Chuck Brown and Marion Barry

Chuck Brown fans welcomed D.C. “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry as a folk hero. “You the last one standing1” a woman shouted.

Chuck Brown fans waiting in line for the public viewing of his body at the Howard Theater Tuesday morning welcomed D.C. Councilman Marion Barry like a folk hero. They clamored to shake Barry’s hands.

“You the last one standing!” someone shouted. “Back up Bruce! Let the man get some air!” someone else yelled, chiding WUSA news reporter Bruce Johnson as he closed in on Barry for an interview.  “We love you Marion Barry!” Chuck Brown fans sang. “Weeee looooove you!”

Chuck Brown – like Barry – validated them.  Fans standing in line included hard-scrapple D.C. residents with missing teeth and well-fed residents in business attire, a glamor girl in a swanky long dress and sisters in blue work shirts and suits.

Some fans waited in line for hours to get inside the recently restored Howard Theater to pay respects. Linda Boyd had arrived at 6 a.m. She was the second person in a line that would swing around the corner. Fans laughed, chatted, joked, and sang Chuck Brown tunes occasionally. When Boyd spotted swirling police lights escorting a dignitary, she stirred the crowd into an old Chuck Brown song.

“The police man is on the premises. What is he doing in here? I said the police man is on the premises what is he doing in here!” They shared a hearty laugh and sang the famous refrain. “Run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, run Joe the police man’s at the door….”

Chuck Brown acknowledged a community’s conflict with the establishment. His song, “Run Joe,” gave lyrics to a popular experience of outcast young people hustling to survive, using an underground economy – and an underground mental health care system – drugs.

I gazed at the various expressions of love, got a whiff of funnel cake wafting from a vending truck across the street, noticed a woman munching on French Fries drenched in ketchup, and marveled at a parade of vendors selling everything from Chuck Brown buttons, tee-shirts, and hats, to cold water and what some were calling “Chuck Punch,” plastic quarts of red juice in ice.

“Chuck Brown would appreciate a good hustle,” I thought, as I looked around, tuning in and out of other people’s conversations, chatting with a guy standing next to me.

“This is like when Michael Jackson died. It’s not somber like when an official dies. Chuck brought so much joy to people. It’s a celebration at the same time you’re mourning,” said Darrell Johnson, a Ward 1 resident who co-produced a few Chuck Brown tunes. A nine-hour public viewing, to be followed by a funeral two days later, seemed sufficient. “This is appropriate. He was Washington’s Elvis.”

Other D.C. elected officials, including Mayor Vince Gray, Councilmembers Jack Evans and Michael Brown, and celebrities, arrived before noon to pay their respects.

“Chuck had the unique ability to make a thousand people at a time feel good, but also to make the individual feel good,” Rock Newman, boxing promoter and long-time Chuck Brown friend said. “Although he was onstage Chuck wrapped his arms around this city and just said ‘everything’s going to be alright’.”

Councilman Jack Evans said, “Chuck Brown was one of the most famous musicians to come out of D.C., right up there with Duke Ellington…He inspired a generation, all of us from when we were kids…He was a legend in this town, and he will be missed. Buy Chuck. We love you.”

Others spoke of the music man’s humanity. “Chuck was such a good person,” said, Sandra Butler Truesdale, long-time D.C. cultural activist and vice chair of the Howard Theatre Restoration Community Committee. Chuck Brown visited her dying husband and attended his funeral. “He means a lot to me, like he means a lot to so many,” she added. “Chuck Brown was D.C.”

Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.


Remembering Chuck Brown

Previously published in The Washington Post

Chuck Brown: “I Became Deeply Inspired with Empty Pockets”

By Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery

“Wind Me Up” Chuck needed to wind down by the time he arrived for an afternoon interview with me at The Washington Informer in 2007. “Chuck Baby” had spent the previous two hours pumping up a capacity crowd at a free lunchtime concert outside the D.C. Lottery headquarters on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast. Chuck Brown “the Godfather of Go-Go” chatted with me for almost two hours about his life, his legacy – and his relationship with my dad.

Chuck was part of The Soul Searchers, when my father, the late Joe Tate, produced their album, “Salt of the Earth,” featuring the breakout tune, “Blow Your Whistle.” (Click here to hear a very young Chuck singing “Blow Your Whistle”: My dad had also co-produced Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers on their first song that hit the Billboard R&B charts.  The song was, “We the People,” a hit in 1972. Chuck’s love for the people grew over the next four decades and the people reciprocated – filling clubs to capacity when he performed. Crowds swelled and cheered him wildly at summer concerts and summertime festivals.

I found his story inspiring. His love for music began when he was a tot. As a toddler, he sang and entertained his mother’s neighbors at picnics, cookouts and parties. “That’s how we ate,” he said laughing, during our 2007 interview. He leaned back in the fold up chair across the table from me and laughed heartily recalling his life and music career. “My mamma used to carry me around to different houses. Sometimes they passed a little hat around, take up a little collection for us…my mother took real good care of her little boy.” At seven-years-old, he learned to play piano in church. But, he began running away from home at 13, and left home for the last time at age14, he said. He landed in jail, and that changed his life for good. He learned to play guitar in jail. His friends encouraged him to join a band when he got out.

He recalled playing with Jerry Butler, the Earls of Rhythm and the Latino band Los Latinos in the 1960s, which prompted him to create a new sound fusing R&B, Latin beats and jazz. He tested his new sound at nightclubs and cabarets around D.C.  He noticed his crowd relax as he drove hard rhythms and engaged them in African-styled call-and-response. “People would come in there in minks and neck ties, but when I started that Go-Go thing, the mink coats disappeared, they started coming in more relaxed,” he told me. “The neckties and all that disappeared, and the tables and chairs disappeared off the floor and the floor was cool. I knew it was going somewhere.” They danced non-stop as long as the music kept going. The craze became known as Go-Go.

Chuck performed live and recorded – live and in studio.  He told me the heartbreak that followed the success of his third album, “Butsin Loose,” (which my father did not produce.). Bustin Loose hit the national charts, but Chuck felt cheated out of $13 million. “I just felt bad. I couldn’t do nothin’ for five years,” he said. He continued performing seven days a week around D.C., but he couldn’t write. Then in a snap one day, he wrote a song in 15 minutes.

“I was deeply inspired with empty pockets,” he said, laughing. “Guess what song I wrote in 15 minutes?”

The song he wrote in 15 minutes, “I Need Some Money” became a national hit. Meanwhile, he continued his fight with his previous record label, and prevailed after 27 years.

My favorite Chuck Brown CD was the one he recorded with Eva Cassidy. I loved his fusion of jazz standards and Go-Go beats. He introduced a couple of young generations to some old ballroom standards without them even knowing it. My favorite Chuck Brown tune: “Let the Good Times Role.”

At 71 years old, so much in his life had come full-circle. As a teen, he had sold Washington newspapers – The Washington Herald, and The Washington Afro – earning pennies. But in his 70s he had a lucrative Washington Post contract, starring in their commercials. He had played “the numbers” before there was an official lottery, playing two cents for a chance to win $3. But in the end he was paid big bucks to endorse D.C. Lottery. His career had begun for pennies as a little boy. In the end, Chuck included his children and grandchildren on one of albums that would do quite well in the market place.

I found Chuck Brown as entertaining up close and personal as he was onstage. On stage he was mesmerizing. I had not been to see him in clubs, but I enjoyed his magic on outdoor stages – the Stone Cold summer festival, at Fort DuPont Park.

Facebook and twitter began buzzing with well wishes for Chuck last week. Community activist Elwood Yango Sawyer (a.k.a. “Yango”) has been posting stories and insights from their 40-year friendship on his Facebook page, and last week launched a prayer vigil for his dear friend.

Thursday morning he posted recollections of a conversation he had with Chuck when the Go-Go Master returned from Japan, where people had paid $1,500 a pop to see him. Yango hopes Chuck’s tenacity and determination to succeed will inspire others. “Chuck shows us what can happen, if you give yourself a chance to enjoy the beauty of life,” Sawyer posted. “A guy made a guitar for him in Lorton, and he took that skill and became world known.”