Around Baltimore, Don Rice was known as "da Docta" — a regular on the city's music scene who was always pulling other artists aside to talk shop or play his latest tune.
"He wrote songs in all different styles, a true American folk artist," said Kelly Shepherd, 40, a professional musician now based in Massachusetts. "He was a really special musician. I think he was kind of a genius, to be honest with you."
On Monday, Rice, 59, was found inside an SUV parked in the 3900 block of Loch Raven Blvd. in Original Northwood, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. He was the seventh victim during a violent stretch in which 10 people in Baltimore were killed over four days.
A guitar and lyric sheets were found in Rice's car. Police had few leads but Rice was known to operate an unlicensed taxi — or "hack" — and that could have been a motive in the crime, said Maj. Terrence McLarney, commander of the homicide unit.
Younger artists whom he influenced described him as a talented musician who just never got the right break. Instead, he bounced around different venues, supporting the burgeoning careers of others and asking for feedback on his work. He'd fiddle around on the guitar, break into song, or ask them to play backup or collaborate on something he was trying to record.
"You could not be around Don and have him not play a song for you," Shepherd said.
Marc Avon Evans, who runs an open-microphone acoustic series every week at Peace & A Cup of Joe downtown, remembers meeting Rice at a McDonald's on North Avenue in 2008. Rice recognized Evans and struck up a conversation, then started singing a tune he had written for his mother, using the sleeve of his jacket to provide the rhythm as he stood in line for his order.
"It was amazingly real. Honest and heartfelt," Evans wrote in a tribute on Facebook.
Shepherd was 16 when he met Rice at a club called The Jazz Closet, which has since closed. He said Rice was a supportive presence, attending his shows and discussing music.
He said Rice's influences and musical styles ran the gamut: He could write a country-and-western song, a song that sounded Spanish or one that had tinges of calypso. He liked everything from John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders to Carole King and Stevie Wonder. As a singer, his voice was "deep, resonant and very rich, like a speaking voice." He played guitar, keyboard, and drums.
Evans said Rice struggled with drugs and had "lost himself" for a time. Court records show he had numerous drug arrests — concentrated mostly in the early part of the decade — but Evans said Rice appeared to be getting back into a groove spiritually and was getting his voice back.
McLarney confirmed that detectives were told that Rice regularly attended 6 a.m. Narcotics Anonymous meetings at 27th Street and Maryland Avenue. "He wasn't perfect, but he was a good guy and working hard," McLarney said.
The day before his death, Rice had attended the Park Vibe Drum Circle at Druid Hill Park, a weekly event that runs from 3 p.m. to sundown and has attracted influential African-American musicians since the 1960s, said musician Jamal Moore, 31. He said he had been talking with Rice about finally laying down some tracks for an album.
"When they say, 'I wish this talent had been discovered,' that's how I perceived Don. He had some songs that could have easily been hits," Shepherd said. "Had he gotten away from Baltimore, sometimes when you get away from the people and the area that knows you, people really see your talent."
Anyone with information about his death is asked to call the homicide unit at 410-396-2100.
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