Tony Cummings spoke to the Washington DC-based producer, songwriter and record label owner DERRICK DOC PEARSON
By the late 1970s some of the hottest records in clubland were coming out of Washington DC. For a season the funk derivative known as go-go music brought acts like Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, E.U. (Experience Unlimited) and Redds And The Boys to national and international attention while in DC itself the percussion-heavy funk style of go-go packed the clubs. When the following for go-go began to evaporate some of its most talented exponents were able to move into new musical arenas, for example Chuck Brown with his musical association with singer/songwriter Eva Cassidy. Another musician, Derrick 'Doc' Pearson, once a key figure in the go-go scene when his Redds And The Boys band made the national charts, turned to mainstream soul, writing songs for top R&B acts like The O'Jays and The Whispers while at the same time working as a police officer. Then after a dramatic conversion in 1990 Derrick to slowly step back from the music scene. In 2005 the veteran started a gospel music company, I Am Music. Nine years on the company still continues to put out releases, the latest two being 'It's Alright: Derrick Doc Pearson Featuring Al Johnson', gathering together versions of Pearson's songs sung by recently deceased soul singer Johnson and 'Just The Music', an R&B-style instrumental album offering tracks described as "general uplifting instrumental enjoyment." Over a crackling telephone line Doc Pearson filled in the gaps of his fascinating story.
Derrick was born and bred in Washington DC. He said, "I was raised by women because my father and mother split up when I was very young. My mother had to work two or three jobs to try to keep us in a home and keep me going in the right direction; so I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, a Holy Ghost-filled woman who wanted me to know the Lord. We went to church service on Wednesday nights, Saturday mornings, all day Sunday, and I went to Sunday school. I was a church boy."
All the church attendance seemed to pay off. . . for a season. "They tell me I had a conversion experience when I was like 11, but I barely remember it. They used to pray over me - the nurses and the older sisters had a prayer service on Saturday morning. I barely remember this room: they used to go down in the back, and they'd get in this small room and pray for hours. One day when they prayed, I got to jumping all over this place. I can't even tell you what happened, but I guess the anointing fell on me at this time, and it's been with me ever since. That was my early days, then as I got older I didn't seek too much of all that church stuff."
It was the gift of an acoustic guitar from his father which was to play a part in Pearson's involvement in music. He remembered, "That guitar sat over in the corner for a long time: I had no real interest in it. One day I was playing in the alley and I heard this music, this band, and - you might relate to this - they were playing 'The Horse' and they were playing Archie Bell & The Drells, 'Tighten Up'. I could hear this music and I was just drawn to this garage. In the garage were three musicians - guitar, bass and drums - and I was just in awe. I loved the bass, so I went home, and since the guitar had six strings, I took two of them off so then I had a bass. I used to go to this guy who played bass and I'd tell him, 'I want to play the bass like you. Could you show me some stuff?' He said, 'No, man, your fingers are too short: you'll never play bass'. I was devastated: 'Why would you tell me that?' From then on, I always wanted to play bass. I asked my mother for a bass guitar, and she bought me one at 15. I started a band called Omega. Looking back on it now, we were able to pick up some amazing talents, because everyone in that group has gone on to do some great things. Our guitar player, my buddy who records with me now, Mike Scott, today plays with Prince and Justin Timberlake. One of our lead singers, Ralph Hawkins, wrote stuff with David Peaston."
Omega were briefly called Alpha & Omega and as their name would indicate, all the band members had some kind of spiritual roots from their parents. But as Derrick observed, "We didn't really know what we believed." Omega got a chance to make a record with a local label with a song they had written, "Free". It didn't produce a hit but it did spark in the 15 year old musician a lifelong fascination with recording technology. He recalled, "When I first went in the studio, I just fell in love with it and knew that was the place I needed to be. That's where I got the nickname Doc: I started playing bass, then I started writing songs, then I started playing keyboards for the group. They were coming up with nicknames, and they said, 'Since you want to operate in so many different areas, we're going to call you the doctor'. I went on from there, writing for local groups - I wrote 'Movin' And Groovin'' for Redds And The Boys. I wasn't playing bass for that band, I was the keyboard player and writing songs. It was quite an experience, because right at the time we came in with that song is when Max Kidd had signed a deal with Island Records to put out all the go-go stuff; and that's when we did the movie Good To Go. Redds And The Boys and 'Movin' and Groovin'' were featured in that movie a lot. However, business and greed got in and blew that all up."
Disillusioned by the wheeling and dealing of gigging within the go-go scene Doc moved more heavily into songwriting, recording demos in his home studio. During this season as a soul music songsmith Doc met up with Al Johnson. Al had broken through onto the national scene as lead singer of The Unifics who in 1968 and 1969 had enjoyed big R&B hits with "Court Of Love" and "The Beginning Of The End" and by the '80s was collaborating with jazz soul man Norman Connors before getting an R&B hit with a duet with Jean Carn. Derrick remembered, "In 1984 a friend of mine, Terry Stubbs, who wrote a lot of the O'Jays hits - he and I were writing together. I get a call out of the blue: 'This is Al Johnson. I love your stuff. Do you have anymore?' I'm like, 'Yeah!' The rest is history: we just started writing together, I was sending him stuff, he'd record it, take stuff for his artists."
In 1986 Derrick joined federal law enforcement for the Supreme Court of the United States. The policeman/songwriter continued writing songs. In 1989 Doc landed a song on the 'Serious' album by Philly sound hitmakers The O'Jays, followed by tracks on albums like Mystique's 'Love, Mystique'. But despite his work as a policeman bad habits picked up during his years in the music biz were having a negative effect in his life. In 1990 things came to a head for Derrick.
Admitted Doc, "I believe God spoke to me. He said, 'I'm taking you somewhere and you need to stop this. If you don't stop [taking drugs], you're not going to live to see your children.' I remember going to a church service one night; I was so muddy - I had cut grass, and I still had grass all over me - and God showed up for me. I remember it was mother's day and everyone was in white. Here I am with grass stains all over me, and I saw one of the musicians who knew me; he said, 'Come on in, Doc'. I said, 'I can't go in' - because I'm from church, I had respect for the houses of God. He was like, 'Man, come on in'. I went to the altar, gave my life to the Lord, and everything changed from that point."
His conversion caused considerable confusion among his many musician friends. He chuckled as he said, "They thought I'd lost my mind. 'He got too high somewhere; he's gone crazy!' But I had good men of God at that time - I was under Bishop Ralph E Green at Free Gospel Church - and we were taught, 'You have to let this past go'. That's one of the hardest things for young converts. Some of those things you have to let go is your family; sometimes they're your best friends. I had musician friends I had been playing music with for years, and I had to let go because they were still living a lifestyle I was trying to pull away from. That's sometimes a hard thing for people to get to, but they have to be taught to let that go. People will respect you over the long run: those same people now call me for prayer when they're in trouble. 'Doc, can you pray for me now? I'm having some problems.' That was one of the tough things I had to do, to leave all that alone. I left music alone: all I wanted was Jesus. There was no music. I remember one service I was in - sitting, listening; they were videotaping the service. Well, one of the video guys knew me; he saw me sitting there, he said, 'Doc Pearson! Do you all know who you've got sitting here?' I'm like, 'Shh! Don't do that, I'm in church.' 'Do you all know who he is?' I didn't join a choir, I didn't come into church to sing - I came to know Jesus. Who is this Jesus that can turn my life around? How can I know him? Who is this man, and why did he do that for me? Who loved me so much they would give their life for me? How can this happen? That's what I wanted to know about this guy. 'Wait a minute, tell me about this Bible thing!' We have 66 books to tell me how I should live, things I should do, how I should think - what an awesome thing! That's all I wanted."
Derrick's songwriting continued and his compositions appeared on albums like The O'Jays' 'Emotionally Yours' (1991), The Dells' 'I Salute You' (1992) and The Whispers' 'Toast To The Ladies' (1995). But as the years went on Doc's zeal to write mainstream love songs began to diminish. As his involvement in church life grew and grew he found himself beginning to write gospel songs. Admitted Doc, "Most of these songs were songs I had never finished: it was pieces of music that I just had. I realised that God had a call on my life to preach and teach the Gospel, and I was headed toward training in my church - different things - and the Lord said, 'Wait a minute. You haven't done anything with what I already gave you.' I said, 'What do you mean? All those songs?' He said, 'Yes. Finish those songs and put it out.' I got confirmation because my pastor was doing teaching on finishing unfinished things."
Derrick continued, "I kind of I argued with God. I said, 'God, who's going to be the artist? Where am I going to get money to sign artists?' He said, 'You be the artist.' Then I argued with that: I said, 'I don't sing!' God said, 'A lot of artists don't sing.' Quincy Jones didn't sing; Herbie Hancock doesn't sing; Kirk Franklin doesn't sing. 'You just do what I tell you to do'. Then the next thing, 'Where's the money going to come from?' God said, 'Do you think I can't provide? Do you think I can't make ways out of no ways?'"
In 2005, Derrick launched his home-based I Am Music Records with the album 'I Sing A New Song To The Lord'. No great shakes as a singer, Derrick called on friends and members of his church choir to provide the lead vocals to tracks which were neatly produced R&B grooves and soul ballads. As well as the singers Tony Peacock, Adrian Gause, Mark Staggers, Michelle Chisolm and Derrick's daughter Shari Pearson, two songs on the album, "The Lord's Been Good To Me" and "I Am That I Am", were sung by Al Johnson. Commented Derrick, "I don't know exactly when Al became a Christian, but I know his brother is a pastor, and I think that kind of got him going. Once I got saved, I wasn't doing any music, so I wasn't talking to Al - I wasn't talking to anybody in the music business. But once God told me to start doing gospel music - or to take my music and offer it to him - I called Al and I told him, 'I'm doing gospel music. I want you to come in and do my stuff, but it's different now: there's no alcohol, no profanity - nothing going on that we used to do.' I was concerned, but he's like, 'I'm saved too, man, let's go! Say no more!' We'd always start with prayer, then we'd get to work."
Derrick admitted that he had no idea how he was going to get 'I Sing A New Song To The Lord' to the gospel music-buying public. At first it seemed hopeless. "I didn't get any support from the radio, from churches, because my sound still sounded R&Bish; people didn't want to open a door at all, and I was very disgusted. I went to the gym, because I was trying to lose some weight - I'm still trying - and I put on my headphones, and this Hezekiah Walker song came on: 'Anyway You Bless Me' - 'I'll be satisfied'. That made me thankful, even though it was a time I had no albums. First time I sold 500, next time I sold a few thousand; this time I sold several thousand. God keeps building it. First time I had no videos; now I have five or six. God keeps providing, and we keep moving forward; I'm thankful for whatever he gives me. I'm reminded of what Paul says: 'No matter what state, I've learned to be content. Whether to abound or to abase, I've learned to be content.' Then there's a Scripture in Timothy where Paul is saying, 'Godliness with contentment is great gain'. We need to be Godly and be content. If we can be content to be Godly, we'll be just fine: that's my goal, the way I strive to be. I'm not selling Beyoncé numbers or big-time numbers - I'm not even selling big-time gospel numbers - but I'm content."
I Am Music released in 2006 'Lord You Are My Everything' credited to Derrick Pearson and featuring lead vocals from Al Johnson, Adrian Gause, John Butler, Tahesha Jones and Lee Johnson. Three years later the double CD 'You And Me Time' credited to Derrick Pearson & New Covenant was released. New Covenant were a vocal and instrumental 10-piece though guest vocalists included the ubiquitous Al Johnson. On Al's death in October 2013 many in the industry were shocked by his sudden passing. Remembered Derrick, "I was going to St Louis to do another recording with a minister down there that I had known, and I'd just talked to Al. I'm working on a marriage project, and I said, 'When I come back, Al, we'll get started a marriage album'. He said, 'No problem, Doc, I'm ready to go'. That was the last conversation he and I had. I couldn't believe it when it happened. Al and I had been recording since '84, and we've recorded close to over a hundred songs together."
In 2010 after 24 years' service Derrick finally gave up his duties as a Federal Law Enforcement Officer. His musical activities though, if anything, increased. Earlier this year I Am Music released 'It's Alright: Derrick Doc Pearson Featuring Al Johnson'. It was a fitting tribute to a singer who despite providing session help for such musical giants as Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson and many others never received the recognition his impressive vocal talent deserved.
Doc is now busy completing a compilation CD/DVD. He explained, "It's a project called 'No Greater Love'. Everyone comes to me and asks me about our music videos: they seem to be very popular around the church, and people want to see them. So they're asking me, 'Somebody showed me a video. How can I get a copy?' I said, 'You can go to YouTube and just watch it'. A lot of the church folk don't do the YouTube stuff: 'Oh, I don't know about that YouTube'. I need to put the videos on a DVD and sell it to people. For our 10-year anniversary, I'm going to take the best songs from the three albums on a DVD. That's going to be our release for early 2015."
For all of his many musical achievements Derrick stated in the biography on the I Am website that the things he is most proud of are his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and his 31-year marriage to his wife Lamar and his two daughters, Shakina and Shari. For the future Doc is passionate that the Church renews its strength and becomes unified rather than factionalised so that it can fulfil the Great Commission. He finished our talk by saying, "We seem to be in a time where the world clearly doesn't want to follow God; so we, as the Church, must get stronger. There's going to come a time when there's nothing else for them to come to - when everything fails. Most people now, church is not church: it's entertainment, it's not what God meant it to be, which is about Christ, winning souls for Christ, and living a lifestyle in line with what God has instructed us. Right now, it seems to me most importantly - and I see it so clearly - technology has made ways that we can globally connect with each other, and connect our ministries together, where we can now build the Body of Christ so the world can clearly see the difference between us and them. We have a Saviour, and we're following our Saviour. My thing now is we need to grow as one. I have a song called 'Togetherness'. We need to come together, put all that racism aside, all our differences aside - your culture, if you praise that way, I can praise that way with you; if I praise this way, you can praise this way with me - and we can be in line with God, with Christ, with the teachings of the Scripture, and follow that, learn from that, be open minded enough to listen, pray about it, and let the Spirit of God lead and guide us. We must come together, we must be united; we must work to be one with each other."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.