Drummer/percussionist/singer/songwriter/producer/educator Derrick “D’mar” Martin is the drummer for Rick Estrin and the Nightcaps, an electric blues band led by Rick Estrin, considered America’s Greatest Musical Showman; but when it comes to flash, drummer D’Mar is right up there with him.
While Gene Krupa is known to have played the piping and Lionel Hampton jumped up and tap-danced, show-stealing D’mar uses his former practices of gymnastics and martial arts when he performs. He shoots up into the air and lands back on his stool – not once, but more than a half a dozen times each show.
For his solo, he leaps over his drum kit onto the stage, plays his sticks on guitarist Kid Andersen’s guitar strings, bounds off the apron and moves around the house while drumming on every surface: pillars, tables, wine glasses, and beer bottles. Then he jumps back onstage and finishes at his kit. But D’mar is no Jumpin’ Jack Flash in the Pan. Prior to joining the Nightcaps, he was Little Richard’s lead drummer for 17 years. I caught up with the indefatigable D’mar by phone in San Jose where he lives with his family.
When were you first exposed to music?
Music was always around the house. At three or four years old, my Mom had Motown and jazz records. I was beating on pots and pans and at five, I had my first paper drum set which I went through pretty fast. Then my mother got me my first real miniature drum kit.
What made you choose the drums?
They chose me. I’ve always gravitated toward the rhythm and it seemed like a natural progression.
In ninth grade, what advice were you given?
My guidance counselor asked me what I loved to do and I lit up and said, music and drums. He told me to pursue my passion.” And I’m like, “Oh, you can do that?” He’s like, “Yeah, that’s how you choose a career.” From that point on I decided to do music for a living.”
Weren’t you a senior in high school when you got your first real drum kit?
When I was graduating my mother gave me a choice of a car or a drum set. It was a no-brainer. I chose the drum set, knowing I could work and make enough money to buy several cars.
In high school, you were in a marching band, concert band, and jazz band. You also joined your first band and played around town. What was that like?
Jackson, Mississippi is the home of some amazing musicians, Bobby Rush being one of the most prominent. But my first actual tour was with Dorothy Moore [blues singer known for “Misty Blue”]. Most of the musicians all had day jobs so they played gigs on the weekends. All I wanted to do was music. Vasti Jackson said “you have to wake up every morning and work harder for yourself harder than you would for somebody else. Just wake up and punch your own clock.”
What did you learn from Dorothy Moore?
How to be a drummer on a big stage and how to back up a vocalist and make her feel comfortable. But when we weren’t working with her, we were playing night clubs around town, the Chitlin Circuit. That was kind of the proving ground.
How did you figure out how you were going to work for yourself?
My whole idea was to not just play drums but be in the music industry as a writer, producer, and musician. It was about researching all the different ways to make money in the industry and how to get better doing that.
How did you get to audition for Little Richard?
Linda Jacobs was managing a band I was in and she knew Richard. She recommended me. I spent some time with him, got a chance to play, and he dug what I was doing and invited me into the band.
Were you expected to play Earl Palmer and Charles Connor’s original drum parts?
Not as first because there was another drummer, Monkey Womack, who’d been in the band for some time. I just learned the songs and we went for it. Somewhere along the way Richard said, “Let me hear you kick off, Keep A-Knockin, kid.” I said, “You want me to do it like Monkey or like Earl Palmer?” He said, “What do you know about Earl Palmer?” I go, “I know all the stuff Earl played on the record.” I played the exact Earl Palmer intro from Keep A-Knockin and he was like, “Oh, for that, you count that one off.”
You said it took you five years playing with Little Richard own the gig. Why?
Everybody in the band was telling me, “Hey, you should play it like this.” “No, you should play it like this.” I was trying to play initially what Monkey was doing and what I thought Richard wanted. About five years in I said, “Hey man, I’m just better at grooving this stuff.” I would play kind of backbeat stuff, kind of funky and Richard said, “Oh, I like that, man. That feels great.” I was kind of validated and felt more comfortable playing the music the way I felt it instead of trying to copy the exact thing that had been done before.
How did Little Richard inspire the band?
He wanted a band full of superstars, that’s what he always said. He never wanted anybody standing still. People asked him, “Hey man, you worry about your band showing you up?” He was like, “No, no, you’re not going to show me up. I can never be eclipsed by superstars because I’m a quasar.”
What did you learn from him?
I learned how to be a performer, how to take control of an audience, how to be a showman, how to entertain, how to think on your feet, and how to stay focused, because I had to always watch him and be able to adjust on a dime. I really learned the entertainment business. I also learned everything about the business from the stage to the boardroom.
And is that when you started jumping up and doing your amazing gymnastic, balletic, martial arts tricks?
No, that happened when I was in my band, Infinity around the same time I started with Dorothy Moore. We played these college frat parties. One night I hit the cymbal and jumped up and everybody said, “Yo, that was cool, man.” And I just kept doing it and it developed and turned into whatever it is now.
So now you’re with another showman. What’s it like playing with Rick?
It’s an extension of my education from Richard and so many others. It feels like where I’m supposed to be. Rick is a perfect fit. What people don’t know is Rick is so smart and has such a high intellect and understanding of the history of this music and the subtleties of entertainment. I learn stuff all the time from watching him: how he lays on the lyrics a certain way, how he tells his story and builds the song. I continue to learn.
Is it true that for 10 years you wrote a song a day and you’ve written over 3000 songs?
Yes, I had a band in Mississippi, “D’mar and the New Funk Society “and we did eight 80% of my original material.
How many solo albums do you have now?
Two full length albums and nine singles with two more coming out this month before I release these next two albums.
Do you still write or learn from 15 to 30 new songs a week?
Well, since this pandemic has kicked in, that’s slowed down. But I’ve still been pretty busy. This Sunday on facebook 4pm-6pm Pacific, I’ll be live with Angela Rossi’s Band and we’re doing a livestream with The Lucky Losers from the Saloon next week, so this week, I’m writing 15 charts.
Do you find that the pandemic is taking away some of your creativity?
The opposite. This is the first time in over 30 years that I haven’t had a gig to prepare for, so I record, read about Spotify algorithms and Instagram marketing and finish more material than I’ve had time to do before.
In these days of so many Covid-canceled performances, can you earn a living?
I’m an optimist. I’ve been mixing records, I record drums. I have my studio at home. People pay me to mix their records and put drum tracks on. And I’m working on editing my drum Workshop for schools for their Zoom classes and classrooms moving forward.
What’s the future of the music industry?
I definitely think the music industry as we know it is gone. It’s already next to impossible to make money because people are streaming. Diversification is most important. We have to have other things to sell: merchandising, performances, public speaking, something to give or teach, something that’s tangible and that they’ll value. Music is like water; people have to have it, but they don’t value it because they get it free. You can get all the music you want for free. As musicians, we have to diversify our thinking in terms of how we make money from it.
What does music mean to you?
Everything. Music to me is like life. We have to have it just like we need food to exist and water to survive. Music is that important.