Yonrico’s Mighty Heart

The first time I saw and heard Yonrico Scott share his immense rhythmic gifts he was playing with Francine Reed at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, the same place where I first saw Col. Bruce Hampton perform. It’s one of those nice little Bruce synchronicities that seem more and more inevitable the older I get. Because Bruce and Yonrico were very close, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I’d already started working on The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton. And then all things came together, or collapsed into place, as Bruce might have said.

So, today is Yonrico’s birthday. He would be 66 in Earth years, an important number as he would well know. Two sixes? He was in Bruce’s orbit, so he knew all about six significance. This would be an important birthday for him. But Yonrico died on September 19, 2019, which made a lot of people, including me, very sad. He was an excellent human being.

For what it’s worth, and to me it’s worth a lot, Yonrico took his backstage pass to the universe exactly one week before the deadline to turn my manuscript over to the capable hands and brains of the University of Georgia Press. It would not be a lie, or even a fabrication, to say that Yonrico’s death completely changed how the book begins.

The last thing that I did on the manuscript was to rewrite the introduction. I was really bummed about Yonrico, and it was so fresh; and I was still mourning the loss of Johnny Knapp, who had been gone 10 months by then. And Bruce. These were heavy losses. And after Bruce died in May 2017, every time one of our mutual friends took his backstage pass, it felt heavier. Writing that afterlife fantasy scene that opens the introduction was catharsis.

Bruce, Johnny, and Yonrico, together in an ethereal diner. It seemed the perfect place for Yonrico to thank Bruce for getting him the gig with the Derek Trucks Band. The story, as Yonrico told it, had him sitting in an Atlanta jail for an extended period after being stopped and taken in for driving with a suspended license.

Eight hours before Yonrico was to be released, Bruce let him know that Derek Trucks needed a drummer for a gig in 12 hours. The thing is, no one knew when Yonrico was going to be released yet, not even Yonrico. “How do you know I’m getting out in eight hours,” he asked Bruce, whose answer was laughter.

“That’s how I met Derek Trucks,” Yonrico said. “Straight from jail. Thank you, Bruce!”

Picked up this great print by Kirk West (of Bruce, Derek, and Yonrico) at Gallery West in Macon a few months back.

While he gave Bruce credit for getting him the gig, Yonrico also counted it as a point of pride to have been fired by Bruce several times. Whether he was actually “fired,” or given leave is up for grabs – this is a rhythm devil who played not only with Bruce and the Grammy winning Trucks band, but also Earl Klugh, Whitney Houston, Peabo Bryson, and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, among many others. Yonrico also led his own ensemble and recorded several outstanding solo albums.

But he always cherished Bruce’s peculiarities and usually jumped at the chance to work with him, for the unique experience as much as anything else. He recalled the first time he met with Bruce and Dr. Dan Matrazzo to rehearse with the Fiji Mariners in the early 90s.

“With Dan, every gig was like the Super Bowl. And I’m like, ‘Bruce and Dan in the same band, let’s do this,'” Yonrico said, setting the scene. “So I go to Bruce’s house and they’re inside, jamming. Guitar and keyboards. While they’re working on a song, I start setting up my drums, get everything ready. And they say to me, ‘alright, ready to practice?’ I was enthusiastic, ‘OK, let’s go!’ That’s when Bruce comes over and pulls out the Daily Racing Form and shows me how to handicap. That was rehearsal, learning how to handicap horses.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d stumbled into Bruce’s version of how-to-be, of course. Yonrico came to Atlanta in 1976 and got to know Bruce early on, beginning their long musical association at a Late Bronze Age show at the 688 Club. He also got to know Rickey Keller around that time and considered the multi-talented musician and producer like a brother.

“He was an Amadeus, he was that good, and a good soul, too,” said Yonrico, who launched into one of his favorite Rickey tidbits: “He was just out of college and became George Wallace’s campaign musician. We had pictures of him in the studio of him and George Wallace shaking hands, when Wallace was in a wheelchair, after he got shot. Dudes in the studio used to do cocaine on that picture.”

I wanted to know more about that Wallace photo, and what it may have touched off, or could have touched off. Keller, a white guy from South Georgia, and Yonrico, a black guy from Detroit. And Wallace. Yonrico didn’t flinch.

“Fuck George Wallace,” he said. “I understood why Rickey did it. He was right out of high school and it was a large gig. We were all working musicians, and there is stuff that I had to do that I’m not proud of. I was guarded in how I teased Rickey over that. He was my big brother and he had a lot of heart and he would give it to you, whether you were white, black, blue, or green.”

Yonrico paused in that part of our conversation to consider his losses. “Rickey’s been gone a while, man. And now, Bruce.” Then he got quiet.

When I interviewed Yonrico for the book, it was about a month before his dear friend and band brother, Kofi Burbridge, succumbed to heart disease. Yonrico was going through his own health difficulties at the time. Before Kofi passed, Yonrico was there, acting as his friend’s nurse, driving him to appointments.

We talked a little more after the Rickey stories, mostly happy stuff – he’d been Tyler Neal’s drum teacher, then found out Tyler could play guitar. And sing. Really well. Eventually, Tyler became the front man of Bruce’s last band, the Madrid Express. Bruce told Yonrico, “he’s our secret weapon.”

And we hung up.

At some point after Yonrico died from heart disease, long after I had turned in the manuscript, it occurred to me that he and three of his best friends in the world had disembarked the planet on a wave of cardiac maladies. I remember wondering, how is it that men with such mighty hearts can be betrayed by those hearts? I’m guessing the answer might have something to do with overuse.

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