Featured Interview – Derrick D’Mar Martin

Cover photo © 2022 Bob Hakins

infoAnyone who has had the pleasure of attending a show in recent years with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats certainly has fallen under the spell of the band’s exuberant drummer, Derrick D’Mar Martin. His drum solo combines equals parts of showmanship and rhythmic variety, with a touch of acrobatics. His style is a perfect compliment to the similar efforts of his band mates Rick Estrin, Kid Andersen, and Lorenzo Farrell, who never fail to give their audiences the best musical experience possible while keeping them fully entertained along the way.

For Martin, it comes naturally. “I was raised by entertainers. I really enjoy playing drums. That is who I am, just another person in the long legacy of drummers and entertainers like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Papa Joe Jones. The list goes on, and I am continuing that legacy in my own way. It is fun to be free. What I am looking for is to have fun, to find that zone where we can have the best night possible.”

Around the age of four, Martin fashioned his first drum set utilizing his mother’s pots and pans, with wooden spoons for drumsticks. A year later, his Mom got him his first real drum kit in an effort to regain the use of her cookware.

“That set didn’t last long. It had paper heads, which I went through in the first day. My mother was a singer and an actress. I would accompany her to rehearsals, and she was always playing records at the house. In my earliest memories, I remember being rhythmically fascinated with drums.

“I found her Prince records, and became a huge fan. I probably shouldn’t have been listening to those records at that age, but there was something about his music that resonated with me. We also listened to Stevie Wonder, Parliament/Funkadelic, the O’Jays. She also had some amazing Bobby Bland records, Al Green, the who’s who of soul music. The ones that really appealed to me in particular were Prince, Stevie Wonder, and  Funkadelic.”

The next step for the aspiring drummer was to join the school band once he reached seventh grade at Hardy Jr. High in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I was in choir and doing other stuff while in elementary school, but things really got serious when I joined that band. The first day of band class, everybody wants to play drums. So the teacher is weeding kids out, Miss Jennifer Seaton at the time, who was a great band director. She said I should play trumpet. In my mind, I’m like, nope, I am playing drums! That’s just it, the way it is going to be. So that is where I started, doing orchestral percussion, snare drum, tympani. She was very adamant about all of us being able to read, and write, music. I took to that right off.

“I was there until ninth grade, then I went to Provine High School with the marching band, where Tony Winters was the Director of Bands. He was another staunch person about being able to read and understand the intellectual side of music. The tenth grade was when I started to play drums in a formalized setting. It was odd because I was playing in the Jazz band. Up until then, I had never played jazz, nor did I have any real understanding of what it was. That was baptism by fire! Throughout my high school years, I played chimes xylophone, tympani, marimba, and percussion in marching and concert bands, learning so much. I am proud of the fact that I was in the All-City Band for four years.

“I will always be proud to be from Mississippi, born and raised in Jackson. The older I get, the more I realize that during the time I was raised there, I got the one of the best educations I could have received anywhere in the world, on quite a few levels. I had great lessons, amazing teachers and mentors, in public school, the universities, and the chitlin’ circuit.”

After he graduated, Martin started attending classes at Jackson State University as a Music major in percussion with an emphasis on Jazz music. He attended classes during the day, working on music theory studies, and practicing with the marching band. That freed up his evenings for additional studies of a decidedly different nature.

image“I was attending the official university by day, and the blues university by night. I was playing the chitlin’ circuit down on Lynch Street, really learning how to play blues, soul, and R&B music, getting yelled at and threatened by the older guys. My first road tour happened when I was 19 or 20 years old, with singer Dorothy Moore, who had a huge hit with “Misty Blue”.

“Guitarist Vasti Jackson continues to be a mentor to this day. I played with local artists like Cadillac George Harris, Billy “Soul” Bonds, Bobby Rush, and an amazing singer, Patrice Moncell, who was a modern day version of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. She taught us so much. There was also the Mo Money Band, which had Forrest “Juke” Gordon on drums, another one of my mentors. I also worked with the Malaco records guys like Harrison Calloway Jr. and Larry Addison, one of the label’s songwriters.”

Martin made it into his junior year of college before Lady Luck came knocking. At that time, leaving school before earning a degree was intensely frowned upon. Still, the drummer had to consider an offer from one of the most recognized names in the music business.

“The professors considered it a cardinal sin to leave school for a “gig”. My offer was to audition for Little Richard’s band. I had a meeting with three of my professors, and they were all telling me that I had to go do the audition. I reminded them that they had always preached that we shouldn’t leave for a gig. They said no,no no, we meant a chitlin’ circuit gig. And I remember my Jazz professor telling me to make sure that I get a round-trip ticket. So I did the audition, got the job, and continued on a whole other level of study.”

Martin had been playing in a band called Infinity, managed by Linda Jacobs, who was also involved in the Jubilee Jam festival in Jackson. She had booked Little Richard, they became friends, and stayed in contact. One day he mentioned that he was looking to hire a young black drummer.

“Little Richard wanted to augment his band, get back to having two drummers. The other drummer at that time was Monkey Womack from Alabama. Linda called to tell me that she had recommended me, and to expect a call. I thought I would hear from a manager or representative. But it was Little Richard who called. He told me to go to the record store and buy a copy of his greatest hits on Specialty Records, then call him back.

“So I ran to the store, bought it, and called him back. He asked me if I had listened to the songs. I knew the songs from hearing them, they were hits. So he wanted to know if I could play his songs, can I play? I answered, yes sir! He said he would call me back, which he did several days later to let me know that I should fly out to Los Angeles the next day. He would have a ticket for me, and he wanted to check out my playing.

“I spent several weeks out there hanging out with him. There was supposed to be a formal audition, but that never happened. What Richard was really doing was spending time with me, watching what I was doing, getting to know who I was as a human. He took me to some clubs, restaurants, and church. We did all of that before we ever played any music.

‘Eventually we went to a blues club that Roy Gaines had in South Central Los Angeles. Roy was the guitar player in Richard’s band. There was a honky-tonk piano and one of the worst drum sets you have ever seen. We had Charles Glenn, the bass player, and Richard’s son Danny with us. Richard sits down at the piano and starts playing the blues, telling stories. Charles plugged in his bass, I got behind the kit, and for two hours we did nothing but play the blues songs. I am totally disarmed, not realizing this is my audition. I’m just relaxed, being myself. Finally, Richard said OK, I’ve heard enough. He told me I got the gig, and that we were opening for the Temptations the following week.

image“I was like, what just happened. We didn’t even play any of your tunes. Richard told me not to worry about that. He was satisfied that I had a good groove, a good back-beat, a good foot, that I say yes sir, no sir, and that I loved my Mama, adding that he was going to teach me the rest. That was the beginning of a 17-plus year ride with Little Richard.”

In short order, Martin not only was in the band, but had to learn the show from Monkey Womack in preparation for an upcoming European tour.

“That tour was epic. It was going to be the first time that Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis were appearing on the same stage ever in history, in Europe. So I just joined the band, we didn’t do formal rehearsals. I knew the songs, but needed to learn Richard’s ques. Unbeknownst to me, Monkey was getting ready to leave the band. There was nobody to tell me this is what you do.

“Naturally, I messed up a couple of things learning on the gig. Once we arrived in London, we were staying at the Mayfair Hotel. Richard had a grand piano in his suite. I go to his room for an almost four hour private rock ‘n’ roll lesson from Richard. We went through all of his hits, him playing piano and I am playing on a pillow with sticks. It was a fine way to learn how to pick up his ques. We did three dates in London, and I got a nice write-up in the paper welcoming the new drummer. Richard thanked me for bailing him out of a tight spot, telling me I had the job as long as I want it.”

From 1995 until 2001, the band worked year-round, working a lot of state fairs. Once June cane around, Richard and the band headed to Europe, where they would play a show almost daily until the end of August. Because Richard was a Seventh Day Adventist, there would be no shows on Friday evenings. There was also an annual residency in Las Vegas with Chuck Berry at the old Caesars Palace. After 9/11, it took awhile for Richard to get comfortable going overseas for any length of time, so the band managed to keep busy doing corporate and private functions.

“We stayed busy doing a lot more in the States. Richard also did a lot of television and commercials. One cool thing about him was that he was adamant about using his people. I ended up playing on the theme for the new Candid Camera show. And we did a remake of “Keep A-Knockin’” for the soundtrack to the movie, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, about singer Frankie Lymon. He kept us pretty busy.”

Since 1995, Martin has also been a recording artist himself, with his own production company/record label, Airtight Records, to release his D’Mar recordings. That year he released his first major label rap record, Jacktown, with the group Wildlife Society on TVT Records. He also started a business with his ex-wife, Faith Martin, in Clinton, Mississippi called Percussion Music Media. The duo taught voice lessons along with drums and piano, with a show choir and a recording studio.

“When I wasn’t working with Richard, I would run those businesses, and make my own records. Additionally, I created a master class entitled Drums & More, where I go out to schools to give lectures on the history of drums. I took a Jazz history class in college, where I discovered that the drum set is an American invention. My program is designed to cover the role of drums in popular American music from traditional New Orleans music through hip hop. I do a lot of playing to demonstrate the various styles of rhythm as well as bringing up the names of important musicians that the students should know about. It also ties into the importance of mathematics, reading, and social skills. At one point I was on the Mississippi Arts Council, and have continued to do that program out here in California. ”

To date, Martin has released 84 songs, and four full length albums, available at his website. His latest album, So Much Soul, came out earlier in the year. He has received some great feedback along with over 700,000 streams on Spotify and other platforms. He has received a number of requests to play his music live, which may happen next year depending on the Nightcats schedule.

“I call my music Nu Funk Soul. I don’t consider myself the greatest vocalist, but I do think I write good songs and grooves. While I was working with Little Richard, he would always encourage me to do more of my own stuff. He’d say, you are more of a stylist, like Hendrix and Sly Stone were stylists. When I would play my music live, I would get the response that the music was retro, a throwback. But I use a lot of modern technology in making the records, some hip hop drum ascetics with an old school soul vibe. With each record, I am getting more comfortable with who I am as an artist.”

Martin moved to the San Jose, California in 2010. He was still gigging with Little Richard, just not as frequently. As the number of shows tailed off, there were other opportunities around.

image“I arrived in the Bay area at the perfect time. There were a lot of things in the south Bay area just starting to take off. Kid Andersen had Greaseland Studios going. I quickly met Aki Kumar, Mitch Woods, Mark Hummel, and Rick Estrin. Those relationships set-up the next 10-12 years of my life, especially when it comes to playing the blues. After my divorce, the woman I started dating was a nurse, and she got a job offer at Stanford. We decided to move for the job. Now we are married, and she is a doctor.

“At first I was playing with the Jake Nielsen Trio. We went to Greaseland to record Jake’s album, and I met Kid, who really liked my playing. He started calling me to do some sessions. Then I met June Core, who is such a sweet person, and one of best blues drummers alive. About 2-3 weeks after that, my phone starts ringing, people calling me for gigs. When I asked how they got my number, the answer was always that June Core said they should call me. How cool is that!

“Then I started playing in Mark Hummel’s Blues University! In the Bay area, it seems like 90% of the blues musicians have spent time in Mark Hummel’s band. I was working with Mitch Woods, and was also in the Paula Harris band. Kid was playing with Rick and the guys, and I would sub with them here and there. When Jay Hansen left the band, Kid asked me about joining the band. My twins were born in 2012, and I really didn’t want to be on the road that much, so I turned it down. That is when Alex Pettersen took over on drums in the Nightcats.“

‘Then Alex had to go back to Norway. I was subbing for him on a gig, and I rode with Kid. The entire way there he was talking to me about joining the band. So I finally made the decision to be a Nightcat . They were already family by then. I have worked with a plenty of people, and dealt with a lot of personalities . They don’t come any better than Rick Estrin. He is a straight shooter, has a great sense for business, an amazing performer and songwriter. I am having a great time with those guys on and off the stage. When I first joined, June called to tell me that he thought I was a perfect fit for the band. He had actually played with Nightcats at one point.”

There is a lot of activity centered around Andersen and Greaseland Studios. The depth of musical talent in the Bay area provides plenty of options for each recording session.

“Greaseland has become it’s own musical family something that is not often seen these days, similar to what Stax or Motown Records were like. Kid is making a record every day. Depending on what the record is, it might be me on drums, or June on drums with me on percussion. The talent is 3-4 musicians deep on every instrument. There is no ego, it is just a matter of what is needed, musicians wanting to help each other. It is a great scene to be a part of. I used to live about ten minutes from the studio, so I would be there 3-4 days a week. A year ago I moved to Burbank, so now I fly up there several times a month.”

“I just finished writing for my college master class called “The Truth”. I will be implementing it next year through bookings at universities. It is a practical, real life, how-to on stuff we do as musicians. It covers topics like how do you prepare for a gig, how do you travel, all of the little, but necessary, things that will help students transition from the college level into the real world.

“For me as a drummer, the most important thing that has been given to us is the shuffle. I am literally spending my life trying to master it, because there are so many iterations of it that you never really master them all. I tell drummers all the time that the better you can play a shuffle, the better you will play everything else, whether it is swing or funk. It is the most beautiful thing to me, and I am always trying to pass it on to as many young drummers as I can. A lot of things are cool, but accessing the shuffle is paramount to rhythmic success.”

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