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Remembering the Inimitable Mr. Charlie Brown

On March 21, Atlanta lost a legend. Iconic drag performer Mr. Charlie Brown died at 10:33pm at Piedmont Hospital at the age of 74, surrounded by his husband, chosen family, and friends. He was recovering from a second heart valve replacement surgery when sepsis set in.

The Tennessee native began his Atlanta drag career in the ’70s. In 1974, only three years after first donning drag in Nashville, Charlie climbed up on the bar at the Sweet Gum Head nightclub and performed Della Reese’s “You Came a Long Way From St. Louis.” The audience reaction resulted in an immediate job offer and sparked a love affair between Charlie and Atlanta that would last half a century.

Charlie would go on to perform at Illusions (for audiences that included a young RuPaul), Charlie Brown’s Cabaret at Underground Atlanta, Lips Atlanta, and the Atlanta Eagle, but he is best remembered for Charlie Brown’s Cabaret from 1990 to 2004 at the rooftop bar at Backstreet. The “Bitch of the South” entertained celebrities like Janet Jackson, Jermaine Dupri, Sylvester Stallone, Sir Elton John, and Queen Latifah.

“I truly enjoy entertaining,” Charlie told Georgia Voice in 2015. “My drag mothers taught me early [the first day I did drag], you think you’re a star, you’ll never be one. And every time you walk on stage you have to prove to those who’ve heard of you why you’re there and to impress the ones that haven’t heard of you. But after all that time, I truly, truly enjoy making people laugh.”

Friends and members of the community remembered Charlie fondly following the news of his death.

“Charlie was the very first Queen we hired and of course we didn’t make her audition,” Yvonne Lame, the owner of Lips Atlanta, wrote on Facebook. “She had already been a star for decades, and her talent and reputation preceded her … Thanks to Charlie, Lips Atlanta is and was an immediate success.”

“Charlie was the polar opposite offstage of this brassy, bitchy, acerbic, take-no-prisoners drag persona,” Rich Eldredge, Charlie’s friend and collaborator, told Georgia Voice. “Charlie Dillard was this incredibly sweet, sensitive man who loved his friends and loved the drag community. He loved supporting the drag community, especially in an age where you have a generation of drag queens who are competing with each other. Charlie was always about lifting up the next young performer. That served him very well in the community; I’ve never come across a drag performer who had anything negative to say about Charlie. I think that speaks volumes about his place in the community.”

Friends and chosen family gathered at the Eagle on March 23 to celebrate Charlie’s life.

“I went to the Eagle Saturday night seeking community, and it was so powerful to be there with everyone else who he loved and who loved him,” Eldredge said. “It was difficult for us, but when the DJ started playing all the soundtrack from Charlie’s 50 years of drag, it felt like he was there with us. Charlie’s final wishes were that we celebrate his life and throw a big party in his honor.”

Eldredge and Charlie worked together beginning in 2021, co-writing Charlie’s forthcoming memoir, detailing the entirety of his life from birth to becoming one of the most prolific drag queens in the country. In one of his final phone conversations with Charlie ahead of his surgery, Eldredge assured him that his story would be told:

“The book is finished and it’s fantastic, and I can’t wait to share it with the world,” he said.

“Bitch of the South: How I Survived Vietnam, the AIDS Crisis, and MAGA Drag Bans” will tentatively be self-published to commemorate Charlie’s 75th birthday at the end of the year.

Charlie is survived by Fred Wise, his loving husband and partner of 45 years. Brown was preceded in death by his parents Charlie and Velma Dillard of Siloam, Tennessee; his sister Ramona Franklin in Scottsville, Kentucky; his brother Bruce Dillard in Akersville, Kentucky; and his best friend Rusty the dog. He is also survived by two nieces, Kendra Templeton in Lafayette, Tennessee; and Terri Holder in Scottsville, Kentucky; one nephew, Tracy Dillard in Akersville, Kentucky; three great-nephews; and two great-nieces.