Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman may be most widely known as jazz master Miles Davis’s last touring drummer, but perhaps more important is his role in the genesis of go-go music, a marathon funk style indigenous to the Washington, D.C., area. Wellman passed away at his home in Newport News, Virginia, this past November 23, from pancreatic cancer. He was fifty-seven.
Ricardo Dalvert Wellman was born on April 13, 1955, in Bethesda, Maryland, and grew up in D.C. and Prince George’s County. His father, Frank, was the original drummer in the Soul Searchers from the late ’60s until his premature death in 1970, and taught his son to play drums very early. Ricky contracted polio as a youngster, which kept him from playing outside, but he was never far from the drums.
By age thirteen, Wellman had a regional hit with the Maryland R&B group the Jaguars, “Crazy Thing”/“Banana Fanna.” Before he graduated from high school, he had recorded with gospel singer Myrna Summers and toured with Peaches & Herb. In 1976 Wellman landed the gig with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers after sitting in for the end of a set (and eventually the rest of the night). In 1978 the band had a national hit with “Bustin’ Loose,” but the classic go-go sound may have been the result of the players vamping on stage over a feel similar to Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic” while waiting for a late Chuck Brown to arrive at the gig. Brown showed up and scratched out some rhythm guitar, rapping over the beat, and the band continued to play the rhythm under every cover tune.
Wellman worked in the D.C. area into the ’80s, recording and playing with Experience Unlimited (E.U.) and releasing go-go standards with Brown. In 1987 a D.C.-raised member of Miles Davis’s stage crew played Davis a tape with Wellman on it. Davis tracked down Wellman, who ended up touring with the trumpeter until 1991 and appeared on albums including Amandla, Dingo, and the posthumously released Live Around the World.
After Miles’ passing, Wellman recorded with fellow Davis alum Kenny Garrett (Prisoner of Love, Black Hope) and toured with Santana, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. In February 2013 he was inducted into Go-Go Radio’s Hall of Fame. “The thing that made Ricky such a phenomenal, gifted talent,” Wellman’s cousin and Soul Searchers/E.U. trumpeter Steve “Too Tall” Coleman said in an interview with Washington City Paper, “was that once Ricky joined your band, the band got better.”