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Questions Cloud Life, Death of Saxophonist : Music: Those who loved Donald Myrick are still in shock over his fatal shooting by police in an apartment where drugs allegedly were found.

August 15, 1993|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST LOS ANGELES — Saxophonist Donald Myrick, shot by a police officer when he answered his door with a butane lighter in his hand, was laid to rest at Bethany Baptist Church in West Los Angeles last weekend.

Percussionists tapped out a rhythm on congas and the tambourine. Eight horn men played a swinging fugue. Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey brought a church full of people to their feet when he unleashed his high-soaring rendition of the hymn "Precious Lord."

It was a jazzman's funeral. But troubling questions about Myrick's life and death hung in the air like the grating notes of an unresolved chord.

"We'll get to the bottom of it," said singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr., who let Myrick and his friends rehearse in his Chicago basement more than 30 years ago.

"We'll find out what happened and we'll rectify it," said Brown at the funeral. "But that don't bother Don, because he's gone to join a bigger band."

Myrick, 53 at his death on July 30, had a career that many musicians would envy. He had recorded and toured with English pop star Phil Collins. His solo was featured in Collins' hit song and video "One More Night."

Earlier, he had been with Earth, Wind & Fire, a group that mixed doo-wop vocals, big-band horns, Afro-Latin rhythms and outlandish showmanship and sold millions of records in the 1970s and early '80s.

As his body lay in a casket beneath floral arrangements decorated with black quarter notes and a white dove, mourners spoke of the pure tone and quick musical ear, the generosity and gentleness of the man who was known as Hippmo.

The nickname goes back to childhood days, said Louis Satterfield, a bassist and trombonist who was Myrick's musical partner from college years until the end.

Overweight as a child, the youngster was called "Hippmo-potamus," but as Myrick matured into a master of blues, jazz and pop music, the name came to mean that he was "mo' hip," Satterfield said.

After playing with a college group called The Jazzmen, Myrick started his professional career with the Pharaohs, the house band at the old Regal Theater in Chicago. There he backed entertainers from Louis Armstrong to Smokey Robinson.

Fueled by the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, the Pharaohs and their families followed a clean-living regimen of vegetarianism and black consciousness, but they did not shrink from the good things of life.

"We all were driving Mercedes-Benzes, and most people didn't know what kind of car it was in those days," Satterfield said.

Heeding the call of Maurice White, who played with them in The Jazzmen, the two moved to Southern California to form the core of Earth, Wind & Fire's horn section.

Later, they toured the world with Collins as the Phenix Horns. Myrick also played with Anita Baker, Bobby Blue Bland, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington Jr., Carlos Santana, Nancy Wilson, Diana Ross and others.

A picture on display at the funeral showed him shaking hands with Princess Diana.

"He was getting ready to do an album," Satterfield said. "He was going through some changes but he was coming out of all that. His music was more powerful than all of that. The only weapon he ever had was a weapon of peace--the saxophone."

Separated from his wife of 26 years, diagnosed with leukemia and at loose ends professionally, Myrick was fatally shot by Santa Monica police when they served a search warrant at his small apartment in the Palms area of Los Angeles.

The search team was on the trail of a dial-for-drugs ring that operated out of two addresses on the Westside, Sgt. Gary Gallinot said. Alerted by informants, they put both places under surveillance.

A friend who was with Myrick in his final days said that the musician was not involved in the drug trade. But Gallinot said that detectives identified his apartment as a place where couriers would pick up rock cocaine for delivery to customers who placed their orders by telephone.

With two officers posted at a sliding-glass back door leading to a patio, four officers were at the front when Officer Gary Barbaro knocked and demanded entry at 6:10 a.m.

Opening the door with a key supplied by the management of the Oakwood apartment complex, Barbaro caught sight of Myrick, who authorities say was holding a black metal object that turned out to be a butane lighter.

"We're just as perplexed as to why he'd come to the door with something like that," Gallinot said.

Gallinot said Barbaro feared for his life and fired a bullet that hit Myrick in the chest. The musician died at a hospital a short time later.

A woman who was in the apartment was arrested on drug charges. Also arrested was a man police say headed the alleged cocaine operation, and two alleged drug couriers.

According to court documents, the search of Myrick's apartment turned up what was described as cocaine paraphernalia--a Brillo pad, a metal plate, a heavy-duty razor blade, a fingernail tool, a cotton ball and part of a cigarette--in a night stand.

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