Jamming with the Lord

Devell Riley rehearsing at Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Photo by Amy Au.
Photo by Amy Au.
Photo by Amy Au.

The ambient light glares upon a pearl white drum set arranged on the sound stage encompassed by an array of instruments, while the musicians accumulate to perform a piece. A mocha-skinned man in glasses, tattered jeans and a plain T-shirt strolls over to his drum set looking nonchalant. Devell Riley has played the drums for as long as he can remember and has never wanted to put down the sticks.

Riley fell in love with music at 4 and wanted to play in his church band. His desire led his mother to buy him a percussion set. He started playing bongos and maracas at his church in South Central Los Angeles in 1964.

Throughout his life, he has developed a discipline for music that has allowed him to have experiences that would not have occurred.

Music has been a passport to a rich and fulfilling life. It has taken me to places and to meet people I would have had no chance of meeting,” Riley says. “These chance meetings have enriched my life, and I have met people that have had a big impact on me. It’s amazing how these people have made it to the top but are so humble and encouraging.”

As a self-taught musician, Riley strives to understand and build a relationship with the instrument he plays.

Although drums are where he is most comfortable, he knows how to play acoustic and bass guitars. He has built instruments from scratch and modified others.

“As a percussionist, you can make an instrument out of almost anything,” Riley says. “A five-gallon bucket, a five-gallon water bottle—put some dried beans or uncooked rice in it and you’ve got instruments.”

Riley retired in April 2016 from Southern California Edison, an electricity company, after working with the group for more than 30 years.

“I have always had different interests throughout my life, but it always led back to music. I love working with my hands, like mechanical stuff, electronics and working with wood,” Riley says. “That’s probably what led me to wanting to build bass guitars. It’s the same for drums. I like fixing drum kits and bringing them back to life.”

Chris Elliott, an amateur musician and former trumpet player for the late Mighty Sam McClain, has played with Riley multiple times in the past year. He recalls how immediately impressed he was with Riley’s versatility.

“I ran into Devell at a jam session in Santa Clarita and we were short on drummers that day. He says, ‘Oh I can play drums,’ and he had signed up to play bass,” Elliott says. “I was like, ‘OK, here’s a guy that plays the two most in demand instruments.’”

Now that Riley is retired, he has considered going back to school to sharpen his musical abilities.

Instructor of music at Pierce College John Schneider has been a full-time member of the Performing Arts department since the 1980’s.

According to Schneider, some students that go back to school have to learn to break bad habits. Schneider adds that there are also those who have never learned to read or write music which makes learning that much more difficult for them.

“There’s this issue, even in the West Valley, about illiteracy. There’s a lot of people out there that are making a living, raising families, but they can’t read and write,” Schneider says. “So there’s such a thing as being musically illiterate as well. You can play great, but most of the people making millions of dollars can’t read a note.”

Riley notes that reading and writing music isn’t easy and learning new music can be just as difficult.

This is especially true for musicians during jam sessions when they do not always know what will be played or what the correct pitch or key is.

“It’s all about following the leader,” Riley says. “If you were to go to any place at any time and somebody just walked up to you and started a conversation, you would answer. Well musicians speak the language of music. All that is up there is a conversation between musicians.”

Although Riley performs around the city, every Sunday he plays for the band. Riley says that the “level of freedom you have while on stage at a show is much different than what you do in church.”

Playing to convey a message and display meaning is found in the gospel genre.

“In a sense, when you’re playing for entertainment you’re Barack Obama and in a secular sense, you’re Mitt Romney,” Riley says.

Riley has been playing at least 20 years at Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship alongside senior pastor Bill Dwyer. He says that Riley is a humble servant of the Lord that grew up in the church.

His mom was like a church mother. She was this incredible lady. I went down with him to her funeral a couple years ago,” says Dwyer about Riley who attended West Angeles Church of God in Christ with his mother as a child. “I had no idea he had this heritage in his family of godliness and goodness. It took me a while before I got to know him.”

It is Dwyer’s belief that there are musicians who boast, but Riley never gave him that impression. Elliott, too, considers Riley a delightful, opinionated and well-educated man that leaves his talent for the stage.

Elliott says he hears time well and knows how to play under the beat, and this works well with the band and the audience.

“He’s not flashy. He doesn’t do jewelry, or a jerry curl or wicked threads. He’s a gentlemen and he comes on lowkey and under the radar,” Elliott says. “It takes a little sensitivity to see a person like that, but people like that have a quiet confidence boiling inside of them.”

In addition to nurturing his love of music, Riley has channeled his energy into learning an array of disciplines ranging from the expected to the unlikely.

When he isn’t jotting down a new composition or weaving together a freeform rift with his fellow musicians, Riley can be found fine tuning his sharp-shooter skills. To some, shooting is a dangerous pastime. For Riley, it is controlled calm that draws on his days with the Boy Scouts of America.

“It was a different time and a much different world… The cool thing about it was [that it was] all about safety, safety and responsibility,” Riley says. “It wasn’t all glamorized. It was practical applications. It was about how to handle yourself, the weapon, and being hyper aware of your surroundings.”

It takes time to learn how to properly use a firearm, but the Boy Scouts helped Riley learn the necessary skills. He connected with the gun, and liked to go to shooting ranges. So far, his collection consists primarily of bolt-action single-shot rifles.

Similar to music, the challenge of mastering a foreign skill was something that appealed to Riley.

“Like music, it was the discipline that drew me in. Knowing how to get around your weapon. Then there is the challenge of trying to master yourself and your technique of hitting that target,” Riley says. “All the little things that come into play that you need to adjust for to meet your goal. For me it wasn’t about how many rounds you can pop off. It’s about precision and accuracy.”

The Boy Scouts not only introduced him to gun safety, it also taught him how to survive on his own. Over the course of numerous camping trips, he learned the value of the organic world around him.

“It’s a sharp contrast to city life to be in an environment that’s not electronically driven. It allows for a different type of connection mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically,” Riley says. “To be out and listen to a stream as the water gently flows over rocks is very beautiful, peaceful and serene. To camp by the ocean and to look out over the horizon at night and watch the waves crash under a full moon is powerful.”

In his youth, Riley camped in a tent. Now he uses a 25 foot RV with a bed, kitchen, and bathroom included. But even when Riley is out in the expansive wilderness and can absorb the natural beauty around him, nothing compares to the feeling he had after playing in Anaheim Stadium.

For Riley, the most powerful moments are when complete strangers are linked through music.

“It’s mind blowing when you’re doing a tune and you are getting back from the audience just as much or more energy then you’re putting out,” Riley says. “When you connect with another human being it’s memorable.”