Quentin "Footz" Davidson had a way with those drums of his. On some nights, when the groove was just right, he didn't play the drums so much as exorcise them, expelling from the instrument every ounce of energy, rhythm and joy, like spirits waiting to break free.
Footz was blessed like that, according to those who heard him play, and for the better part of 18 years, the gifted drummer and his band were a cornerstone of the go-go sound that caught hold of Washington, D.C., in the '70s and never relinquished its grip.
If Chuck Brown is the godfather of go-go who bore the District's frenzied, folksy, funky brand of homegrown music, then Davidson and his band, Rare Essence, are the midwives who helped deliver the sound to a young and hungry audience.
"Consistently, Rare Essence has been the hottest go-go band around over the last 15 years, and Footz is the best drummer who ever played in a go-go band," said Joe Clark, a local concert promoter who first heard the group play in the early '80s.
"That boy could beat the hell out of them drums. He was almost like Jimi Hendrix," Clark said.
The comparison to the legendary guitarist, who died tragically at the crest of a spectacular career, contains a sad irony. Davidson will be buried today on a quiet hill in Southern Maryland, one week after the 33-year-old father of six was fatally shot in the back of the head, at close range.
A motorist spotted the drummer's body lying on a stretch of highway in northern Prince George's County at just about the same time Rare Essence was scheduled to perform last Saturday evening.
County police say his murder is a puzzle. His girlfriend said she last saw him alive while the two were shopping at a mall in Oxon Hill, about three hours before his body was discovered. Police investigating his death found the van he drove to the mall parked outside the shopping center.
His wallet was missing when he was found. He has no criminal record in Prince George's, court records show, and there is no evidence to suggest that drugs played a role in the slaying. Police, although unsure what the motive was, do not believe the attack was random.
Police said Davidson's death may be connected to a bizarre robbery attempt the musician reported in June. The drummer told county police he was approached by three men shortly before 3 a.m. in the driveway of his Clinton home. The men, according to Davidson, forced him into a van at gunpoint, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and demanded that he turn over the band's earnings from a concert. In a statement to police, Davidson said that he repeatedly told his abductors he didn't have the money and that he was subsequently released unharmed. That case also remains unsolved.
Davidson's death leaves the cosmos of go-go music without one of its brightest and most enduring stars, and his wide circle of friends and family without the quiet, hard-working presence who always spoke his mind, always got the job done.
"He was like Art Monk," Donnell Floyd, a rapper in the band and Davidson's best friend, said, referring to the former Redskins star. "Whatever it took, he was willing to do."
Davidson picked up his first pair of drumsticks when he was 8 years old, said his mother, Annie Mack Thomas, who spotted a $100 drum set in a catalogue and bought it as a Christmas present for her son.
"It was as if heaven had come to him," Thomas recalled.
The basement of Thomas's home in Southeast Washington grew increasingly crowded with Davidson's friends and classmates from St. Thomas More Catholic Church, who gathered there after school to rehearse. In the early '70s, Davidson and his teenage friends formed a group called the Young Dynamos, Thomas said.
The group played at block parties and neighborhood recreation centers -- typically for free -- at the same time Chuck Brown was introducing a new brand of music, a thumping, juiced up, nonstop party groove that became all the rage with black youths in the District and its suburbs.
Early in 1976, Thomas said, she brought home samples of a new perfume. The perfume was called Essence Rare, Thomas said, and it caught the eye of her teenage son, who had already earned the nickname "Footz" for his energetic drum playing. "Hey ma," she remembers her son blurting out one day, "that's the name for the band."
"Back then they could do three shows a night, and all of them would sell out," recalled Clark, the concert promoter who first heard the group in 1982. "The kids really got into them."
Band members came and went, though Davidson was one of a core of six musicians who have been with Rare Essence for most of the last decade, said Floyd, who joined the group in 1983.
The band performed frequently and continued to produce records, dozens of them, including one entitled, "So What You Want?" released earlier this year.
"Chuck Brown was the hottest thing out there, but Rare Essence was right up there," said Sam Chamberlain, owner of a record store on Georgia Avenue in the District. "They really kept our cash registers ringing."
When other popular local groups began to veer away from the go-go sound to sell to a wider, national audience, Rare Essence refused to budge. Local bands such as Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited began to break national ground by drastically changing and even abandoning altogether go-go's unrelenting, percussive sound.
But Davidson would have none of it, Floyd said. Rare Essence never struck it rich, he said, but the band provided Davidson with the means to take care of all that was important in his world.
Throughout his adult life, Davidson went through a succession of failed relationships that produced six children, whose ages range from 1 month to 13 years. All but the youngest of the children lived with Davidson and his mother in a red brick, split-level house on a leafy cul-de-sac in Clinton that the drummer purchased in 1990 for $236,000, according to county records.
Davidson was devoted to his children, Floyd said, and spent most of his days with them, often taking them bowling, and to amusement parks and beaches in summer. He typically put them to bed before leaving for concert engagements, said his mother.
The drummer, who worked as a computer technician in the band's early years, also was able to dabble in several small businesses in recent years, including a video arcade he owned in Northwest Washington, Floyd said. And the band that once struggled to take home $100 from an all-night concert now rakes in between $2,500 and $7,000 per concert, Davidson told police when he reported his kidnapping, though his mother said that figure is inflated.
At St. Thomas More, the church in Washington Highlands where Davidson's body was viewed by mourners last night, a church official said workers had been besieged with dozens of calls from fans.
Carmelita Walker, the church's office manager, said she was concerned that the church sanctuary, which has a crowd capacity of about 450 people, might be too small for the number who would gather to pay their respects and attend this morning's funeral. "We've never had someone of this magnitude before," she said.
Yesterday evening, scores of cars lined the streets around the church. Nearly 100 people, mostly young, huddled in the church parking lot waiting to pay last respects.
"I grew up on that brother's music," said one young man, who gave his name only as Greg. "He was the man."
Daniel Clayton, a longtime music entrepreneur who owns Deno's, a nightclub in Northeast Washington formerly known as Breeze's Metro Club, described Davidson as one of the two best drummers the District has produced and said he had inspired a generation of young drummers.
"He didn't give in to the pressures to go in the direction of the reggae sound or straight R & B," Clayton said.
"People should be glad there was a Footz and there was a Rare Essence, who ... gave so many kids something positive to do with all their energy," Clayton said.