Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman, the funk drummer who helped innovate the rhythms of go-go music with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers and later toured with trumpeter Miles Davis and guitarist Carlos Santana, died Nov. 23 at his home in Newport News, Va. He was 57.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said a cousin, Steve Coleman.
Mr. Wellman, a musical prodigy whose father was Brown’s original drummer in the 1960s, joined the Soul Searchers in 1976 and appeared on three of the singer’s most popular recordings: “Bustin’ Loose” (1978), “We Need Some Money” (1984) and “Go-Go Swing” (1986).
He later toured with Davis and performed on his 1989 album, “Amandla,” and Davis’s posthumously released concert album, “Live Around the World” (1996). Davis died in 1991.
When Mr. Wellman joined the Soul Searchers, Brown was still working out his idea of using nonstop percussion to link songs together to keep the crowd on the dance floor. The marathon dances were held at “go-go” halls in the District and neighboring Prince George’s County.
Brown, a family friend, invited Mr. Wellman to sit in for a song at a Prince George’s go-go hall. Mr. Wellman wound up staying on the bandstand for an entire set.
“Ricky sat in on a tune and I told him to play this particular beat, and he played it like no other,” Brown told writer George Cole in the book “The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991.” “It was like an old church beat I heard when I was a kid. Grover Washington Jr. had a similar feel on the tune ‘Mr. Magic.’ ”
In 1987, Mr. Wellman left Brown’s band to join Davis’s road band. The job offer came as a surprise. It was an era when go-go bands sold “p.a. tapes” — cassettes recorded directly off the sound board — to their fans at gigs. A member of Davis’s road crew, a Washingtonian, played a Soul Searchers p.a. tape, and Davis inquired about the drummer.
Davis called the Wellman residence late that night — after Mr. Wellman was asleep. His wife answered the phone and, not know knowing who Davis was, told the trumpeter to call the next day.
She later told her husband that someone named Miles Davis had called. Mr. Wellman initially thought some of his bandmates were playing a practical joke.
However, he auditioned in New York after further inquiries from Davis’s management team. “I knew who Miles was, but I hadn’t followed his music that closely,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “When we talked, I expressed to him that I was no jazz drummer. He mentioned my tape and said, ‘You can play this kind of music, can’t you?’ So I learned it.”
Mr. Wellman recalled that Davis would hum nursery rhymes as a way of illustrating rhythms in his music.
“He loved musicians to improvise on the spot, to change the music to various peaks of excitement,” he told Cole. “He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you listened.”
After Davis’s death, Mr. Wellman did studio work and toured with Santana in 1997.
Ricardo Dalvert Wellman was born April 11, 1956, in Bethesda and grew up in Washington and Prince George’s. As a youngster, he wore braces on his legs from polio. At 13, he joined The Jaguars, a youth funk band from Prince George’s, and recorded a 45 rpm single, “Crazy Thing.”
He graduated from Suitland High School and attended the University of Maryland before becoming a full-time musician.
His first marriage, to Victoria Burton, ended in divorce.
Survivors included his wife of two years, Rita Logan of Newport News; his mother, Bettyann Bullard Wellman of Hyattsville; two daughters from his first marriage, Savada Wellman of Windsor Mill, Md., and Rakeeda Wellman of White Marsh, Md.; two stepchildren; a sister, Bonnie Wellman of Elkridge, Md.; three brothers, Mark Hill of Bowie, Darnell Wellman of Elkridge and Don Wellman of Fayetteville, Ga.; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Wellman had fond memories of the pandemonium he and Brown created at go-go shows.
“He nicknamed me ‘Ricky Tricky Sugarfoot Wellman’ because whenever I took drum solos, there was a point where I used one foot pedal to do a roll which sounded like a horse galloping, and I used my snare drum to accent the rhythm,” Mr. Wellman recalled.
“The crowd chanted ‘Go, Sugarfoot! Go, Sugarfoot!’ and Chuck would stick his microphone in my bass drum and create a monstrous sound that came out from the speakers.
“Everyone could really feel the rumble in their chest.”