Keeping the Faith
Friends, Family, and the Gospel Music Community Mourn the Murder of Baltimore Drummer Lydell Honeyblue
“The person [who] did that don’t really know what they did,” Rodney Honeyblue says of his younger brother’s killer. “[He] didn’t just take my brother away, he took something away from hundreds of thousands of people around the country.”
Honeyblue was the youngest of seven children in a devout family. When he was 4, his favorite game was to pretend to be a gospel musician with his brothers. “When my mother would go out to work, we would change the whole living room around into a church scene,” Rodney remembers. Lydell would play the “drums,” banging out the beat on their mother’s pots and pans. Soon he got his first drum set and taught himself how to play. By the time he was in elementary school, Lydell was playing at New Refuge Deliverance Cathedral in Mount Vernon, and when he was 11, he and his stepbrother Damon Little formed a band called Damon Little and the Sons of Power.
In the mid-1980s, after a record label employee heard the group performing at a church in New Jersey, they went to New York City and recorded “Amazing Grace” as a single for Spirit Records. In 1990, Sons of Power recorded its first full-length album, I’ve Been Changed, for Wajji Records after being introduced to the label by gospel performers the Blind Boys of Alabama. But still in his mid-teens, Honeyblue was not ready to tour to promote Changed, and so after some initial play on gospel stations around the country, Damon and the Sons of Power’s debut album faded from the airwaves. But Honeyblue kept working at his craft, performing with local groups, including the Morgan State University Choir under the direction of Nathan Carter, and spent a year touring with an R&B cover band. But his heart remained fixed on gospel music.
“When he came back home [from touring], he was like, ‘Man I got to go back to gospel,’” Rodney says. His brother preferred gospel, he says, because “it helped people, it was uplifting. When a person goes into a place to listen to gospel music, no matter what’s on their mind, they never go out the same way that they went in. They may still have the same problems, but they don’t have the same feelings, or they have a different outlook on those problems. And that’s what makes it so wonderful.”
In 2000, Honeyblue and Little started a new band called Damon Little and the Nu Beginning, for which Honeyblue handpicked most of the musicians himself. And for many of the band’s younger members, the then-mid-20s Honeyblue was already something of a mentor.
“I actually lived at his house when I started with the group,” says Marcus Stanley, the band’s keyboardist, whom Honeyblue recruited when Stanley was just 17. “I stayed at his house for about three months. I was just practicing every day. It was nice. The time just flew by—just took me in like I was part of the family.”
During this time, Honeyblue influenced Stanley as a musician as well. “When I first started, I didn’t think I was able to play on a professional level,” he recalls. “He just gave me that confidence to just go ahead and try it.”
His friends and family describe Honeyblue as a quiet man who was always working at his music, even when his drum kit wasn’t nearby. You could be sitting next to him, they say, and realize that the whole time he had been working out a song in his head. “That was his life,” Rodney Honeyblue says, “music, his kids, and my mother.”
Even when Honeyblue wasn’t touring, which kept him away from home most of the year, he still worked diligently at his music, his brother notes, laying down tracks in local studios or on his computer. Honeyblue also produced R&B and hip-hop tracks in his spare time. “We lived in the same house, and the computer was actually in my bedroom,” Rodney says. “I used to fuss with him all the time: ‘Man, what are you doing now? I can’t sleep.’”
Jean Alston, assistant program director for WWIN-AM Spirit 1400, who knew Honeyblue since he was a child, says, “He was the sweetest guy that you would ever want to meet. He was a family-oriented person even on the road. With everything going on, he was always calling home, making sure everything was all right.” Honeyblue had two daughters, Imani, 10, and Symone, 1.
Alston also recalls being struck by the depth of Honeyblue’s spirituality, saying he could frequently be seen reading the Bible and heard quoting scripture. “He was the most ministry-minded drummer that I ever knew, for real, and person, too,” Stanley agrees.
He spent his Sundays, when not on tour, performing at local church services, often more than one a day. “He never went in the house,” Rodney says of Honeyblue on Sundays. “He grabbed his stuff and he went up there [to church] and played.”
In 2001, Damon Little and the Nu Beginning signed a record deal with World Wide Music, the Houston-based gospel label. Kerry Douglas, founder and CEO of World Wide, says he was sold on the group when he heard its song, “You Can’t Straddle the Fence.”
“The thing that made me like Damon Little’s music is that he had a combination of [sounds],” Douglas says. “It wasn’t just gospel. He used a combination of blues and traditional quartet.” That mixture was largely because of Honeyblue, Douglas credits, who was constantly at work refining the band’s sound.
“What he would do a lot of times, he would get the band together at the hotel and he would teach them new breaks or new intros to do and kind of surprise me when I came onstage,” Little says. “I looked at him while I’m coming out onto the stage like, ‘Oh you did it to me again.’ And he’ll just be laughing.”
Nu Beginning’s first album on World Wide, You Can’t Straddle the Fence (2002), did well, getting nationwide airplay and sparking a tour of churches and gospel festivals around the country. Then producer Matthew Knowles—father of Beyoncé Knowles—heard the album’s title track and asked Little and Honeyblue to include it on his 2003 compilation, Spirit Rising. The album in turn was nominated for a Stellar Award, which industry figures describe as gospel’s equivalent of a Grammy.
Nu Beginning issued its second album, Do Right, in September 2004, and it quickly landed in the top 30 on the national gospel charts. The album’s success moved Nu Beginning to a new tier in gospel, and soon the band was asked to perform on Radio One’s One Love Gospel Cruise, a music-themed cruise to the Bahamas that featured such industry heavy hitters as BeBe Winans.
Honeyblue, however, would never get there. He was walking home from a friend’s studio around midnight Dec. 29 when he was robbed at gunpoint and shot in the chest. The police found him lying on the street not far from his home.
“I have walked through that neighborhood 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning—I mean walked, not driving, walked—and nobody has even said ‘boo’ to me,” Rodney Honeyblue says. “And for him to be five blocks away from the house, if that far, and to get a half-block away and get murdered is just crazy.”
Rodney and his family did not learn of Lydell’s fate until the next morning. Rodney, who had stayed over at a friend’s house, got a call from Yulonda Square, the mother of Honeyblue’s 1-year-old daughter, saying that Honeyblue was supposed to have picked the girl up that morning but never came. Rodney then called his brother’s cell phone.
“A detective answered the phone and he said that he really needs to meet with the family,” he recollects. “And that’s when I knew then that something was really wrong.” When the detective arrived, he had a picture of Honeyblue taken after his death.
The family was devastated, especially Lydell’s mother Lucille Honeyblue, “They were really close, really close,” Rodney says. “They had gotten like peanut butter-and-jelly close. She’s really. . . I don’t even have the words to explain how she feels. I mean, her baby son.”
On Jan. 4, family, friends, and fellow musicians from across the country gathered at New Refuge Deliverance Cathedral, the church Honeyblue had attended all his life, to say goodbye. The 1,000-seat church was at standing-room-only capacity. Rodney met two women who rode a bus for 15 hours to be present at his brother’s funeral.
“Didn’t know where they were going to stay. Didn’t really have money. Didn’t know how they were going to get from the bus station to the funeral,” Rodney recalls of the pair. “Didn’t know anything, but all they knew is they was coming. And that was the attitude. We’re still getting phone calls from all around the country about this.”
Last week, Nu Beginnings went ahead with its original plans, setting sail on the One Love Gospel Cruise as scheduled. But Lydell Honeyblue’s band mates say the ensemble will never be the same.
“It’s just like something’s missing, because this was a big deal that we just had put together and he was supposed to be a part of it,” Little says. “It makes me go on because I know that’s what he would want us to do. But it’s like a part of me is gone.”
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