David Lauderdale

Musician helps the Lowcountry beat go on

Delbert Felix grew up on St. Helena Island enthralled by his mother's smooth dancing to records by Sam Cooke, Charles Brown and Johnny Ace.

Years later, the man who grew up to be the original bassist in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, said his late mother, Ann Felix, "first opened my eyes to feel music, to kind of do a dance with the bass, to help me feel the rhythm and pulse of the music we are playing."

Delbert's father, Wesley Felix, was the music teacher and band leader at St. Helena High School. By age 5 or 6, all three Felix children were taking piano lessons from Wilhelmina Barnwell.

Young Delbert also was shaped by the music at Brick Baptist Church and what he called the more raw gospel at other churches around St. Helena, where clapping substituted for drums.

Felix always felt the thump of the bass, and at age 8 was given an electric bass guitar by Jonathan Francis.

He also played horns, marched with the Beaufort High School band and then the famous Marching 100 at Florida A&M University, where he learned constant repetition is required to reach perfection.

Felix took the influences of Lowcountry musicians -- Nathaniel Drake, Earl Davis, "Cool" John Ferguson, Steve Best and Bill Barnwell -- with him to chilly Boston where he studied at the Berklee College of Music. He took it with him to the U.S. Navy, where he played music around the world and taught in its musical school.

He has performed with Sting, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Cole and all the Marsalis brothers, among others.

Now he's home, living on Hilton Head Island, and performing with the Delbert Felix Trio.

He and Marlena Smalls, founder and leader of the Hallelujah Singers, hope to open a music school in Beaufort this fall to teach strings, piano and voice to young people and adults.

They want it to open eyes and ears to American music, particularly music from this area: jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass.

Their first fundraisers will be concerts at 8 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Performing Arts Center. Saturday night will feature jazz and blues, with Smalls, Gina Renè of Savannah, Sumitra Red and the Delbert Felix Trio. On Sunday, the Hallelujah Singers will present "Sounds of Gospel" featuring the Men of Praise, a seven-voice choir from Columbia that also will perform Sunday morning at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head.

This is separate and apart from the Gullah Festival, which offers music, storytelling and other arts, crafts and foods throughout this weekend in Beaufort.

Felix hopes the proposed school will somehow capture a child's imagination, like the image of his mother that still dances through his heart.