D'Mar drumming at Iridium (Photo: Arnie Goodman)
Blues great Rick Estrin wasn’t kidding a few weeks ago when he told an interviewer that Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, the new drummer of his band Rick Estrin & the NIghtcats, had kicked the entire group way up in terms of entertainment value.
In fact, Estrin humbly turned away from the suggestion that he himself is the best entertainer on the music scene—even when Forbes last month affirmed it.
“The second-best entertainer, maybe,” Estrin said prior to the band’s triumphant Nov. 24 gig at New York’s Iridium club, happily handing the top honor to Martin. “He’s amazing. He was Little Richard’s drummer for 17 years [1995-2013] and does s**t I’ve never seen anybody do. He lifts everything up, and makes everyone step up their game.”
Who’s to argue? At Iridium, Martin somehow popped high into the air from his drum stool while playing—many times. Indefatigable, he even stood up at one point, and after banging away on the wall behind him (and guitarist Kid Andersen’s guitar strings) scampered down into the audience, drumming on anything—tables, chairs, pillars, pipes, railings, bottles, drinks—within reach of his sticks.
That he’s a show drummer par excellence only stands to reason, since his main gig before the Nightcats was with Little Richard.
“I first toured at 19, with [‘Misty Blue’ blues/R&B singer] Dorothy Moore when I was a freshman and sophomore in college, and [blues guitarist] Vasti Jackson--who worked with everybody--was a mentor,” says Martin. “I worked the Chitlin’ Circuit with a lot of blues bands--and [blues artist] Bobby Rush in the studio--and owned a production company and had the hip-hop group Wildliffe Society signed to TVT Records in 1995."
A native of Jackson, Miss., Martin was attending Jackson State University when the manager of the band he was in at the time learned that Little Richard was looking for a drummer.
“She said, ‘Call this number. Little Richard wants to talk to you,’ and I called it, expecting some business associate to answer,” says Martin, who does a dead-on Little Richard imitation. “But he answered and said, ‘This is me, baby! Have you heard my music? Go to a record store and buy Specialty Records’ Little Richard’s Greatest Hits! Can you play that stuff?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ and he called me back the next day and said he was sending me a ticket to fly to L.A. and audition.”
A music major, Martin went to his professor the next day.
“They always say, ‘Don’t leave college for gigs, but finish your degree.’ I told him that this guy, Little Richard, ‘Tutti Frutti’…—and they called a meeting of all the professors and advisers and they all said the same thing: ‘You cannot miss this opportunity!’ I said, ‘I thought you guys said, “Don’t leave!,”’ and they said, ‘That’s for local blues s**t, but this you have to do!’”
So Martin flew out to Los Angeles a few days later to meet Little Richard.
“He was checking me out, and letting me see how great he is,” Martin continues. “We talked about my mom and my family, and after a week we went to a studio--but in Little Richard style, we got there too late since we spent too much time at a restaurant talking. So we went to a club in South Central L.A. owned by [guitarist] Roy Gaines, brother of Grady Gaines, who played sax and led Richard’s backup band The Upsetters in the 1950s. It was the quintessential honky-tonk juke joint, with a beat-up piano and a drum set that was barely standing. Roy played guitar and they started telling stories and played music in-between.”
Martin didn’t realize it, but this was his audition for Little Richard’s band.
“All we played was blues, and we were joking and having a ball and I was totally uninhibited. After three hours, Richard said, ‘Man, you sound great! We open for the Temptations in El Cerrito next week. Welcome to the band!’ and I go, ‘What? We didn’t play any of your music!’ And he said, ‘Oh, man. You got a good backbeat, you’re respectful, and you love your mom. Nobody comes to me knowing how to play this music. I created it! I have to teach whomever, anyway. I just need to know you’re teachable’--and I got the gig.”
But it took him the first five years on the job before he felt he “owned” it.
“The band he had was playing the music—but they were playing it wrong,” says Martin, who had joined the band as its second drummer. “They were playing a watered down version of his hits. I’d studied [legendary New Orleans drummer] Earl Palmer on the original records and knew all the actual parts, but I was still the new guy, and there was a little drama one day between the band and Richard, and I was playing along during soundcheck and asked him if I should play like our [other] drummer or like Earl Palmer. He said, ‘What do you know about Earl Palmer? Okay, play like Earl.’”
Martin did indeed play it like Palmer, and was granted permission by Richard to start that particular song. Then, before his first year in the band had ended, a fateful gig took place in London—the only time Little Richard did a show with fellow rock ‘n’ roll founding fathers, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“It was the first time I got a passport, and right before we were ready to go our first drummer made some ridiculous money demand—and was gone! Keep in mind that I never had any rehearsals—just show up and learn on the fly. So I was used to Richard starting the song--and sometimes there would be no count-off from the drummer before a song and nothing would happen. So I got as much information as I could from everybody in the band—and they all had different points-of-view! We got to London for the big gig and I was beating my sticks on the pillow in the hotel room for three hours, going through all the songs and asking questions and we played the gig and it came out great: All the press talked about Richard’s new drummer, and afterwards he told me, ‘You bailed me out of a spot that could have been bad, and you can be there as long as you want.’”
But it still took five years “to try to own the gig--and then came the next phase of learning the music and the whole psychology of it.”
Martin admits that “for a long time I didn’t really know what I was doing—and I didn’t want to mess it up: He had two bass players, two guitars, horns, a B-3 [organ] player—a lot of musicians, and it was so loud! I’d played in big bands before, but to drive that band—the first couple years my forearms were cramped! I realized I can’t hit hard enough to battle this massive sound during 75-to-90-minute shows where he might do just one ballad.”
But Martin had been a gymnast and studied Taekwondo.
“I remembered what was applicable from my training: breathing, fluidity, relaxing. I realized I was all tensed up and trying too hard, and centered myself so that the longer I played, the stronger I should get, and by the end of the show not be tired but energized—and always projecting to the person at the back of the room, even if there were 30,000 people.”
As Little Richard is now 87--today, actually--Martin notes that he was in his late sixties at the time.
“He was still energetic, but some nights not as up as others, and it was my responsibility to push it,” he recalls. “And while we played the same tunes every night, it was never the same way. So it was all part of me learning—and psychology, because that’s what this is: learning his cues and body language, and when he was tired—and always keeping eye contact with him so that if he dropped a beat I’d go with him, and the band would have to go with me. I learned so much from that gig.”
At this point in his tenure, Little Richard “was like my relative. He was a gamer, with a superstar ego--very controlling and intimidating, and it took me a while to understand that. He messes with you, but it happens to everybody: I grew to understand that I had to have the thickest skin, and after about eight years with him—and being with him all the time and being best friends with his son Danny—he was taking me to business meetings and letting me sit against the wall, and I realized he was teaching me.”
He finally told Martin, “You think I’m picking on you, but I’m only doing it because I know you can take it. You remind me of myself.”
And of course there were Little Richard’s stories.
“Looking back, it was the greatest frickin’ education on so many levels,” says Martin. “I’m a music major, and he knew I was a big jazz fan and said, ‘Oh, man! I knew Charlie Parker!’ And he talked about Ike Turner and giving Tina voice lessons! James Brown told me how Richard got him out of jail! This went on and on, with artists from different styles of music who stayed at the same places and played the same stages during segregation.”
Martin makes a point of phoning Little Richard, now wheelchair bound and living in Nashville, every couple weeks.
“The last couple gigs we had to pre-seat him at the piano in his wheelchair, and he was in a lot of pain. He never said he retired, but I saw a picture of him in public a few years ago with his wig and makeup off, and I knew it was over.”
Martin now resides in San Jose, within easy reach of Bay Area-based Estrin.
“I first met [Nightcats guitarist] Kid Andersen and got recruited to play in a blues trio recording at his studio,” says Martin. “He liked my playing and introduced me to all the Bay Area cats, and I played on various records and gigs. When the Nightcats’ drummer left, Kid asked if I’d take over, but they were doing a lot of touring then and in 2012 I had twin boys and really wasn’t up to it. But I subbed now and then and got to know Rick. I’d see him around and we’d talk music—and we both loved comedians. When [their most recent drummer] Alexander Pettersen left, the boys were about to be seven, and Kid sold me on it during a three-hour ride home from a big radio gig I did with them earlier this year in Northern California.”
Martin appears on much of Estrin & The Nightcats’ acclaimed new album Contemporary, and has been with them full-time since August.
“Everybody who knows the band knows it’s a perfect fit,” he says. “We all have very similar personalities on and off stage, and have a great time being together and hanging out. Rick tells me, ‘You bring everything up,’ but no, man, I’m enjoying it. Rick, Kid and Lorenzo [keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell] are stellar musicians who can play everything, and they all have such a keen music wit as well: Somebody’s always quoting something [musically] and throwing it back, and there’s always a musical conversation going on. We all love to play and we go 100 percent every time—and you really feel like you’re part of a team and everybody’s contributing.”
And those gravity-defying leaps?
“I’ve been doing that since before Richard!” says Martin. “But there’s a whole lineage of performance drummers: There are videos of Gene Krupa playing the piping, Lionel Hampton jumping up and tap-dancing on his floor tom, Papa Joe Jones doing all kinds of things. I had all the gymnastics and martial arts and ballet training, and you just use whatever you have.”