- story by Pat Saik, photos and video by Ellis Anderson
Self-described as a “crazy idea guy,” Brian Wilemon wanted to add a little rhythm to the streets of the Bay and give kids something fun to do after school.
That dream has become reality in the form of the Bay Ratz Marching Battery, a drum line that vibrates with precision and verve.
Brian himself started playing drums when he was a sixth grade student attending school in West Point, Mississippi, a small town not too far from Columbus.
“I saw the drum line and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Brian says assuredly. “I grew up in a single parent household; my mother was always working two or three jobs. Playing in the drum line kept me from getting into trouble.”
A drum line is made up of the snare line, the tenor drums (with 4 or 5 drums played by one drummer), the bass drums and the cymbals.
“We had a tough drum instructor named Larry Bradford from Delta State. In hindsight, I have a true appreciation for what he did. He tolerated a lot of our nonsense and taught us a lot. When I finally realized what a good teacher he had been after I graduated, I went back and apologized for cutting up sometimes and thanked him for what he did.”
Brian, his wife Jennifer and their two sons Miles and Ben, have lived on the coast since before Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything in the hurricane but Brian and Jennifer, with two babies, decided to stay.
When Miles Parker, Brian and Jennifer’s oldest son, started high school, he joined the school band and did well in percussion. Named after Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, it’s clear that Brian and Jennifer admire these legendary jazz musicians so much they named their first son after them.
“We are a musical family,” Brian declares happily.
“Before we go any further, Brian says, “I have to say that the drum line would never have happened without my wife and her support. I am the crazy idea guy and Jennifer is the one who makes it happen. And she tolerates and supports the hours it takes to do this.”
The tale of the birth of the drum line seems to have a bit of magic running through it. Going one step at a time, opportunities continued to appear as the “crazy idea” moved toward fruition.
His wife Jennifer didn’t miss a beat. “She found a beat up set of tenor drums on eBay; Miles and I refurbished them, too. It’s turned out to be an economical way to get otherwise expensive instruments,” Brian says. “I have pictures of the entire rehab process. Everything was taken apart, broken parts replaced, and everything put back together. It took hours but by the time it was over, the drums were like new.”
“I thought a drum line could be fun. All sports teams have drum lines. We could get into sporting events for free, drink beer and play drums.”
“Well,” Brian continues, “I started putting out feelers. I got zero response from the adults I approached.”
“Everybody who wants a chance to play gets a chance,” Brian says proudly. “Kids started showing up.”
“We have two age groups—the kids we call the Mice are third, fourth and fifth graders. Our youngest member is five years old and he plays a snare. The older kids, those in high school, are called the Bay Ratz Marching Battery.”
By May, 2016, the Bay Ratz Marching Battery was performing on the streets of Bay St. Louis. People would stop and listen for awhile and often leave a tip.
“By the time we earned $1,000 in tips, we could afford to buy a whole drum line. Once the seller, who was from Russelville, learned what we were doing, he was kind enough to give us a real good deal. He also just gave us the carrying cases for the drums.”
A former employee of the Boys and Girls Club told Brian that the club had some damaged instruments. Upon inquiry, Brian learned the club would loan the marchers the instruments they could use and so adding to the growing number of instruments available.
“We redid the drums,” Brian says. Asked if he had been trained to repair drums, he smiled. “No, but the systems are all logical so I got a set of tools and went to work.”
“The kids don’t pay anything to join or to buy instruments.This is all for fun,” Brian grins.
But Brian has a plan for his son and others in the group. “I want Miles to continue in a music program, get a good education and earn a scholarship to go to college. I’d like the same for other talented musicians in the drum line.”
Meanwhile, the program continues to flourish. “The community has supported us and the energy created is electric. The music, the vibrations, go straight out to the crowd listening to us.”
After one performance, Brian received an anonymous donation of $100. The note read: “Because what you do is so incredibly good for our children and the community. Thank you Mr. Wilemon.”
Photographer Ann Madden, an early supporter, calls the project “nothing but good.”
“We have a great partnership with the Boys and Girls Club,” Brian adds. ‘They have given us space to store the instruments and a regular place to practice. I am very grateful to them for their ongoing support.”
Plans for the future abound. Application for becoming a nonprofit is in the works. Next year Brian wants to add a dance color guard. He says The Raw Oyster Marching Club has inspired him. Stay tuned for other plans Brian is not ready to reveal.
Brian and family moved to Bay St. Louis in 1991. Brian, 45, owns and operates “Sure Shot Painting Service,” an independent business offering commercial and residential painting services.
With the passion and persistence of a “crazy idea guy,” with a lot of help in putting the idea to work by his wife, Jennifer, it seems inevitable that the Bay Ratz will be bringing stirring vibrations to the coast for quite awhile.
“I was so happy,” Brian recounts, “when someone first called me a Bay Rat. I took pride in that. Now I could call myself a local.”