drums of thunder bandleader
Drums of Thunder founder and Director Louis D’Amico leads his percussion troupe of about 35 Hillside Elementary School 4th and 5th graders in their performance in Nishuane Park at the MAAHF Festival, after the 30th Annual MAAHF Parade on Saturday, June 1.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Drums of Thunder started out 35 years ago as a small drum corps affiliated with Hillside’s performing arts program. Since then, they have been a routine sight at Montclair events, and at big-ticket shows like college football games, NBA and NFL games.

But after 35 years, Louis D’Amico, the band’s founder, coach and teacher, is preparing to step aside.

“Emotionally and mentally, I’m not hanging anything up. Physically, it’s time,” D’Amico said. He is approaching his 71st birthday, and the commute from his home in South Jersey is a long one. Additionally, he needs to be closer to home for family reasons.

But, he said, retiring is a hard decision especially when the group is at the top of its game. “I’m going to miss it dearly. This year has been a big one. Drums of Thunder is really swinging.”

Drums of Thunder will perform on Church Street on June 22. The band is also booked to perform on The Today Show on June 26.

Over the years, the band has performed for the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, and other major-league sports teams, as well as college games at Rutgers.

As news of D’Amico’s pending retirement became known, parents expressed their appreciation for him and his work, calling it legendary.

“Drums of Thunder is more than a program – it is a mindset,” said Cherisse Million whose son, Michael, was part of Drums of Thunder during his time at Hillside, and her daughter, Mikayla, is currently one of the captains. “My children love and respect Mr. D’Amico, as do all the children whose lives he has influenced. He is, and forever will be, a legend in this community. He has devoted his life to Hillside School’s music program, Drums of Thunder and to our children.”

D’Amico was hired as a music teacher at Hillside not too long after the school was designated as Montclair’s arts magnet school in the 1970s.

In 1982, the principal at the time organized a parade in the streets around the school to promote each of the school’s different academic and artistic disciplines. D’Amico had a small concert band accompanied by some drummers. And the drummers especially loved it. D’Amico decided to put together a percussion ensemble, the Hillside Drum Corps. The ensemble eventually changed its name to Drums of Thunder.

“I love young people, and I love music, and I love putting them together. Music is a language that we all understand,” D’Amico told Montclair Local in 2017. “It’s not just notes. It’s music.”

In his career, D’Amico has accrued accolades from state and local officials.

“Montclair’s been very, very good to me,” D’Amico said. Today, a scholarship is offered in his name at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University. He has been honored by the Montclair township council and by the New Jersey Senate.

Every year in June, the fifth-grade students hand over their sticks to the fourth-grade students, and the new captain and commander for the next school year are chosen at a Drums of Thunder special ceremony and dinner.

The students also get a moment to publicly thank their parents for getting them to rehearsals and supporting them.

For now, D’Amico is figuring out what’s next. He has a medical processing business, and he enjoys boating, swimming, cooking and traveling.

D’Amico made the announcement to his students that this year would be his last. “I told them. They were very upset, and there were many tears. Both on the children’s part, and mine.”

The drums are staying, he had to assure them. So too is the massive collection of photos on the music room’s bulletin boards.

“‘But Mr. D’Amico, are you going to take your chair?’” asked one student.

“‘No, I’m leaving the chair,’” he told the students.

“‘But that’s your chair!’” the children said.

Regarding his successor, D’Amico said school administration is working on finding a teacher who is willing to keep a percussion program, in some form, at Hillside. He has been asked to help review resumes and point to some candidates who may be promising.

“[The principal] knows I can’t be cloned,” D’Amico remarked.