Written by: Dale Liesch, Lagniappe
Date: February 23, 2022 - Cover Story

Beat of His Own

The mohawked drummer simply known as Chico has become almost as big a part of Mobile Mardi Gras as the humble MoonPie, but it wasn’t always that way for the South Carolina native, who is celebrating 30 years of parade performances this season.

Before Chico McCollum was known for playing a drum kit along parade routes in the home of the country’s first Carnival celebration, he was a kid who wanted to follow in his family’s footsteps and play music.

“What I always wanted to do is kind of funny because I’m doing it,” he said. “My dad played multiple instruments and I’ve got two older brothers who both played drums. So, I was always into music.”

After moving to Daphne from Orangeburg, South Carolina, McCollum was enrolled at Fairhope High School, where he started playing in what he called a drum class before moving on to play pit percussion for the Pirates’ marching band and spending a lot of time in the band room.

“I was in a percussion class and I went there just so I could learn to read music,” he said. “So, in my junior year, the band director recruited me to play in the jazz band. In my senior year, I was in the marching band and I played in the pit.”

McCollum said he paraded as part of the school band, but can’t remember participating in any Mardi Gras celebrations. Instead, it was mostly Christmas parades and similar activities.

“Mostly our stuff was Homecoming or Christmas,” he said. “We didn’t do Mardi Gras. I don’t remember a lot of Mardi Gras stuff going on.”

After graduating from high school in 1988, McCollum had planned to join the U.S. Navy, but took a chance on music instead. He joined the Faulkner State Community College band on a recommendation from Fairhope’s band director.

“I played at Faulkner for a year and realized it wasn’t my bag,” McCollum said. “I wanted to be a rock star. My focus, you know, was what is it going to take to become a rock star and of course, now we’re talking about bar band after bar band.”

It was a “bar band” that got McCollum started on the route to Mardi Gras entertainment renown. One of the first bands the drummer put together was called “The Scapegoats.”

“We were a three-piece, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk band basically,” he said. It was the thing you’d expect to hear at a biker bar.”

The Scapegoats gave McCollum his first taste of Mardi Gras parading. He compared the experience to growing up around festivals in South Carolina, where a different band would play on different stages throughout a city. The first parade The Scapegoats rolled with was the Order of Polka Dots, but that wasn’t originally the plan. During that time, he said, the Polka Dots rolled the night after the Conde Cavaliers.

“The first parade we were supposed to play in was the Condes, but the generator we had wasn’t big enough to push everything and so I was like ‘no, we’re not going out like this,’” he said. “So, the next night, we had a big enough generator and it was the Polka Dots.”

McCollum has been a permanent fixture in the Polka Dots parade ever since, except for in 2021, the year parades didn’t happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All together, McCollum has been rolling for three decades.

“Technically, I missed last year, but I’m counting it because I played a bunch of porch parties,” he said. “I’m rolling with the number 30.”

After The Scapegoats, McCollum and a friend founded the band Los Bastardos, which also performed in parades. After Los Bastardos, the men collaborated to create SoupBone. Although SoupBone is no longer together, McCollum said he gets called the band’s name from time to time.

Photo | Dale Liesch

The transition from riding as a percussionist in a band to rolling solo came as a result of new Carnival organizations wanting to hire McCollum and not being able to pay for the whole band. This worked well for him, he said, because he had already begun teasing the idea of looping samples of songs to pads connected to a drum kit. This trick would allow him to play alone and still produce more than just one long drum solo. Basically, McCollum can play his normal kit, but at times can hit a pad to the left to trigger a different instrument sound, guitar or bass run.

“I used to DJ, so I took the idea from a DJ into the idea of how I can trigger these songs and still perform in a parade,” he said. “I would do this for a couple of parades a year and ride with the band during others.”

More recently, McCollum has performed solo throughout the entire Carnival season.

Also, within the last two years, he has quit his job as a truck driver to become a full-time musician and work part-time as an assistant trucking instructor at Bishop State Community College. McCollum’s father, brother, and uncle were all truck drivers. He said he played with toy trucks as a kid and still has a fleet of remote-controlled trucks he plays with to this day.

“I love trucks,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed taking my talent and pushing it off to someone else. That’s what I’m doing now.”

In addition to parades, McCollum plays drawdowns for mystic organizations and gigs at bars under the name Chico Drums. However, it’s the exposure from Mardi Gras that has made that possible because Mobilians have come to know McCollum through his participation in the parades over the years. He said he began to notice the notoriety over the last 15 to 20 years.

“People started saying, ‘That’s Chico and he plays the drums during the Mardi Gras,’” McCollum said. “I’ve done news interviews and things over the years. I’ve consistently been shown on the news to where that 10-year-old kid up to their grandma knows who I am.”

McCollum’s personal style and attitude toward the revelry have certainly made an impression on local paradegoers. The signature curly mohawk the 54-year-old sports is an homage to Mr. T and has been on top of his head, in some form, since he was 19 years old.

McCollum notes that he’s had to cut his mane twice for jobs — once as a truck driver because his hair was purple and another time to be a ballroom dance instructor — but the mohawk has always survived.

“So, I basically went from a long hair mohawk to high and tight with hair on top,” he said in reference to the job at the dance school. “It pissed all the old ladies off. They were mad.”

In addition to the hair, McCollum has a signature move, where he points to revelers along the parade routes using a drumstick. He began the pointing out of necessity, he said.

“I think what it is is because I’m playing the drums and I’m rocking out and I’m twirling the sticks, I’d see people I knew and I’d point at them with the stick because it was just the easy thing to do,” McCollum said.

Performing in a Mardi Gras parade is an excellent experience, McCollum said. To him, It transcends a musical genre.

“There’s an energy and I think the neat part about that is if we come out of the gate with a good groove, a good solid groove, then sometimes I don’t think it depends on the [style of] music,” McCollum said. “They start to tap their toes; they start to shake their heads, they start to get into it.

“The smile on people’s faces and seeing them uplifting that half a minute or minute we’re right there with them. It’s infectious.”

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