuoso. It never, ever went out of style. D.C. discovered Chuck Brown before the Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts. Chuck Brown loved D.C. and we loved him back."
"I don't know when I'll get a vote on the House floor on this resolution, but there is every reason for Chuck's hometown to start first ... to send the message year-after-year that as long as there is a District of Columbia, there will always be a Chuck Brown party in the nation."
Kwame Brown, 41, invited council colleagues to join him on the dais, but it was Council member Marion S. Barry, Jr., who received the type of welcome that mirrors the affection D.C. has for Chuck Brown. As one, the crowd rose, cheered, chanted Barry's name and pumped their fists. As a beaming Barry stood at the dais, the crowd chanted "Marion Barry, Marion Barry, Marion Barry!"
"I'm not here as a former mayor or council member but as a friend of Chuck Brown's. I've known him for 40 years," Barry, 76, said. "Everyone tells you they're your friend through thick and thin and when it thickens up, they thin out. Chuck Brown never thinned out."
"Someone asked me, 'how did Chuck die?' but the better question is how did Chuck live?"
Barry described a man who loved and was committed to his family, one who treasured friends and a musical genius who was deeply devoted to his music.
"I met him at Pride, Inc.," Barry recalled. "Chuck Brown came and turned the place out. He was a great inspiration to young people. He said you don't have to stay where you are. Chuck Brown was about teaching, reaching people, letting them know they could be anything."
Among the family and friends who spoke or performed were Big G, Darryll Brooks, comedian Mike Epps; the Rev. Michael A. Freeman of Spirit of Faith Church; Raheem DeVaughn; Sugar Bear; Chris Paul and Huggy Lowdown; Cliff Jones; Ledisi; Tye Tribbett; Kindred Family Soul; and the Chuck Brown Band and Brown family members.
Epps came to honor Brown who was in the audience when Epps performed at Constitution Hall.
"I thought I would never get a chance to meet him but I was at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with 'green eyes' [Simpson], smoking a 'cigarette,'" Epps said. "Chuck came and told me, 'put it out, put it out, put it out, but let me get a hit before you do.'"
Epps had the crowd in stitches – even Barry – when he joked that he asked Brown where they could get more marijuana and Brown told him, 'Hold on, let me call Marion Barry.'"
The Chuck Brown Band played a stirring medley as the service ended that had audience members on their feet, on chairs, rocking from side-to-side and singing every lyric.
Kwame Brown's advice to D.C. newcomers illustrated the unbreakable connection between D.C. residents and Go-Go.
"To everyone who just moved to D.C. who have a problem with Go-Go – get over it. Chuck Brown is Go-Go, Go-Go is Washington, D.C. and there's nothing wrong with Go-Go."