What was Miles Davis like as a person? What was it like to play with Miles on-stage? The best persons to answer these questions are the musicians who had the privilege of playing in Miles’ bands. Drummer Ricky “Sugar Foot” Wellman was one of them. Ricky joined Miles’ band in May 1987 and stayed with him, right up until Miles’ final gig on 25 August 1991. Ricky has kindly put together his thoughts about Miles for TheLastMiles.com
There are many things I could say of my friend, mentor, and employer Miles Davis, regarding the time I spent with him from 1987 to 1991, but these are the most memorable.
Miles after my first performance
I played my first concert with Miles in 1987. I was 32 years old and very excited to have the opportunity. We arrived a day before the concert and my excitement didn’t afford me a restful night. Anyone who’s every attended a Miles concert knows that Miles engenders passion from those who play with him. I didn’t want to disappoint him or the rest for the band.
We set up and tested our instruments one hour before the first attendees were allowed in, and again 10 minutes before the show began. Most people don’t know how much the temperature can change the sound of an instrument, but it was because of such details that Miles insisted that we did the second soundcheck, as he listened to the sound backstage. Miles would not begin a show until he was satisfied that that everything was right. We began the concert, and my excitement began to show. My timing would fluctuate from song to song. I could see this in Miles eyes, and I struggled to keep it together.
The concert ended two hours later and I was exhausted. Not so much from playing but from the fear that Miles would explode, as he was known to do. I was one of the last to leave the stage, just so that I could steady myself for what I knew would come. Once I was backstage, I knew I was in trouble. Other members were glaring at me, while others just looked away. Miles turned to me, reached into his pocket, pulled out a full pack of chewing gum, and tossed it to me. He said, “Here Ricky, chew this just before the next concert and calm down! This way you won’t be so fuckin’ nervous!” With that, it was over, and my career with Miles was saved.
The generous Miles
I can’t remember when I saw the 60 Minutes feature on Miles but I smiled when he was showing his collection of cars. It was one of Miles’ passions, and like his music, he wanted the best in cars. I had visited him at his home some time prior to the interview and I had the same tour, but with one difference. Miles said in the raspy voice that we loved, “Ricky, do you want to drive any of these cars? Pick one! Just not the red one!” I knew that one was his favourite. Imagine having your choice for well over two million dollars in cars to choose from and drive anywhere you wanted to!
Miles spoke the deepest through his music. Just like no two moments in time are the same, Miles spoke one-on-one to his fans, each night we performed, through his music, and I’ve experienced this first hand.
We had been touring for some months, and it is true, that life on the road is not easy. Most times, we are only in a city for a night or two. Most of the time we were engaged in practice, sleep, or performing; there was little time for sight seeing. Then we would move on to the next city or country and do the same. With few breaks in between, we all become testy. Couple that with Miles’ drive for perfection and that created an explosive mix.
This happened once when I didn’t care if I played another day for Miles or not. He said something and I told him, “I’m out of here after tonight’s performance and fuck you.” I just wanted to be home with my family and have a normal life where I didn’t lose up to five pounds of water weight a night under the spot lights. Miles knew this, but was never known to say that he was sorry about anything. We started that night’s performance and I thought about leaving the band as I played. Midway through the evening Miles had all of us stop playing, as he performed a solo. There was nothing special about this, Miles performed solos all the time; the band performed the song “Time after Time” but this time he dedicated the solo to me.
He stood and played directly in front of me for the entire song. He played from his heart and soul in a way that eclipsed the loudest thunderstorm, and was as soft as leaf when it lands on the ground in the fall. Every note said, “I’m sorry, I love you man, and forgive me for being so hard on you.” Miles played solidly as he walked around stage. Each note created just for that moment which had never been rehearsed or played since. As he walked towards me, I broke down in tears and bawled like a child. No acknowledgement has ever been so personal. Miles concluded, the crowd went wild, not knowing what had just been exchanged between two men dedicated to their entertainment, and we went on to perform for many more days to come.