On Tuesday night, February 19, GoGoradio.com’s Heartbeat’s Conga Hour show paid tribute to a living legend, drummer extraordinaire, Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman. Wellman, who has been credited with contributing vitally to the original GoGo pocket, the percussive beat so prevalent in Washington, D.C.’s traditional Go-Go music, has also gone on to play with a list of Who’s Who in the music industry including Miles Davis, Carlos Santana and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.
Wellman’s father, Frank Wellman, along with Lloyd Pinchback, John Euell and Brown made up the original Soul Searchers. According to Chuck Brown in a 2011 interview, “Ricky joined in 1976 and started playing the beat that I was trying to put together.”
In the tightly packed top floor of Rose’s Déjà vu on H Street NE, overflowing with family, friends, associates and fans, Wellman was showered with love and admiration from people that he played with long ago in groups like the Soul Searchers to those that studied his craft to elevate their own careers learning from the master himself.
Hosea “Heartbeat” Williams, host of Heartbeat’s Conga Hour, was simply amazed at the turn out of luminaries. “This is the way to do it. You honor someone while they are here to enjoy it. This is history here”
Wellman is currently undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Robert “Mousey” Thompson, drummer for the late James Brown, depicts, “Ricky came first! I was a vocalist for a local group impersonating James Brown. I used to go to the Panorama Room because I lived in Southeast and I would be right up front watching Rick with the Jaguars even before Chuck Brown and New Breed. In my group, the drummer couldn’t give me what I needed to be in the music so I got behind the kit. God gave me Rick as one of my lessons. I got behind the kit and have played with Wilson Pickett, Peaches and Herb, Lloyd Price and the last 15 years of James Brown. I even worked with Chuck (Brown) for a little while. Chuck said, ‘I don’t want all those rolls, just give me the biscuits!’ Rick is the man. He’s left a presence with what’s going on in Go-Go. He’s the seed.”
John “JB” Buchanan, who played alongside Wellman in the Soul Searchers adds, “His background in jazz and improvisation strongly influenced where that innovation came from!”
In a very sentimental moment, Kenny “Kwick” Gross, the last drummer to play with Brown spoke to the crowd and to Wellman sharing, “Tonight is the first night that I have ever shaken Ricky Wellman’s hand. I felt the power, love and he really is a drummer because he grips your hand. You set the foundation for a lot of us. I am taking care of my family because of the foundation that you set. Chuck took me to Japan, but you got me to Japan.”
Wellman himself was touched by the event explaining, “I am still in awe. The love and outpouring of support was unexpected, unbeknownst to me. I am speechless. I’ve always carried myself humbly and I’m most gracious for Heartbeat to initiate this and to want to do this for me.”
“The love and support of so many associates, drummers and conga players, there was history in that room. There were decades of drummers in that room who played behind Chuck (Brown). JuJu is very special to me. Kwick and I just met and he is going to be a hell of a drummer to come out of Washington, D.C. Him and Buggy (Paul Edwards). I’m familiar with Buggy. This will keep Go-Go in circulation. I have to pinch myself to still believe it,” he continues.
Mike “Go-Go Mike” “Hardstep” Taylor, trombonist, relays an incident to Wellman, “In 1981, I was fresh out of high school. I had been playing with E.U. for about 3 or 4 months. We were playing at the Moonlight Inn and our regular drummer wasn’t there. I was like ‘Who is this pretty red guy behind the drums?’ I really tried not to like you because you weren’t our regular drummer, but you started playing ‘Drummer’s Beat’ and I started dancing and since that day, Bear called me ‘GoGo Mike’, so you inspired my name. I love you.”
Gregory “Sugarbear” Elliott, front man of Experience Unlimited also describes of Wellman, “I’ve had some powerhouse drummers, but when I saw him with Chuck... I gave Rick freedom to play what he wanted to play and that made me better. He taught me about discipline. There’s only one Sugarfoot Ricky.”
“Chuck kept Rick in a pocket and they fought and fought. Rick taught me to tune my congas to his two toms so the sound could be unified. You inspired me and there’s no one in this room you haven’t touched. I usually don’t go out but this is special to honor someone who’s contributed so much just to wish him well. I like this”, clarifies Roland Smith, who played with Wellman in Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.
“This tribute to you means the world to a lot of people in this area. You have truly been a blessing to a lot of us,” tells Donald “Doc” Spencer, drummer with Ayre Rayde.
Kiggo Wellman, another drummer from the Wellman dynasty relates, “I’d like to thank my cousin for the business factors he gave me when I started playing professionally. He said, ‘Don’t get star struck and get your money. They can’t play without the drummer.’ It took me a long way because I always get my money.”
William “JuJu” House, a drummer that Wellman himself admires greatly, surprised him during the event. He stated, “We were in the dungeons and wars together for so many years. I owe my whole career to this man right here. The Madonna, the Grace Jones, David Sanborn- all of it.”
Rick Wellman recorded his first 45 record when he was 11 years old called "Crazy Things and Banana Fana" and the record received a tremendous amount of air play. He recorded his first Gospel album, “Save Thyself”, at the age of 14 with DC's own gospel singer Myrna Summers. And, on weekends while in high school, Wellman was playing with Peaches and Herb.
During Wellman’s illustrious career, he has played with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, Chaka Khan, Paolo Rustichelli, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Experience Unlimited, Slug-go, Bits n Pieces, Little Benny and the Masters, Frank Hooker and the Positive People, Trouble Funk, the New Breed, Dynamic Corvettes, the Headliners, the Pharoahs Band and in 1994, Wellman auditioned with Steve Perry and Journey.
Wellman reiterates, “Go out and spread your wings. There are different genres. The more you take advantage, the more will come your way."
The Heartbeat Conga Hour can be heard every Tuesday night from 6pm to 10pm by logging onto gogoradio.com.