Percussion Prodigy, Orphaned by Drugs, Wins Acclaim in Times Square : Street scene: A stray bullet robbed him of his mother. A discarded plastic bucket was his vehicle to success.
Larry Wright wanted a drum set, but his mother had money only for drugs. So one day he took the subway down to Times Square, flipped over a plastic bucket and began pounding on it with battered drumsticks.
He hoped for coins, maybe $10 or $20 worth. But as strangers watched this sinewy youth play--sweat pouring from his shirtless torso, tiny bits of wood and plastic flying--they tipped him dollars instead of quarters.
By that day’s end, the kid from Harlem, who had never taken a music lesson, had made $300.
That was about two years ago. He kept coming back, day after day, playing for hours at a time. He played faster and faster, built up calluses and broke dozens of buckets.
He had some real breaks: appearances in music videos with Phil Collins, Fine Young Cannibals and Jane Child. He also was featured in a short documentary on public television.
This summer Wright, now 15, caught the eye of filmmaker Spike Lee, who featured him in a Levi’s jeans commercial, playing his bucket-drum and meeting his hero, drummer Max Roach.
Then in September, at his moment of triumph, the drug scene claimed his mother’s life.
Police say that Marilyn Wright, 34, was shot during the attempted robbery of a drug dealer in her apartment building on West 138th Street. She died in a hospital 12 days later.
Police detective John Grenawalt, who interviewed her in the hospital, said no one had been arrested in the shooting. He added, incredulously: “To this day, I have yet to get a phone call from her family.”
The family seems to accept her death as an awful--but not altogether surprising--consequence of her drug use and the neighborhood. Larry and his grandmother, Margaret Cook, still live in the building.
Cook, sitting on a folding metal chair on the sidewalk across from the building one day recently when talked about her grandson. She is a slight woman who holds her arms close to her as she talks.
Larry gave most of his money to his mother, she said. “As soon as he made it, she took it, and it was going to the dope man, might as well tell the truth.”
When Larry’s father bought him a drum set for Christmas, “Momma took care of it,” the grandmother said. She chuckled at the absurdity. “I can talk about it. I can’t hurt her now. She’s resting.”
“Some rich lady heard him and bought him a real expensive set,” she continued. “Don’t ask what happened to that one.” Other relatives and friends sitting with her nodded knowingly and joined in the chuckling.
Larry came to his mother’s wake with his drumsticks and a bucket. He set them down outside the door of the funeral parlor.
“He didn’t really realize what happened to his mom until he saw her laying down in a coffin,” said Monte Detioger, 23, who befriended Larry a year ago and now is his manager. “When I saw him looking at his mom, he was crying. He was like screaming inside.”
Drumming came early and easily to Larry. His mother used to say he began tapping on things when he was 3 months old; his uncle, Bernard Mercer, said the baby always headed straight for Mercer’s tambourines.
“He was just crawling, in diapers. He couldn’t walk yet, or talk,” the uncle said. “He’d bang on the TV screen. He’d bang on the wall, on the refrigerator, anything.”
Larry himself remembers tapping on floors when he was 3. Later came table tops, garbage pail lids, trees, bottles, cups and, eventually, plastic buckets--the five-gallon size used to package wallboard compound and other products.
It was what he was looking for on a recent day at 46th Street and Broadway. He scrounged several buckets from a construction site, knocked out the residue and was ready to warm up.
He tapped out various beats on the bottom of the bucket, gradually playing faster and louder. He threw in strokes to the side and rim to produce different sounds. Using his right foot to rock the open end of the bucket up and down against the sidewalk, he created a thumping bass beat.
Many drummers could imitate his rhythms with a little practice, but Larry’s listeners marveled at his speed and precision.
At the point in his solo where a theater audience might applaud, Larry’s street fans reached into their pockets. Most approached his bucket slowly and respectfully, depositing dollar bills carefully as they would at church.
“He’s playing his insides out!” marveled one tourist from Massachusetts. A commuter from New Jersey bought a can of Coke and set it down next to the sweating Larry. A young woman said she had seen him on television and wanted to marry him. Others gave him kisses.
“The kid’s a prodigy!” a man from San Francisco said.
Max Roach agrees.
“He’s phenomenal. The thing that fascinated me about him was the way he sequentially set up his rhythms to create music on that bucket. The way he put his accents in, you knew he wasn’t just banging. Even though he would switch from eighth to 16th to 32nd notes, it was still musical,” he said.
Roach spotted him coming out of Macy’s one day. “There was a crowd around him. I heard these rhythms coming out and I stood there with the crowd for about 20 minutes. I was really impressed. The fact he had the strength that he could do this, probably for hours, and he made sense with it. Just that bucket. He’s very musical.”
And he was quite unprepared for success.
His manager regards Wright as a “street kid” with little education or understanding of people.
“He tries to be a man, but he’s not,” Detioger said. “He doesn’t know anything about life. He’s earning $200 a day banging on a bucket in Times Square. He said, ‘Look, Monte, I don’t need to go to school, look at how I do.’ ”
Since his mother’s death, though, Wright has returned to school for the first time in two years. He says he is saving his money. His goal, he says, is not to play in a band, but to become a star soloist.
“I’m good enough to become a star, I know that,” he said. “I’m always playing my drums. That’s the only thing I think about. I don’t let nobody get to me.” He added: “If I didn’t have that talent, I’d probably be locked up somewhere.”
In the background is the memory of his mother and her fate. Mercer, his uncle, said that for all her troubles, Marilyn Wright forged a special bond with her son. She was honest about her drug problem and had warned him to stay clean.
“He’s my life,” she told an interviewer last year. “He’s my whole world.” In reality, however, her habit was always Larry rival for her attention.
Mercer described the scene at the hospital, after she had been shot:
“As they were getting ready to take her upstairs to her room, she looked at all of us and said, ‘Take care of my son.’ Then she started crying with this real cry, like I never . . . like she used to cry when she was a little girl.”