He steps up to the mike of the Bitter End in New York City. Cool, casual, retro shoes, a strange orange box -- and the audience is his. “Tick. Tack. Wickety Whack. I wanna be the guy that brings Speak N Spell back.” What does the Village crowd of the famed Bleecker Street club do? They join in, of course, as the musician, aka Burb, literally plays the famous learning toy, proving his contention that the toy harbored a secret desire to be a musical instrument. “Tick. Tack. Wickety Whack…”
“It’s for the kids,” Derrick Harris explains to ChristianMusic. The same goes for his engaging music video, “Oh Bananas.” But, clearly, as the Bitter Enders would attest, it’s more than that. Derrick has devoted his life to youth, ministry, and music – often all three at once.
Derrick grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. “It wasn’t a good town for music until after ‘American Idol,’” he maintains. “Well, it was a well-kept secret before that.” Like many Southerners, and certainly like many of the American Idols, Derrick’s musical start came in church. “I went to a nondenominational church because my friends went there. I got into a band and the Youth pastor loaned me his guitar. My parents were very supportive, though. When they saw how much it meant to me, they got me a guitar.”
At Auburn University, while studying psychology, Derrick put his talents to use with the Christian group, RUF, Reformed University Fellowship, performing on their Praise CD. After graduating, he returned to Birmingham, where he would eventually land the job he desired, performing with Student Stampede, a senior-high outreach group of Briarwood Presbyterian Church.
“I was working at a bank and hating it. I didn’t understand why the Lord would give me this gift if he didn’t want me to use it,” Derrick says. “I decided if the Lord wants me to work in a bank, I’ll be the best banker I can be. The very next day I got a call from Stampede.”
He also signed with Silent Planet Records, where he performed a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” for their tribute album to Brian Wilson, “Making God Smile,” as well as his major debut album, “I’m Not Leaving.” While working on his second album, “3 On The Left,” he hooked up with a manager out of Nashville.
“It was a really bad fit. It was all, ‘you’ve got to look this way,’ ‘write this kind of song this way,’ I got really disillusioned with the Christian Music industry,” Derrick says. “I prayed, Lord, you’ve gifted me with this. Please tell me. Why do you have me here?”
The very next day, Derrick got his answer. A friend came up to him and told him about not one but two people’s lives his ministry and his music had turned around.
“She told me she’d been meaning to tell me for awhile. She’d been on a retreat and a boy told her he was in a bad place, really depressed, was going to commit suicide. He had the gun in his mouth. The image of me came to his mind and convinced him not to.” On the same retreat a girl had told her that she was going to overdose on pills. “She prayed to God to tell her if there was someone who loved her besides her parents,” Derrick says. “She looked up and saw a poster from one of my concerts.”
It was the answer Derrick didn’t know he had been seeking. “Before that, my music and my ministry had been separate for me. The Lord put them together.”
That revelation has led to some interesting places. One of them is the use of a Speak n Spell as a musical instrument to rap with the kids. “That’s a joke. I love Speak n Spell. In Youth Group, I was using it to do fake rap songs. Raps about things in the suburbs, so he is called ‘Burb,’ short for ‘Suburban Legend.’”
His music and ministry have also led him to McLean [Virginia] Presbyterian Church, where he is Youth Director. “I was never going to leave Alabama. I love sweet tea,” he jokes. “But I prayed to be put in the front lines of ministry. Within two months, I got a random call from someone in D.C. I know it’s a cliché, but the Lord just paved the way. They even needed a Membership person, and that’s what A.C. [his wife, Anna Catherine] does.”
McLean Presbyterian Church would be a challenge for a youth director, Derrick explains. This was different from the heart of the Bible belt, where youth groups were more central to community life. In four years, Derrick has completely rebuilt the church’s Youth Ministry.
“It’s different up here,” he says. “You have normal looking kids who are having to deal with serious problems. But,” he adds, “I’ve seen so many kids just… change.”
Derrick has formed a new band and brings his music and a little more subtle ministry to the local Irish pub every week, and, of course, to GreenwichVillage, among other venues. And he’s looking forward to his next album. “A lot of the things I’ve gone through have impacted what I’ve been singing and writing. It’s not so preachy. I write them for the people where I play.” Tick. Tack. Wickety Whack…
-- Nate Lee