At the viewing in Washington D.C. for the now late, great Chuck Brown, the Go-Go king of the world, it was no surprise that nearly everyone I saw pass through the Howard Theater to bid Chuck well one last time, was African-American. Most of the people were older African-Americans, I would guess, at least 40 years old, and a number more than likely over 60 years of age. This was Chuck’s core audience.
When “Bustin’ Loose‘ announced the beginning of Go-Go in 1978, those born in 1960 or even 1950, were probably Chuck’s loyal listeners in the clubs, and so, as Chuck passed our way one last time they were there again, listening to his music, and showing their love and support.
As I passed through the viewing, and the crowds out front, some noted that Chuck said their name at the shows. Others could state to the day when they first heard Chuck or a Chuck Brown show.
Yes, it was rugged and beautiful on T Street at the Howard Theater, on Ellington Plaza. Hot. Muggy. Typical Washington D.C. weather as the long hot summer begins to descend upon the place. Those coming from work in their suits were shown no mercy by the elements. They sweated profusely but like everyone, they stood in line to pay their respects.
There were T-shirt sellers everywhere, all selling some version of Chuck. His face was everywhere. There were people selling CDs, DVDs, buttons, posters, photographs, and because it was so hot yesterday, people, dozens of people, were selling water. The street (Seventh Street) was blocked off by the police and the sidewalks were crammed with merchants.
Chuck’s music boomed all day outside the viewing. Go-Go is a constant sound but the playing of it yesterday was also constant.
The news cameras were there. All day long. They were there for all of it. It can perhaps be said that the city of Washington D.C. has never experienced a cultural loss of this magnitude, or at least one that they all accept is huge. Anthony Harley (Little Benny), Go-Go’s other icon, died two years ago, but Chuck was “The Godfather,” he made the music happen, in this town, in this era, and at a time of great political and social movement in the city. And just as quickly, as the city gained home rule with African-Americans leading the way in 1977, so it is that Chuck invented the city’s freedom sound, a music created by the peasant class of the city, but loved by all for its energy, and its nerve.
I saw so many people I knew and so many I did not know and don’t see ever anymore even though I spend much time outside the city. The number of people at the viewing hanging out and taking it all in is probably just more of an indication that despite the changing demographics of the city, there is still a huge African-American presence in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area. They just might not live in the city, or they don’t feel welcome anymore so they have retreated back to the neighborhoods where they feel comfortable.
Most interesting of all the things I observed was the interior of the Howard Theater where Chuck laid in state. This venue, once the scene of some great Go-Go shows I attended, is now an upscale supper club. Well known acts come and perform for smaller crowds and there are tables and a bar inside. It looks elegant and moody inside, a place that will likely not ever host a Go-Go show (maybe it already has).
S Street which is just behind the theater is named for Chuck Brown now. The entire neighborhood, in fact, is like Little Afro-America. Across from where the viewing was held is LeDroit Park, the city’s first suburb. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Afro-American poet laureate, lived in this neighborhood. One block down, Waring Cuney, another poet, and one from Washington D.C., was born and raised. The plaza where the theater sits is the Ellington Plaza, named for Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
The history is here now and some of it is preserved. Chuck Brown is part of that history. One does not know what the city will become culturally without Chuck. We will soon find out.