Part 1: An inteview with percussion arranger Dennis DeLucia

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 2).

Throughout more than 35 years in the activity, I’ve had the opportunity and good fortune to meet and become friends with many of the “celebrities” of drum corps. As a member of Bridgemen’s horn line, I had no real interaction with our percussion arranger and believe his only interest in me that year (1979) was that I perform to the best of my ability (like everyone else) and whether or not I was really 21 and was marching legally.

Over the years, we’ve always managed to catch up during brief conversations at contests around the country and several events involving the Bridgemen and our many alumni.

Dennis DeLucia has produced some of the most memorable drum lines and, for the current generation of drum corps marching members, he’s become part of the broadcast team of Drum Corps International’s Cinemacast of quarterfinals and ESPN2 telecast of finals.

Thankfully, we’ve both found some time to discuss his past, the present and the future of the activity.

Harry Heidelmark: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

Dennis DeLucia: Way too many people to mention here, but I’ll start with my late parents, Frank and Kay, who were positive and supportive of my early “noise-making”! My brother Mike has always been helpful, too.

In school, having grown up in Bergenfield, NJ, the late Dr. Bernard Baggs was Director of Music in the district — how lucky was I.

Al Mura, of Caballeros/Holy Name Cadets fame, taught me to play in sixth grade. Then the creatively brilliant Don Angelica was hired by Dr. Baggs in my junior year to be the band director.

The legendary Bobby Thompson was brought in to teach the high school drummers — so I am eternally grateful to all of these folks for getting me started and inspiring me to follow my bliss.

Later on, the great jazz drummers of the 1950s and 1960s became my idols. My wife, Rene, has always been supportive and understanding — she has to be, since she marched in the Saints, Garfield and Bridgemen!

HH: Who are your favorite musicians?

DD: I’d like to answer this in categories.

• Drumset artists: Tommy Igoe is the most complete drummer I’ve ever heard and the fact that he was in the Bridgemen makes my statement even more significant to me.

Historically, I’ve really liked Joe Morello, Gene Krupa, Vernell Fournier with Ahmad Jamal, Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Carter Beauford with Dave Matthews, Ed Thigpen, Ed Shaughnessy, Vinnie Coliuta and Pat Petrillo.

• Jazz musicians: Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Dave Samuels, Paul Desmond and Cannonball Adderly.

• Classical percussionists: Leigh Howard Stevens, Evelyn Glennie, Nick Petrella and Julie Davila, who is also a fabulous writer and teacher in the “marching” arena.

• Composers: Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

• Arrangers that I’ve written music with: Larry Kerchner, Jim Prime, Matt Krempasky, Frank Dorritie and Joe Mundi, who was the brilliant arranger for Piscataway HS and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

• Vocalists: Bobby McFerrin, Patti LaBelle, Joni Mitchell, Al Jarreau, New York Voices, Dave Matthews and the Beatles.

• Drum corps percussion arrangers: Fred Sanford, Ralph Hardimon, Jim Casella, Scott Johnson, Bret Kuhn, Mike McIntosh, Tom Aungst, Erik Johnson, Mark Thurston, Rich Viano, Charley Poole, Paul and Sandi Rennick.

• Every person who ever marched in any of my corps and believed in what I was writing and teaching. They are the REAL stars! Plus, of course, all of the talented staff people with whom I’ve taught since 1968.

HH: Have you had the opportunity to meet any of these musicians?

DD: Yes, most of them.

HH: When did you first get involved with the drum corps activity?

DD: As a spectator in 1957. As a performer, in 1959 with the Dumont Police Cadets, my one and only year as a marcher. As an instructor, 1968, and as an arranger, 1969.

HH: Do you know of any members of Dumont Police Cadets who are still active in drum corps?

DD: Well, the corps moved around a bit. They started in Bergenfield, NJ, in the early to mid-1950s as The Ravens. In fact, they practiced right next to the apartment house that I grew up in. They moved to the next town in 1957 or 1958 and became the Dumont Police Cadets. I joined in the fall of 1958 and marched in 1959.

They then moved to Fair Lawn, NJ, in the early-1960s, merged with the St. Ann Cadets and became the Fair Lawn Cadets. In a four- or five-year period, the corps produced Bobby Hoffman, Carl Ruocco, Jim Russo, Bruce Lages and Clarke Williams, to name a few.

HH: Can you give us a list of the drum corps and marching bands you’ve either written charts for or taught?

DD: You’re testing my memory, now, Harry. Let’s see, junior corps were the Poughkeepsie Pacers [1968-1969], Hawthorne Muchachos [1970-1975], Bridgemen [1976-1984], Star of Indiana [1985-1989], Crossmen [program coordinator from 1990-1993], Long Island Kingsmen, Fantasia III, Kip’s Bay and the Velvet Knights [1990]. Senior corps were the Sunrisers [1976-1983] and Caballeros [1984-1995]. Bands include Piscataway HS, Roxbury HS, Bunnell HS and Rutgers University.

HH: Who gave you your first opportunity to write a percussion book?

DD: I graduated from Upsala College in 1966 with a degree in Economics and immediately got drafted into the Army during the peak of the Viet Nam buildup. My mentors told me about the prestigious West Point Band, which was only an hour’s drive from Bergenfield, and which required an audition for a specific spot. I was accepted, and served in the band at West Point until I was discharged in October 1969.

During my time there, I started teaching and writing for the Pacers with my good friend Bob Devlin. When I left the Army, Don Angelica convinced the Muchachos to hire me as their arranger/caption head.

HH: You and Larry Kerchner have enjoyed a long history of producing highly entertaining shows with several different organizations. In my recent interview with Larry, I asked him if there had been times when the two of you really disagreed on something and needed a third party, such as Bobby Hoffman, to help resolve the issue.

He said laughingly, “I’m laughing because it was usually Bobby and I who went off into outer space and . . . it was Dennis who would bring us back to Earth.”

Can you remember any examples and what can you share with us about the chemistry you, Larry and Bobby shared?

DD: The chemistry was unbelievable! Bobby’s open-mindedness and free-spirited approach to life, as well as drum corps, gave Larry and me the license to think realistically and creatively about anything. No idea was ever off the table. We didn’t always agree on music selections, or staging, or volume levels, etc., but we had a great time in that era and always resolved our differences.

I guess Larry’s right about me being “the voice of reason.” But some of the wildest ideas actually came from guys on our visual or guard staff like Mike Mercadante and Tom Pratt.

Talk about OUT THERE! And once the identity and niche of the corps was firmly entrenched, the kids chimed in with some great ideas of their own. I can’t discuss any of the crazy ideas here in a family publication, but what we left on the cutting room floor was pretty outrageous.

HH: Please share with us what it felt like in Philadelphia’s Franklin Field the first time Bridgemen “fainted” at the end of their show in 1976.

DD: At the end of a brutally hot and humid rehearsal in June 1976, Bobby was not happy with the run-through and told the corps he wanted to see another one. On their way back to the opening set [starting line], the kids spread the word among themselves to “faint” at the end. They did and the staff roared.

It was never discussed again until the morning of finals, when Bobby asked me if I remembered the gag. I said “of course.” He said, “how about we do it tonight?” I laughed at the thought and quickly agreed.

We rehearsed it exactly twice, swore the corps to secrecy and went to the stadium.

Remember –the 1975 Bridgemen did not even go to DCI, even though championships were in Philadelphia, only 90 miles from Bayonne. So to have made finals one year after that low point was the ultimate reward for the corps, staff and management.

We didn’t know what to expect from the crowd, but the reaction to the “faux faint” was off the charts! I still have Len Carey’s GE tape from finals, where he can’t talk. He just keeps screaming “OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGEOUS!”

That was a time in which General Effect judges were not only allowed to react, but were actually encouraged to react. The corps placed sixth in finals, up from eighth in prelims. I’m sure that the two-place jump was a direct result of the love affair that took place that night in Philadelphia and the faint certainly helped.

HH: Needless to say, Bridgemen’s disqualification the following year during DCI Finals 1977 in Denver was extremely disappointing, but do you believe it hindered the corps’ success in the years following?

DD: I was teaching the Muchachos in 1975 when they were caught with an overage member at prelims and were disqualified. That was the direct result of the director falsifying documents — perhaps he should have been banished and not the corps. The members were devastated and the corps limped through two more seasons and then folded. The personal, life-changing tragedies that followed were excrutiating and terribly sad.

The Bridgemen situation was, and is, puzzling. The age rule at that time said, “only those under the age of 22 shall be eligible to compete.” The entire Eastern block [UOEC] interpreted it to mean that, if a member’s birthday was on August 1, he/she was eligible to march through July 31. Remember, this was only the fifth year of DCI’s existence and the regional groups were much more autonomous than they are today.

The corps had two members who had been with the organization for 10 years and who begged to be allowed to march until their late-July birthdays. Bobby agreed. We took their replacements on tour and put them in the show at the appropriate time. The official DCI interpretation was that if you turned 22 during the season, you were ineligible for the entire season.

The corps was notified of DCI’s decision when we arrived in Boulder. The judges held a meeting at which they considered boycotting championships in support of the Bridgemen, but ultimately decided [rightly] to serve all the kids and organizations that were there to compete. We took DCI to court and won. That’s why the corps was allowed to perform in both prelims and finals.

The corps had six good years after the 1977 fiasco, so I’m not sure what impact, if any, the attempted disqualification really had. But I’d never want to live through another one.

By the way, the age rule has not always been applied uniformly, because a champion was crowned in the late 1980s that was caught with two overage members at prelims and was simply told to remove them before finals.

HH: Bridgemen’s 1979 season was much like a rollercoaster ride. At DCI East in Allentown, PA, we placed fifth, barely breaking 80.0, and I can remember corps members lamenting that we weren’t going to make finals in Birmingham, not much more than a week away.

Then we traveled overnight to Cary, NC, our first competition south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After just the first three notes of Dixie to open the second half of our show — “Civil War Suite” — the crowd’s standing ovation during the second half of our program seemed to validate what Bobby, Ken Turner and you designed.

Our score improved five points overnight without a single change in the program and our goal of getting on TV in Birmingham seemed possible. I know it’s a night I will never forget, how about you?

DD: The corps had very little “big-time” talent in 1979. Bobby wanted to do the “Civil War Suite” since finals were in Birmingham. Halfway through the season, it looked like we weren’t going to be in finals. The staff had resigned ourselves to that fact and had already started to think about 1980.

Then we got to Cary, NC, our first appearance in the South. From the moment the first Bridgemen was visible, the crowd stood and went wild. I had never experienced a welcome like that, with the exception of the response given to the Muchachos in 1974 at Cornell.

The Cary performance, and crowd reaction, revitalized the kids and the staff. It seemed that we knocked off a corps or two each night leading into Birmingham. What a run. What great crowds.

In recent years, I’ve judged band shows near Cary and, in fact, I’ve judged the wonderful Cary HS Band on several occasions.

HH: In the Stone has become a favorite of Bridgemen fans, not to mention it’s been played by numerous other drum corps and marching bands since Bridgemen first played it in 1980. How difficult was that particular arrangement and how difficult was it to keep the ensemble together once the drum line began playing with the horn line?

DD: VERY and VERY, VERY! Don’t forget, there was no “pit” yet in 1980! So we had to create this funk/drumset groove with battery and imagination only. Larry Kerchner’s brilliant horn score was very syncopated, complex and “linear” — requiring each voice to be accurate and yet still “feel” good. I’ve always believed that the role of percussion in corps or band is two-fold:

1. Percussion drives the car and,
2. Percussion colors the portrait.

In essence, Larry’s brass score was like an artist’s pencil sketch: great unto itself, but needing percussion to supply the motion, texture and color. The challenge for the drum line was to make the idiomatic chart FEEL GOOD while still PLAYING CLEANLY [i.e., no tics!].

Needless to say, it was a huge challenge for the brass and percussion separately, and especially for the entire musical ensemble.

There’s an interesting and fascinating story behind the decision to play In the Stone — want to hear it?

HH: Of course!

DD: OK. In the fall of 1979, we received an advance copy of the new Earth, Wind and Fire album from our friend, Jeff Kievit, along with his rave about this tune called In the Stone.

We listened to it at a staff meeting and went crazy. We were jumping around, thinking we had found the tune that would identify THE BRIDGEMEN! Then we looked at a stone-faced Larry [forgive the pun!]. He did not like it, did not want to write it   — no way! Talk about a room deflating in an instant.

Bobby [Hoffman] and I insisted. Larry refused. In January 1980, Bobby asked Jeff to arrange it. He sent us an intro and eight bars of the melody — one week later Larry showed up with the finished product that we played in 1980 and 1981, and which the Bridgemen Alumni Corps plays today. Ahhhhh . . . motivation.

HH: In a recent interview, Larry told me that you, Bobby Hoffman and himself ”were like kids in a candy store” when you orchestrated the transformation from the cadet-style jackets of St. Andrew’s Bridgemen to the long, yellow coats of Bayonne Bridgemen. What can you share with us about your involvement with Bridgemen during those years?

DD: Bobby and I had known each other for many years, but we had never worked together. In 1975, he was teaching the Blue Stars, Larry was teaching the Bridgemen and Muchachos, and I was teaching the Muchachos. The St. Andrew’s Bridgemen”had had two bad years [1974 and 1975]. I had left the Muchachos. Bobby called me in early September 1975 and asked me to do the “new” Bridgemen with him and Larry.

When I met with Bobby, he told me about his vision to create a corps wearing long black coats, high black boots and Russian “Cossack” hats. I listened, then asked him what music he wanted to play in our second year? I didn’t think there was enough good music in that genre to sustain several years and, having taught the Muchachos, I knew that “if you look like a duck, you’d better go quack and not moo!”

He understood, but wanted a long coat. What hat do you wear? Can’t wear a shako or Aussie or helmet. So we visited a hat factory where I knew the owner. As we toured, we saw a woman “blocking” the side brims of a cowboy hat. Bobby asked her to block the front and back down and leave the sides up. She did it, held it up — and the “Bridgemen” hat and, more importantly, the corps’ entire new identity, was born!

He had several samples of long coats made in various pastels — pink, lime green, lavender and pale yellow — but the corps members hated them. They asked us to allow them to retain the colors of the St. Andrew’s era, which were yellow [gold], black and white. Hence, the coats became bright yellow with black and white trim. The guard wore black coats with yellow and white trim.

The look and the free-thinking combination of Hoffman, Kerchner and me was off and running to sights unseen and heights unknown. What fun we had. What a great time for us and for drum corps.

HH: What was Bridgemen’s biggest contribution to the activity and would you agree that the corps’ influence on drum corps is still evident today?

DD: In an abstract sense, the Bridgemen created the illusion of spontaneity. Visitors were often amazed at how hard the corps worked, because they seemed so loose and, well, spontaneous, during shows. The corps included the audience in its equation, as if to say, “we’re having a party, come join us!” None of it would have worked if the corps could not perform well.

Otherwise, I think that most people would remember the corps’ style, strong identity, attitude, willingness and ability to entertain, use of humor and irreverence, introduction of low leg-lift, dance and groove, and overall appearance of having fun on the field, as their lasting contributions. I think that some of those attributes are clearly evident today, but certainly not all of them.

HH: Another collaboration of Hoffman, Kerchner and DeLucia was the creation of Star of Indiana. Please share with us the experience of starting such a successful corps from scratch.

DD: Actually, that’s not correct. Bobby was never with Star. The original design team in 1985 was Kerchner, Michael Cesario, George Zingali, Marc Sylvester and me. Not a bad staff.

Bill Cook loved the Bridgemen and, after the corps appeared in a show run by one of Bill’s organizations in 1982 and/or 1983, he decided to start his own for the people of central Indiana, where there had never been one. He did it right — great facility, great staff, first-rate equipment and instruments, and uniforms designed by Michael Cesario.

Bill considered drum corps to be the second original American art form and treated the kids, staff and organization as such. It was a magical beginning. It took money that could not have been raised by spaghetti dinners or even most bingo operations, and Bill was the most generous person I’ve ever met in drum corps.

HH: Bill Cook was once quoted as saying Star of Indiana was “the best corps money could buy.” Do you believe it had any affect on how people viewed the corps?

DD: Which, the quote or the money? I’ve read that quote many times, but I don’t believe Bill actually said it. I think he was referring to something he had heard or read elsewhere, something that was said about the corps. It’s unfortunate that the quote has followed him, because it certainly added to the perception of the corps being elitist, isolationist and not part of the “drum corps family.”

I do think, however, that not everyone in the organization was as mature about the money as they should have been and that did cause some problems.

HH: What was your first reaction when you heard Star of Indiana would not be competitive in 1994?

DD: Not surprised at all.

HH: Did you enjoy Star’s later productions of “Brass Theater,” “BLAST!,” “Shockwave” and “Cyberjam”?

DD: “Brass Theater” was an experiment that, in my opinion, was only partially successful. But it did set the stage for “BLAST!” which was, and is, fantastic. My wife and I were invited to attend opening night on Broadway. The opportunity to see and hear the work of Jim Prime, Thom Hannum, Bob Dubinski, Jon Vanderkolff, Jim Moore and Donnie VanDoren performed at the highest level imaginable on a Broadway stage was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It was as if the entire drum corps community had made it to Broadway.

The followup was originally called “Shockwave” in which the musical ensemble included woodwinds and only a little “marching” percussion. Bob Dubinski and I wrote the percussion feature for the show — one that featured 16 bass drums hanging on two huge rolling “tic-tac-toe” walls. We had a blast. “Shockwave” became “Cyberjam” in London.

HH: Would you like to see other organizations develop indoor productions similar to those of Star ?

DD: Only if they’re really good and don’t cost the activity any competing corps.

Dennis DeLucia shares his view concerning some changes in the activity, including instrumentation and adjudication in part two of my interview with today’s premier percussion clinicians.