The Famous Jaguars in 1968 (Ricky Wellman in center, wearing floppy hat)E.U. vocalist Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot doesn’t mince words when asked to reflect on Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman, the former Chuck Brown drummer who died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 23. “He was the best drummer the city ever had,” Elliot says. “Not just go-go, all the way around. He played with Carlos Santana and Miles Davis. He was a pioneer.”
While playing with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Wellman helped establish the beat of the nation’s capital: go-go. Over his long musical career, he played with E.U., Chaka Khan, and numerous other big names. Wellman was 58 when he died on the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Ricky was born April 13, 1955 in Bethesda, Md., and grew up in D.C. and Prince George’s County. Frank Wellman, Ricky’s father, was the original drummer with The Soul Searchers in the late 1960s before he died at a young age in 1970. He taught Ricky how to play drums in their living room and set up a kit on his grandmother’s front porch, says Sugarfoot’s brother Darnell Wellman. A young Ricky contracted polio, says his cousin, trumpeter Steve “Too Tall” Coleman, who played alongside Wellman in E.U. and The Soul Searchers. But while his illness kept him from playing outdoors, he couldn’t stay away from the drums. “We all learned to play it, but none to the level of Ricky,” Coleman says.
By the time Ricky was 10, he was playing with the Chapel Oaks, Md., R&B group The Famous Jaguars (also called The Jaguars). In 1968, when he was 13, the group released an energetic instrumental dance number on the Cap City label called “Crazy Thing”; its B side was “Banana Fanna,” a shout-along tune inspired by “The Name Game.” Steve Coleman says “even as a child [Ricky] was mature beyond his years. Musically speaking he always had a professional air about him.” Ricky subsequently recorded a gospel album with singer Myrna Summers, played with groups including the New Breed and Storm, and backed Peaches & Herb for one year on weekends. Not bad for a guy not even yet 19.
After graduating from Suitland High School in 1973, Ricky attended the University of Maryland for three and a half years. In 1976 he went to see Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, and Chuck had him sit in with the band. During a break between sets, Coleman says, Ricky handed back the sticks to drummer Kenneth Scroggins. Ricky didn’t know it at the time, but Brown had asked Scroggins to step aside and let the young drummer play the next set, too. “Ricky finished the night with the band, and Chuck later put him in the group,” Coleman says.
In 1978 The Soul Searchers had a national hit with “Bustin’ Loose,” a foundational release for go-go music. The ensemble played the single on Soul Train and toured the country in support of it. Band members have described that signature tune as a group effort, but The Soul Searchers’ trumpet player and background vocalist Donald Tillery calls Ricky “the major part of that go-go beat.” He traces the sound back to a one-off experiment when the band had arrived late to its second gig of the night:
We got onstage as fast as we could but Chuck hadn’t arrived yet. The promoter said, “You got to do something.” So we set up and started with Grover Washington‘s “Mister Magic.” But instead of going straight into the tune, we started with a beat since the kids were coming in the door. We did a little funk thing, it wasn’t really go-go yet. The kids coming in started dancing to just the beat we were doing. Ricky was doing this double-kick on it that was not really part of “Mister Magic.” They thought it was a new song and not just a percussion thing. So we just kept playing this percussion thing. When Chuck finally got there he pulled his guitar out and started doing his scratchy rhythm thing like he does and he just started rapping to the beat. We then took that beat and went right into the Grover Washington tune. Every cover tune at the time that we played fit with that percussion beat.
Ricky’s technique “was extraordinary, especially his sticking,” writes Soul Searcher John JB Buchanan in an email. “His grasp of the funky 16-note triplet feel underneath the go-go beat made him a pioneer in funk which transcended into jazz and Latin music as well.”
Ricky continued playing with Chuck Brown until 1982. When Brown took a break from performing in part of 1982 and 1983, Ricky joined Coleman in E.U., playing live with the go-go band and recording on the Future Funk EP. Ricky “liked everything to be right, the timing, he was a no-nonsense guy,” Sugar Bear says. By 1984, Ricky was back with Brown, and they went on to release go-go standards “We Need Some Money” and “Go-Go Swing.” Tillery says Wellman earned his nickname Sugarfoot “because of his right foot—-it was so fast. He would do things with that bass drum—-double kicks and triples that drummers wouldn’t believe.” He says “there were always drummers from other bands there listening to find out what he was doing.”
In 1987 a D.C.-raised member of Miles Davis‘ road crew played Davis a tape with “Go-Go Swing” on it. Impressed by the drummer’s sound, Davis found Sugarfoot’s name and called him on the phone. “Rick’s wife answered and did not quite know who Miles Davis was, and told him Rick was sleeping and that Miles would have to call back,” Darnell Wellman says. (When she later told Ricky what she’d done, his response was, “You’re joking,” Wellman says.) But Davis’ management team contacted Ricky the next day. Ricky went on to tour with Davis and played on his 1989 album, Amandla, and Davis’ posthumously released concert album, 1996’s Live Around the World, among others. Davis died in 1991. Ricky Wellman was his last drummer.
Miles Davis‘ son Erin Davis was part of his dad’s summer road crew from 1987 to 1990, and a percussionist with him beginning in 1990. Ricky “was different from anyone else who was at those festivals and on those tours then who were mostly fusion or jazz,” Davis says. “He was as strong as any rock drummer but also slinky and funky with all his D.C. go-go chops. It was cool and different. It was refreshing.” Of the relationship between Miles Davis and Sugarfoot Wellman, Erin Davis says,
[My father] always had a real strong connection to all his drummers. Whoever was in that drum chair was always the anchor for what he was trying to do. He and Ricky had a very special relationship for a long time. They really worked well together and they really enjoyed playing with each other. He really loved Ricky. Ricky set up his drums differently than anyone else I knew at that time—-so big and massive. I remember they always told me [when I tried the drums] “You got to hit them harder, like he does.” It was work.
Ricky subsequently recorded with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, toured with Carlos Santana in 1997, and performed live with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and many others. In 1997, in order to spend more time with and better support his family, he began working in the IT field. In a Feb. 2013 ceremony, Ricky was inducted into Go-Go Radio’s Hall of Fame, where he was celebrated by a who’s-who of go-go musicians. “The thing that made Ricky such a phenomenal, gifted talent,” says Coleman, “was that once Ricky joined your band, the band got better.”
Ricky Wellman’s funeral takes place Wednesday, Dec. 4 at Jericho City of Praise Church, 8501 Jericho City Drive, Landover, Md. (301) 333-0500. A 9 a.m. viewing will be followed by an 11 a.m. homecoming service.
Top photo courtesy Kevin Coombe; second photo courtesy Steve Coleman