The Voice of Marching Percussion
By Lauren Vogel Weiss
“On the starting line, from Bayonne, New Jersey, the Bridgemen…from Hawthorne, New Jersey, the Muchachos…from Bloomington, Indiana, Star of Indiana!” These are but a few of the drum and bugle corps that Dennis DeLucia has coached during his career. He is the only instructor to win the “triple crown” of marching percussion, taking top percussion honors in 1981 with three separate drum corps in three different divisions. And his 2015 induction into the PAS Hall of Fame marks his sixth such recognition.
“This honor was totally unexpected,” DeLucia states humbly. “More than an acknowledgement of me, PAS is acknowledging that the marching arts are valid, viable, and here to stay. There is a special relationship between the Percussive Arts Society and all the wonderful kids who participate in high school or college drum lines, drum and bugle corps, or indoor drum lines. I feel as though I’ve become a spokesperson for the activity.”
DeLucia was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 1990 for his contributions to senior drum and bugle corps. The following year, he was inducted into the Drum Corps International (DCI) Hall of Fame. “That was the same night that Fred Sanford was inducted,” he says. “I had such admiration for Fred and his artistry. Ironically, Fred was the only other contemporary marching person in the PAS Hall of Fame, which was started in 1972, the same year that DCI was formed.” DeLucia joined his hometown Hall of Fame in 1995, followed by the Winter Guard International (WGI) Hall of Fame in 2006 and the New Jersey Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 2007.
SNARE DRUM TO DRUMSET
Born in Bergenfield, New Jersey on January 31, 1944, Dennis DeLucia grew up on Legion Drive. “The American Legion Building was right across the street,” remembers DeLucia. “I used to go there and watch the local drum and bugle corps rehearse, and I became enthralled with what the drummers did. That’s what inspired me to take up drums.
“I was also very fortunate to have supportive parents who happened to live in the Bergenfield School District,” he continues with a smile. “The music program there was run by the great Dr. Bernard Baggs, who became my lifelong mentor.” In sixth grade at Washington Elementary School, Dennis began taking drum lessons from Al Mura, a well-known brass instructor who taught the Hawthorne Caballeros and Holy Name Cadets. “After one year I wanted to quit because I was the only drum student in my elementary school and had nobody to compare myself to. I assumed I wasn’t very good in spite of Mr. Mura’s encouragement.”
Fortunately, DeLucia continued on his musical journey in Bergenfield with Baggs and, during his junior year in high school, a new band director named Don Angelica (who would become the chief judges’ administrator for DCI). Dennis played in the concert and marching bands, and even the school orchestra. “I was a terrible timpanist!” laughs DeLucia. “But all these ensembles gave me a great background.”
Following his freshman year of high school, DeLucia spent his one, and only, summer marching in a drum and bugle corps. “The Ravens practiced right next to our apartment house in Bergenfield,” he recalls. “The corps moved to the next town and became the Dumont Police Cadets. Their percussion instructor was the legendary Bobby Thompson, and I learned his unique rudimental style.”
During high school, DeLucia also became a self-taught drumset player. “In 1959, I heard the Ahmad Jamal Trio with a drummer by the name of Vernell Fournier. I was convinced there were two drummers playing on their recording of ‘Poinciana’ until I saw them live. I was determined to learn how to do what he was doing—and I did! Then I discovered the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Joe Morello became my drumming hero.”
DeLucia was inspired to be a drumset player and attended as many clinics and concerts as he could. “I had to modify what I learned in drum corps because it was too strict, so my technique became more of a ‘relaxed Thompson’ approach, which was similar to what Morello was doing.”
After graduating from Bergenfield High School in 1962, DeLucia attended Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, where he majored in economics and minored in psychology and comparative theology. “Believe it or not, those three [subjects] really shaped my philosophy of life,” states DeLucia. “Although Upsala did not have a music program, I was gigging a lot with local bands and coming home on weekends to give private lessons. I wanted to pay back what the music program in Bergenfield had given me, so I worked with the band—and color guard!—for 13 years.”
DeLucia graduated from Upsala in May of 1966, during the height of the Vietnam War, and the following month he was drafted. “I strongly disbelieved in what we were doing over there and had even been an anti-war protestor during college,” DeLucia recalls. “Fortunately, my mentors—Baggs and Angelica—told me about the special bands in the army and wrote letters of recommendation for me. I drove up to West Point for an audition and was accepted into the Hellcats, the ceremonial drum and bugle corps.” Since the specialty bands could not accept draftees, DeLucia enlisted and began his three year tour of duty at the Navy School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia.
“While I was waiting for a spot to open up at West Point, I played concert and marching percussion. Since the Navy guys played drumset, I was instructed not to touch a drumset—but I did!” he admits with a grin. DeLucia wound up playing drumset for the Navy School Jazz Band until he was transferred to West Point in May 1967. His time in the Hellcats coincided with the last few years of John S. Pratt’s two decades in the army’s oldest drum line.
“Jack was an incredible drummer and also one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever met,” DeLucia says of his fellow PAS Hall of Fame member. “For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a bunch of drummers who were much better than I was. They had a wider vocabulary and knew all the historical literature. I feel like I received my college drumming experience at West Point.”
In 1968, DeLucia began to teach the Pacers Drum and Bugle Corps in Poughkeepsie, New York, along with his friend and fellow Hellcat drummer Bob Devlin. When Dennis left West Point in October of 1969, his former band director, Angelica, recommended the young drummer to the Muchachos Drum and Bugle Corps in Hawthorne, New Jersey.
“They didn’t know what they were doing and I didn’t know what I was doing, so we grew up together,” DeLucia says of his five years with the corps. The Muchachos continued to improve and placed tenth during DCI’s first World Championship in 1972 in Whitewater, Wisconsin. “Unfortunately, the corps suffered a catastrophic end when they were disqualified for marching an overage member at prelims in 1975. They most likely would have won the percussion trophy and perhaps even the DCI title that year.”
That September, DeLucia joined his friend Bobby Hoffman and fellow Muchachos arranger Larry Kerchner with the St. Andrews Bridgemen Drum and Bugle Corps in Bayonne, New Jersey. “Together we crafted the image of the Bridgemen,” DeLucia says with pride. “Bobby wanted the corps in long pastel coats, but the corps members asked us to keep the corps colors of yellow, black, and white, so that’s how the Bridgemen coats became yellow. Bobby was also searching for a hat but didn’t want a traditional shako or Aussie-style hat. We went to a hat manufacturer I knew in Jersey and walked through the factory. We saw a woman blocking a cowboy hat and Bobby asked her to leave the side brims up but pull down the brims in the front and back. And the rest is history!”
The Bridgemen, who did not even attend DCI prelims in 1975, placed sixth at the World Championships in Philadelphia in 1976, a positive result of the new creative staff. “It was just unbelievable,” DeLucia remembers about the Bridgemen’s rapid rise to the top. “And the faint—where the entire corps fell to the field at the end of the performance—became an iconic move.”
As the corps continued to improve, so did the drum line, winning the “high drum” trophy in 1980, 1981, and 1982. “My favorite Bridgemen drum line was in 1982, the third year we won drums,” says DeLucia. Drummers that year included some now well-known names: Tommy Igoe, Pat Petrillo, Matt Savage, and Jay Webb. That was also the year of another iconic Bridgemen feature, the “Black Market Juggler” drum solo, based on two tunes by the group Weather Report. The eight snares played on nine Roto-toms, a very innovative concept at the time. (1982 was also the only time a corps that finished in 8th place won the best percussion award.) The following year, the drum line repeated the hugely popular solo, this time blindfolded! “Winning the drum trophies was very rewarding,” DeLucia adds, “but I think the best part was the creative people on the design team—and the kids. It’s all about the kids.”
“Dennis is at the top of a very short list of those who influenced me during my most transformative periods,” states Tommy Igoe. “His commitment to the art of drumming and his passionate dedication to students is unsurpassed. I’ve experienced his genius as an educator and percussion arranger, both as a member of the DCI championship drum lines of the Bridgemen and alongside him as a fellow adjunct music professor at Rutgers University.”
“Dennis always has been an enthusiastic mentor and role model,” adds Pat Petrillo, “encouraging, motivating, and challenging me musically to be my best, while teaching me life lessons about respect, professionalism, and responsibility that helped shape my career path.”
“His writing style changed the way people thought about writing for marching percussion,” states Matt Savage.
Jeff Prosperie, who marched in the Bridgemen a few years later, adds, “Dennis developed the unique conceptual approach of creating ‘groove,’ timbres, and color on the field through his innovative approach of orchestration, arranging, and teaching. His motivational style of instruction influenced me, Pat, Tommy, Matt, and Jay as we followed our passion to carve out careers in percussion.”
DeLucia won his “triple crown” in 1981. “I was teaching three corps: the Bridgemen, the smaller [Class A designation at the time] Fantasia III from Little Falls, New Jersey, and a senior corps, the Sunrisers from Long Island. All three won the drum trophy in their respective divisions in the same year, which is the only time that has ever happened.” The Sunrisers (where he taught from 1976 until 1983) also won five additional Drum Corps Associates (DCA) drum trophies during his eight years with the corps, along with four overall titles.
During the mid-1970s, DeLucia also worked for Collins Music before opening DeLucia’s Marching Emporium in 1979. At one point, the business employed three people full-time, plus several more part-time during the busy marching season. Unfortunately, as the number of drum corps and color guards on the East Coast dwindled, so did the business.
The Bridgemen went inactive following the 1984 season (although DeLucia continues to teach and arrange for their Alumni Corps) when he received a call from Bob Lendman, corps director for the fledgling Star of Indiana, a brand new corps founded by Indiana businessman Bill Cook. Soon DeLucia joined Kerchner, along with future DCI Hall of Fame members George Zingali, Michael Cesario, and Marc Sylvester, in creating the new corps’ identity. Their first all-Disney program, including Kerchner’s arrangement of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” moved the corps into DCI’s “Top 12” during its first year of competition in 1985 with a tenth-place finish.
“After so many years of teaching the Muchachos and Bridgemen, I was dealing with all newbies,” describes DeLucia. “I always thought I was a pretty good assessor of talent. l learned early on that if the perceived talent level of a snare line is ‘seven’ out of ten, you can’t write a ‘nine.’ You can write a ‘7.5’ to challenge them but you can’t exceed what they’re capable of doing. And like any ‘good executive,’ I always try to hire the right people and let them do what they do best,” referring to Bob Dubinski, Pat Scollin, Jim Miller, and other members of Star’s drum staff. DeLucia stayed with the Indiana corps through the 1989 season. “That show of all-British music was my favorite Star show to write.”
DeLucia also began working with the Hawthorne Caballeros (senior corps) in 1984 and continued with them until 1995, winning two drum trophies as well as three DCA championships. In 1990, he joined the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps (then based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) not as the percussion instructor or arranger—Mark Thurston held that position then—but as the Program Coordinator. “That was an interesting challenge for me,” DeLucia admits. “My evolution started as a drum line instructor, then as an arranger. By the mid-’80s, I was judging band shows, which opened my eyes to whole ensemble rather than just the drum line. By the time I got to the Crossmen, I thought I was ready. I had an idea for a three-year plan, which I called ‘Songs for Planet Earth.’ The first year (1992) was about the planet itself, the second year was about the cultural inhabitants of the planet, and the third year was about the future of the children of the planet. I really enjoyed those programs.”
THE VOICE OF MARCHING PERCUSSION
DeLucia’s last year with the Crossmen was also his first year as a broadcaster. “Tom Blair [Executive Producer of the DCI World Championship Broadcasts] thought I would be a good addition to his team,” he explains. “Starting in 1994, I was the ‘roving reporter’ who did spots from the parking lot or back sideline. I remember being inside the Blue Devils horn line circle during their warm-up and saying, ‘I’m standing on hallowed ground.’ Tom thought it was a great line!” Since 2000, DeLucia has been the co-host of DCI’s broadcasts on PBS, ESPN2, and the current “Big, Loud & Live” cinecasts alongside Steve Rondinaro, who has been the face of DCI since 1979.
“The percussion world has no more passionate front-line booster than Dennis,” states Rondinaro, who has worked with DeLucia for 22 seasons. “As the activity has become more visually driven, Dennis has made sure the contribution of the percussion section is recognized.”
In addition to his high profile work with DCI, DeLucia has used his “voice” to author several popular books about marching percussion. Building a Championship Drumline was published in 1982, during the height of the Bridgemen’s success. “The Hal Leonard people asked me to write a book about the corps style that had become entrenched in marching bands. We actually brought the line into a recording studio to record the cassette tape that accompanied the book!
“About a decade later, I met Chris Crockarell and Chris Brooks at a trade show,” he continues. “They asked if I would write something for Row-Loff. I’m looking at these guys wearing clown suits,” DeLucia recalls, interrupting himself with laughter, “and thought, ‘I taught the Bridgemen, so this is perfect!’” He wrote a drum feature, “The Pursuit of the Lady in the Feathered Hat” (based on another Weather Report tune), followed by Percussion Discussion in 1995.
“I had become more aware of what school programs really needed,” says DeLucia. “Percussion Discussion was really a percussion education book using the marching ensemble as the vehicle. It was a big challenge and took me over a year to write.”
In 1996, DeLucia was invited to teach at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a position he held until 2003. “Teaching at that level had never been part of my life’s game plan, and I have no mallet background whatsoever,” he explains. “I was hired to be kind of an everyman and help the students in New Jersey who might not have a great mallet or timpani background. After all, the great Bill Moersch was also teaching there at the time.” DeLucia noticed the armful of books that students would bring to auditions, which inspired him to write The Drummer’s Daily Drill. The book contains exercises, original audition etudes, and classic excerpts for snare drum, drumset, timpani, and tuned percussion.
Since joining Yamaha in 2001, DeLucia has been involved in the Sounds of Summer program. In addition to teaching various clinics and camps over the years, he revamped their Sounds of Summer Marching Essentials book. He has also been with Remo since 1974, and Sabian honored him with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2004. He recently released a new line of signature drumsticks through Malletech.
A few years ago, DeLucia was asked to participate in the Drum Guru™ app, which featured lessons in both “demonstration” and “practice” modes. “Instead of just talking to the camera,” he says, “I invited Jeff Prosperie to join me. With his experience in the Hellcats, he would demonstrate the rudiments at different tempos and also give some historical perspectives while I would talk about writing and teaching. It was another great project.”
Classical marimbist and PAS Hall of Fame member Leigh Howard Stevens calls DeLucia “a ‘crossover’ star of percussion education who has influenced and inspired countless musicians both inside and outside the marching percussion arena.”
“One of the most interesting things I do each year is a session at Leigh’s Summer Marimba Seminar,” says DeLucia. “And I don’t even play marimba! But he wants me to talk about how I’ve crafted my career. I was looking for a metaphor for these marimba mavens and came up with a bicycle wheel: in order for the wheel to stay perfectly rounded and workable, it had to be centered. The spokes represent all you might do—write a chart, give a lesson, go to the theater, study jazz—and it all has to work in order for the wheel to turn.
“In my original game plan,” DeLucia continues, “I thought that my phone would stop ringing by the time I was 50. But it never did and I’m very grateful. I think the reason is my ability to work within a team. I’ve never had the talent of Fred [Sanford] or Ralph [Hardimon] as a writer. But I did find my niche, which was groove oriented, and seized those opportunities. I’m proud that every group I worked with, not just the drum lines but the entire ensembles, improved during my time with them.”
MARCHING AND PAS
One of DeLucia’s first involvements with PAS was at PASIC ’82 in Dallas, where he served as an adjudicator for the inaugural Marching Percussion Forum contest and also presented a clinic with the Bridgemen drum line. “This was one of the first times I witnessed Dennis present a clinic,” says Matt Savage, a member of that line, “and I was blown away how his low-key, friendly, and welcoming demeanor always made participants feel comfortable and engaged.”
DeLucia appeared at two more PASICs (’83 and ’88) before being asked to succeed his friend Fred Sanford as the Master of Ceremonies for the PAS Marching Percussion Festival in 1999 when Sanford was too ill to attend. “I wasn’t trying to be Fred, I was just trying to be Dennis,” he explains about becoming the “voice of marching percussion” for PAS.
He served as the emcee of the Historic Drummer’s Heritage Concert at PASIC 2002 in Columbus, the first time an evening concert had been devoted to the marching arts, and also narrated the DVD of the concert that was released a few years later. The idea for that historic event came from the PAS Marching Percussion Committee, of which DeLucia has been a longtime member.
Another PAS DVD created through the Marching Percussion Committee was The Rudiment Project (2007) featuring DeLucia, Julie Davila, Dominick Cuccia, Albi Bachmann, Jeff Prosperie, Jim Campbell, and Pat Petrillo. “The idea was to create a video showing the transfer value of rudimental drumming into other areas of percussion.”
“When Dennis asked me to join him on The Rudiment Project, I jumped at the opportunity to be around such a brilliant, giving individual,” states Prosperie, now Section Leader and Principal Drummer in the Hellcats at West Point. “He has been a true ambassador and contributor to PAS for all the right reasons.”
PAS rewarded DeLucia for his contributions to the society by presenting him with the Outstanding PAS Service Award at PASIC 2008 in Austin. He continues to be involved, emceeing various Drummer’s Heritage events at PASIC, as well as clinics and the Marching Percussion Festival. He also served on the Task Force for WGI Indoor Percussion for eleven years.
What advice would DeLucia give to young percussionists? “Follow your bliss and be open-minded. There’s no element of percussion that’s not worthy of your exploration and participation. Whether it’s marching, jazz, Latin, hand drums, timpani, marimba—explore it all. Remember to tell your teachers how much they mean to you. Respect and admire all those who came before you, even as you try to surpass them. And never burn a bridge.”
“Dennis has done more to educate, teach and introduce marching percussion to the masses than anyone else in the marching genre,” states Dr. Nick Petrella, Director of Education for Sabian. “He is the consummate teacher, clinician, and ambassador for marching percussion.”
Matt Savage adds, “Dennis is truly a megaphone for percussion and PAS,” while Pat Petrillo calls him “the godfather of groove drum lines!”
How would DeLucia himself like to be remembered? “He was never late to a rehearsal or a performance,” he replies without a moment’s hesitation. “He smiled readily. And he was a good teacher.” But is Dennis a marching person or a drumset player? “Twenty years ago my answer might have been different, but at this point, I’m a marching person who still loves drumset and tries to bring drumset concepts to my marching writing.”
PASIC15 Hall of Fame Induction Video