“Normally when people see somebody get onstage with a violin, their first impression is probably ‘Wake me up when it’s over,’ says musician and rising star Derryck “D-Sharp” Gleaton. But the soon to be 24-year-old, who spent his high-school years in Anniston, has a performance resume that is only growing.
“I want to put a new outlook on an old, traditional instrument,” he says. That he did. Gleaton writes his own music, as well as putting a distinctive spin on hip-hop and dance hits, from Nicki Minaj to Deadmau5.
And he does it on an electric-blue violin.
Gleaton wouldn’t have even deigned to pick up the instrument for an elective in school if a trumpet had been available for him to use instead. “When I was in sixth grade, they told everyone to take string orchestra, band or art,” he says. Since all the trumpets had been rented out, he was forced to find a new instrument. “I went and started playing viola, and I fell in love with it the first day.”
Gleaton originally stuck to the script and played standard sheet music, but he soon began mimicking popular songs from the radio, and would play his versions for family and friends.
“I was always kind of a rebel,” he remembers. “It didn’t really take long at all for me to learn how to do things by ear.” Gleaton moved to Anniston with his family when he was 14, and continued to play violin through high school. He performed with the Etowah Youth Orchestra and the JSU Community Orchestra. He graduated high school in 2006.
During his freshman year, while recovering from back surgery to correct scoliosis, Gleaton became turned on to the popular music renditions from the international string quartet Bond.
“I got hooked on them, and that really made me see things a little differently — maybe I don’t have to do classical music all the time,” he says. It was then that Gleaton realized the career possibilities of his talent, and he started thinking even more about how he could extend his music.
He amped up his public performances in and around town, and had his first encounter with the famed Showtime at the Apollo’s “Amateur Night” back in 2005. He competed first on tour in Birmingham, and later performed in New York a total of four times between 2005 and 2006, where he placed first all but once.
He received a music scholarship to the University of Alabama in 2006 and began playing on and off campus, including performing with Smokey Robinson at a concert in Choctaw, Miss.
“I didn’t actually get to meet him or anything, but it was still a cool experience,” he says. Slowly, his star began to rise — at least around town.
“I would go to Walmart and people would say, ‘Hey are you D-Sharp?’” He continued receiving invitations to perform elsewhere, including Atlanta, where his presence always yielded positive results. Eventually, he hit a crossroads, and realized that the time had come for him to try his hand at a professional career.
“I always had the idea that I wanted to move to New York after I graduated … but one day I was just thinking, ‘Why can’t I just move somewhere now and be working on doing music and also working on pursuing my degree?” he says. He decided to take the plunge, and transferred to Georgia State University in January 2010.
Once he arrived, Gleaton began concentrating on networking through playing open mics nights at clubs, holding street performances, doing small collaborations with producers and other artists and building up his web presence through Twitter and YouTube.
“It wasn’t a lot of paid stuff at first … you’ve got to get your name out before you start getting money,” he says, but his hard work is now paying off. He recently performed on four tracks of the new Rick Ross album “God Forgives, I Don’t,” produced by hip-hop mavens The Justice League.
The past year has included performing with the Dave Matthews Tribute Band and, most recently, regular performances in Atlantic City. Gleaton auditioned for a new concept called “Apollo Live” in May, but didn’t make it.
He did, however, decide to give “Amateur Night” at the Apollo another go-round, and is currently competing for the $10,000 grand prize. He won the first two of four show rounds he will have to participate in, and is performing Round 3 on Sept. 5.
“I do it all really — I love playing with DJs, I love playing at nightclubs with party settings. I like to get people dancing. And when you have a violin, that’s not anything that you would normally see,” he says.
Gleaton has several projects in the works, such as collaborations with DJs and producers, and producing his own EP. With luck, he might be able to extend his credits to working with one of his “favorite people in the world,” Black-Eyed Pea member will.i.am. The two had a chance meeting in April when the singer came through Atlanta.
Gleaton, along with other fans, participated in a birthday video in March, and upon encountering him and replaying the segment on his iPad, will.i.am “actually recognized me … playing violin,” he says. “I was kind of floating in thin air for the rest of the night.”
Erin Williams is a graduate of Faith Christian School and the University of Alabama. She is a performing arts aide for the Washington Post Style section.