Formed in Birmingham in 1964, the St. Christopher Steel Band was made up of seven members who were all originally from St. Kitts. The group’s Guitar pan player and vocalist John Rawlins was born in St.Kitts in 1940. He began singing with a steel band in St. Kitts at the age of 14 but hadn’t yet learnt to play the instrument. He soon learnt to play the pans and took up Guitar pan. John, known as Tim, came to England at the age of 19 in August 1959. He saw the move as an opportunity to work and help his family in St. Kitts financially. He first lived in Wednesbury in Sandwell where his cousin had secured him a job at Patent Shaft Steel Works. He arrived on Sunday and began working as a labourer on Monday. As well as working as a labourer he trained as a Spare Man. He later worked at GKN Steel Works and Sertec Steel Works in Birmingham. John joined the St. Christopher Steel Band in 1964. The other members were:
Leroy Matthew (Tenor pan, bandleader, arranger)
Franklyn Norford (Guitar pan)
Wendell ‘Pat’ Boone (Double second pan)
Melvyn Edwards (Cello pan, vocals)
Rudolph ‘Midge’ Davies (Drums, vocals)
Peter Edwards (Bass, vocals)
The band performed locally and built up a fan base. Their repertoire included ‘Elizabethan Serenade’, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Island In The Sun’ and ‘Yellow Bird’. The band also composed their own music but were best known for their covers. They took part in the first Leeds West Indian Carnival in 1967 and entered the steel pan competition, the first of its kind, and took first place with their version of ‘Elizabethan Serenade’. St. Christopher Steel Band performed at other carnivals across the country in the 1970s including Nottingham Carnival in 1970 and 1971. The band became well-known in their home city of Birmingham and played throughout the city including an appearance at the 1970 May Ball held at the University of Aston where they shared the stage with Chris Barber and The Fourmost.
St. Christopher Steel Band’s big break came in 1974 when they made an appearance on the TV talent show ‘New Faces’. They were the first steel band to appear on the show, predating 20th Century Steel Band’s winning appearance in 1975. St. Christopher Steel Band came fourth on the show but were spotted by a Mr. Franklin, a travel agent. Mr. Franklin offered them a two week gig at a hotel in Spain. The band went on to play in clubs, pubs and hotels around the world. They played concerts in England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Germany, India and the UAE. During a residency in Dubai the band were not allowed to drink alcohol in the city but could buy alcohol outside of Dubai. The band members would travel outside of Dubai and smuggle alcohol back to their hotel room, risking a prison sentence. Once the hotel manager found out, the band were certain they would be arrested. To their delight the manager understood that musicians enjoyed a drink and told them that they could purchase alcohol from him as long as they only drank it in their hotel room.
Back in England, St. Christopher Steel Band made an appearance on the BBC Radio programme ‘Caribbean Corner’ and in 1977 they recorded the album ‘Island In The Sun’. The album was recorded at Grosvenor Recording Studios in Birmingham and was released on the local label Hollik & Taylor. The album contained twelve tracks that were “their fans’ requested favourites”. St. Christopher Steel Band disbanded around 1977/1978. John Rawlins went on to join the Tropical Islanders Steel Band who made an appearance on the TV show ‘Alright Now’ in December 1980 and later appeared on ‘Tiswas’. He then joined the Sunjest Steel Band who recorded a number of CDs and was later a member of the Caribbean Harmonics Steel Band who made a DVD of their performances.
St. Clair Morris was born in Ottley’s Village in St. Kitts on 28 June 1938. Music had always played an important role in his life. His grandfather had been a drummer with a troupe of Masqueraders in St.Kitts and his father had a passion for music too. St. Clair began playing Steel Pans and singing at the age of 14. He began his own family in St.Kitts in the early 1960s. His wife, Gloria, also came from a musical background and had a beautiful singing voice. She would sing in the church choir and still sings in a choir today. Her aunty had wanted to take her to America and start her singing career but Gloria decided to stay in St.Kitts and marry the love of her life, St. Clair Morris.
St. Clair travelled to England alone in 1961, leaving his family behind in the Caribbean. He first lived in Birmingham but the racist atmosphere of 1960s Britain made life difficult. Work and homes were hard to find for a black man living in Britain. Most Landlords wouldn’t rent rooms to black people and when he applied for work he was told the jobs were already gone. St. Clair moved to Leeds after hearing there was a community of people from St. Kitts and Nevis living there. In Leeds, the West Indian community helped each other out, they helped each other find jobs and buy homes. Once he was settled in England, St. Clair sent for his wife and daughter who joined him in Leeds in the winter of 1963. Gloria and her young daughter arrived in England a day earlier than planned and St. Clair wasn’t there to meet them. Mother and child had to make their own way from London to Leeds, giving St. Clair a pleasant surprise when they arrived.
St. Clair Morris took on a number of jobs over the years including bus driver, builder and DJ. His passion for music meant St. Clair Morris owned a large record collection that included folk, soul, calypso, and reggae records. His love of music shaped all six of his children, five of whom took on music as careers. St. Clair worked as a band roadie, transporting steel pan bands such as Esso Steel Band and Desperadoes Steel Band to gigs in his van. A friend suggested that he formed his own steel band, after all he already had the van and so St. Clair Morris formed Paradise Steel Band in September 1973. The band’s first line-up consisted of six players. (One tenor pan, two sets of double seconds, two sets of double guitars, one set of four bass, and one set of drums). St. Clair built and tuned steel pans in his basement. He taught drums, bass and steel pan in his home on Gathorne Terrace and encouraged his children to be musical. He bought his daughter Annette a bass guitar when she was eight years old and the family would often jam together with daughter Paulette sitting behind the drums. Some of his children even joined Paradise Steel Band and performed at the Leeds West Indian Carnival. Young Annette found the bass guitar to be too heavy and gave it up, preferring to sing. Her mother Gloria taught her to harmonize. While driving home from a gig on 5 November 1975 St.Clair Morris and his wife Gloria were witness to riots taking place in the Chapeltown area of Leeds. Without explanation, St. Clair was arrested and held at the local police station. St. Clair had not taken part in the riots and was simply trying to go home after work. Gloria Morris was kicked out the Chapeltown Police Station when she asked how to contact a solicitor. She was then taken to hospital.
St. Clair worked as a preacher for a time, travelling the country at weekends and giving sermons. His family would travel with him and after the sermon St. Clair would play guitar and his family would sing hymns. Paradise Steel Band would play gigs around Chapeltown and further afield and St. Clair’s daughters Paulette and Annette were fascinated by the live music and would follow the band around. They were often kicked out of the venue by their father but would listen in from outside. The two girls shared their father’s love of music and during the hot summer of 1976 they spent the whole summer playing records into the street on their father’s double turntable record player. Their music tastes varied from George Benson and Roberta Flack to ABBA and Gary Glitter but it was reggae music that gave the teenage girls a sense of identity and belonging. Artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear delivered a message to a new generation of British born West Indians and their music acted as a link to the Caribbean. It was around this time that, at the age of 13, Annette grew dreadlocks and became a Rasta. Artists like Third World, Steel Pulse, Aswad, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown, The Royal Rasses and The Twinkle Brothers were big influences on the sisters along with the music education they received from their parents.
St. Clair Morris became a Steel Pan teacher in 1976, travelling to schools across Yorkshire to teach steel pans to children when schools were allocated money to help combat racism and promote arts from other cultures. It is now believed that St. Clair was the first Steel Pan teacher in Europe. St. Clair Morris planned lessons, chose the repertoire, managed classes and even transported the instruments from one school to the next in his own van. Children from the school would help St. Clair unload and re-pack the van. The steel pans had been bought by the Leeds Music Support Service. Because he was their father, Annette and Paulette were not allowed to sit in on the lessons. Over the years St. Clair taught some of Leeds’s best players who have gone on to teach and run their own steel bands. These include Melvin Zaker (teaches pan and runs New World Steel Orchestra), Wanda Thorpe (runs Oulton Steel Band), Charlotte Emery (runs South Steel), Bex Ainge (runs East Steel), Eileen Butterworth (runs St. John Fisher Band in Dewsbury), Victoria Jaquiss (runs Foxwood Steel and Leeds Silver Steel Sparrows) and Pauline Williams (runs Pantazia in London).
Paradise Steel Band’s line-up changed over the years but St. Clair remained with the band for 44 years. Paradise Steel Band made an appearance on the TV show 3,2,1 in 1982. More TV show appearances followed including Emmerdale Farm, Songs of Praise, Look North, and Calendar News. The band also made appearances on radio including Radio Leeds and Radio Aire. In 1985 they were featured on the album ‘Sounds of Yorkshire’ performing the song ‘Breeze In’. St. Clair Morris made several other recordings as the Paradise Steel Band. The band travelled across the UK and even Europe to make appearances. They made several trips to Germany and performed at the Battle of the Flowers in Jersey.
Inspired by performances by the Great Despers and the Catelli All Stars, St. Clair Morris added more players to his band and formed the Paradise Steel Orchestra in 1984. Among the orchestra’s players was St. Clair’s 11-year-old son David Morris who, taught by his father, had become a very talented drummer. By 1986 David was teaching the orchestra himself. Their repertoire included ‘Zampa Overture’, ‘Pan In A Minor’, and ‘The Hammer’. The Paradise Steel Orchestra made their debut at the National Steelband Festival in Warwickshire in June 1984. As the Paradise Steel Orchestra, the band’s popularity grew during the second half of the 1980s. In the first six months of their career alone they made performed at Police Day at Roundhay Park, the Grand Theatre in Leeds, Leeds West Indian Carnival, and the Labour Party Conference. They also made appearances on Calendar, Look North and Radio Aire. 1984 also saw the forming of the New World Steel Orchestra in Leeds. All of the orchestra’s original members had been students of St. Clair Morris. The Paradise Steel Orchestra returned to the National Steelband Festival in 1987. They were then invited to take part in the Panorama contest in London, becoming the first steel pan band from the North of England to enter the contest and the first Northern Steel Band to perform at the Notting Hill Carnival.
Annette and Paulette Morris joined their first band in 1980 while still in their teens. The reggae band Black Steel already had two singers but wanted something fresh and different and Annette and Paulette were asked to join the group. Annette was in the hospital ill at the time but agreed to join Black Steel after her sister turned up to the hospital excited about the proposal. Annette was still ill when their first gig came around but was determined that the show went on. They were one of the local bands to perform at the Rock Against Racism concert held in Potternewton Park in July 1981, sharing the stage with The Specials, Misty In Roots and Aswad. The sisters later joined the band Malika who later became Exiles Intact. The band played gigs across the country, toured the university circuit and built up a fan base. Under the management of a local man named Winston Smith, Exiles Intact made an appearance on the ITV game show 3,2,1 in 1984. The same show Paradise Steel Band had appeared on two years earlier. Making an appearance on television was a great achievement, especially for a group of black youths from the north of England. Before the show, Annette and Paulette were taken shopping by a woman from the wardrobe department to buy new outfits while the other band member’s outfits were picked out by their manager who wanted to ensure the band looked fabulous while making their TV debut. Exiles Intact performed a song Paulette Morris had written called ‘Lazy Day’.
The TV appearance led to a record contract on the Wonderful Musical World Of Chris Dixon label. From there, everything happened very quickly for the band. They recorded a single at Woodlands Studios, located in a bedroom in Chapeltown. The A-side, ‘Who Is There’, was written by the Morris sister and the B-side was a cover of The Drifters’ song ‘On Broadway’. Both sides were produced by Neil Ferguson. The band was then taken on a photoshoot and in August 1985 they were one of the acts at the very first Reggae Concerts (then called the Black Heroes Concert and now called the Black Music Festival) in Potternewton Park. Annette and Paulette continued to perform with Exiles Intact in venues around Leeds for the next couple of years and the group were returning headliners at the annual reggae concerts held in Potternewton Park. The band went through a number of line-up changes, with members leaving and being replaced and in 1989 the sisters were offered a record deal and left the band. Exiles Intact split up not long afterwards.
Annette and Paulette Morris formed Royal Blood in 1989. Backed by Stone Roots they made a TV appearance on Ebony On The Road later in the year preforming ‘Things I Would Do’. The segment was recorded at The West Indian Centre in Leeds and St. Clair Morris was at the front of the stage to support his daughters. Royal Blood were signed to the Ariwa label and in 1990 they travelled to London to record with producer Mad Professor. They recorded the vocals for their debut single, ‘Slipping Away’, in one take and it was released with ‘Twin Gate Dub’ on the B-side. ‘Slipping Away’ was a hit on the Reggae Charts and was included on the Pure Lovers Volume 1 compilation released by Charm in 1990. It was followed by a second single, ‘Conscious Love’. In 1992 Royal Blood featured on the Black Story single ‘Will We Stay’, a song they had written. In 1997 they recorded the single ‘I Don’t Wanna Be The One’ which was produced by Barry Boom and released on the Real Ting label. It was also included on Charm’s Pure Lovers Volume 10 compilation. The duo later signed to Phase One Records and in 1998 they returned to London to record an album. Their debut album, ‘Royal Blood’, contained ten tracks, eight
of which had been written by Paulette. Three singles were released from the album (‘One Love’ (an original song not a cover of the Bob Marley song), ‘Reasons’, and ‘Waiting In The Park’) but none of them had the same success as ‘Slipping Away’. A chance meeting in the studio lead them to touring with Boyzone from May – July 1999 which was followed by a tour with Peter Andre. A tour with Finley Quaye took the duo across the UK, Europe and South America. In 2006 the sisters wrote ‘They Live In The Sky’ which was recorded by William Orbit for his album ‘Hello Waveforms’. The sisters also provided backing vocals on the track. In 2014 Royal Blood toured with Motown Legend Martha Reeves. In March 2015 the duo released their second album ‘The Journey Pt. 1’. Annette and Paulette still perform as Royal Blood and in 2018 they were one of the acts at the Salute To Reggae concert at Millennium Square in Leeds.
All five of Annette’s children are musical and many of them have recorded albums. It’s no wonder Annette jokingly refers to her family as the Von Trapp Family of Chapeltown. Her eldest son, Ethan, is a rapper who goes by the names Dreadman and Big Cush. His single ‘I’m Evil’ was released in 2015. He has released a number of albums on the Invizible label including Annesia Haze, Esoteric Hydroponics, and Percival Street. Another of her sons, Kyrann, also raps under the name K-One and in 2012 he released the album Natural Density. Annette’s youngest son, Hesh Rob, is also a rapper and has recorded with his two brothers.
Annette’s twin daughters Tila and Tavelah Robinson have been singing together since the age of 3. Tila and Tavelah have appeared on stage in shows that include the Carnival Messiah and The Wiz. In 2012 they performed at the Olympic Torch Ceremony in Leeds. The twins, who were born in August 1995, appeared on the TV talent show The Voice in 2014. The girl’s father, Carl Robinson, was the drummer with Exiles Intact and has also drummed with Finley Quaye and Cee Lo Green. On their first appearance on The Voice, the twins performed
The Black Eyed Peas’ song ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ during the Blind Audition round. Backstage Carl and Annette and other family members cheered them on. They were picked by judge Ricky Wilson and were sent through to the next round. Ricky Wilson coached the twins for the remainder of their time in the contest. Tila and Tavelah’s appearance on The Voice resulted in them receiving national media attention and they quickly became fan favourites. Unfortunately, the twins didn’t make it to the third round of the contest. In 2015 they won the ‘Rare Rising Stars’ award and in 2016, under the name TnT, they released the single ‘So Good’ featuring S.H.F.M.O. Tila and Tavelah Robinson continue to perform and recently they were headliners at the 2018 concert ‘A Taste of The Caribbean’ in Leeds.
The twin’s aunty, Paulette Morris, has also worked closely with Ricky Wilson as a member of The Ship-Tones. Formed in 2014, the Ship-Tones blended Reggae and Indie on their 2015 album Indie Reggae Revolution which featured Ricky Wilson on the track ‘Ickle Shocks’. The album also featured Ryan Jarman & Gary Jarman (The Cribs), Justin Young (The Vaccines) and Edwyn Collins. The album was number one on the Reggae New Releases chart.
St. Clair Morris passed away in Leeds, England on 6 October 2017. His legacy lives on in his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the hundreds of students he taught music to. His death made local and international news and he was posthumously honoured at the C50 awards on 22 October. His funeral, which took place at St Aidan’s Church on 27 October, was featured on the local news programme Look North. St. Clair Morris continued to play with Paradise Steel Band until the week of his death. The steel band continue to play at venues across the country, continuing St. Clair’s legacy. The Morris/Robinson family’s musical talents show no signs of slowing down. St. Clair’s five-year-old great-grandson has already shown a keen interest in playing the drums, making him the sixth generation of the family born with a passion for music.
Special Thanks to Annette Morris who provided a lot of the information in the above piece.
One of Leeds’ first Steel Pan Bands, The Caribbeans, were formed around 1958. They formed in Seacroft, Leeds and were lead by Wilfred Alexander. Wilfred formed the band as a way to make friends. He worked long hours at a boiler house in Birstall just outside of Leeds. The band’s other members changed over the years but some of the main members included Willie, Shaun Saunder, Irvin Stephens and Robert Johnson. All six members of the band were born in Saint Kitts. The band’s first gig came when Wilfred’s boss asked him if the band would play at the company’s annual dance in Harrogate. The band played a few gigs around Leeds before their lineup changed to include a singer. One night a young man in the audience had some criticism of the band, he liked the playing but said they needed a singer. Wilfred told him if he was up for the challenge he could join the band. The critic was Sonny Marks and while he had a good voice, he only knew one song and was asked to learn more songs before joining the band.
Sonny Marks was born in Saint Kitts in September 1941 and arrived in Leeds in 1957. He trained and worked as a car mechanic during the daytime and in the evenings he played with The Caribbeans. The band made their own instruments out of oil drums and Wilfred Alexander believes he was the first person to knock up pan in Yorkshire. For the first two years of their career they played just for pleasure. They turned professional around 1961 after suggestions from family, friends and neighbours. The band performed in working men’s clubs around Leeds and eventually made enough money to allow them to quite their day jobs.
During the 1960s they toured the UK and even the world, playing shows in Europe and the Middle East. They played up and down the country, playing six weeks in Scotland and six weeks in Skegness. They even had professional photos taken of them in matching uniforms of orange floral shirts and black trousers. They made several appearances on Scottish television appearing on a children’s TV programme.
On 31 July 1965 the group appeared on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. On the show they were billed as ‘Caribbean All Steel Band’ but it seems they were only ever called this name on the show. (Some claim this was a steel band from Liverpool lead by Lord Woodbine with a similar name however, evidence shows otherwise.) They were the fifth act to appear on the show, introduced by Hughie Green. The first act on were last week’s winners The Headliners (two men and a woman with guitars). They were followed by Anthony Graham (piano and falsetto singer), Duggie Clark (comic) and Lisa Gordon (pop singer). When the Caribbean All Steel Band appeared on stage the act
with the most points was comedian Duggie Clark who had scored 70 points on the clap-o-meter (which gave points based on volume of the audiences claps and cheers). The Caribbean All Steel Band had to beat Duggie Clark’s score to win the contest. They wore matching uniforms of white trousers and gold shirts. They spoke about how they made their own instruments and performed two numbers. The first was an instrumental version of ‘In The Mood’ and the second was ‘My Baby And Me’ with Sonny Marks on lead vocals. They were followed by a trapeze act called The Flying Paulos.Their score isn’t known but it was over 70 because they won and went on to appear on the show the following week. Their first appearance on Opportunity Knocks is now kept in the BFI archive. It is one of two episodes of Opportunity Knocks from the 1960s to survive. The rest, including The Caribbean All Steel Band’s second appearance, have been lost.
Appearing on Opportunity Knocks could lead to a recording contract as it had done for Mary Hopkin in 1968 but recording opportunities didn’t knock for The Caribbeans and 1965 was the height of their fame.
The band continued to play and tour and later added keyboards and a full drum kit to their lineup. Sonny Marks played both of these at one time. The band’s members changed over the years but they continued to perform and tour for over 50 years. Sonny Marks continued to sing and during a family holiday in Skegness in the 1990s he won a talent contest. The prize was another holiday, during which he entered the contest again and won again. He won every year for five years before he was asked to stop entering the competition. In Leeds he made some recordings which included versions of ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ (both of which can be found on Youtube). Sonny Marks passed away in Leeds in September 2014.
The Caribbean Steel Band were mentioned at the ’50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival’ exhibition at The Tetley in Leeds in 2017 and in May 2018, the band’s two surviving members Wilfred Alexander and Irvin Stephens took part in ‘A Brief History of Pan’, an evening celebrating the heritage of steel pan, at the Mandela Centre in Leeds. Now in his 80s, Wilfred Alexander continues to play steel pans with The Caribbeans. In June 2018 the band performed at ‘Bands In The Park’ at Cross Flatts Park in Leeds.
The Caribbeans mentioned at the special exhibition ’50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival’ at The Tetley, Leeds.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, pop musicians in England began to experiment with new sounds. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks began using African, Asian, and Middle-Eastern instruments in their recordings. British composer Daphne Oram had first used electronically manipulated sounds of steel pans in her work as early as 1965. Her 1965 piece ‘Pulse Persephone’ was used at the Treasures of the Commonwealth exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London. It was British band The Hollies who first used steel pans in pop music in their 1967 single ‘Carrie-Anne’. The group hired a London busker to play on the recording. Ever since the use of steel pans in The Hollies’ 1967 single ‘Carrie-Anne’, the instrument has been used in numerous genres including Hip Hop, R&B, Rock, Dance, Country, and Jazz. Below is a list of notable examples from throughout the decades and from around the world.
Love The One You’re With – Stephen Stills (1970)
Apeman – The Kinks (1970)
Co-Co – The Sweet (1971)
Poppa Joe – The Sweet (1972)
Did You Ever Love Me– Fleetwood Mac (1973)
Salmon Falls – Harry Nilsson (1975)
Island Girl – Elton John (1975)
Zombie Jamboree – Harry Nilsson (1976)
Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town – Talking Heads (1977)
Every Kinda People – Robert Palmer (1978)
Rivers of Babylon – Boney M. (1978)
Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) – John Lennon (1980)
The Street Parade – The Clash (1980)
Just The Two Of Us – Bill Withers (1981)
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic – The Police (1981)
Gone Troppo – George Harrison (1982)
Come Dancing – The Kinks (1982)
Right By Your Side – Eurythmics (1983)
Side By Side – Earth, Wind & Fire (1983)
Shot In The Dark – Belinda Carlisle (1986)
New Position – Prince And The Revolution (1986)
Agadoo – Blacklace (1987)
Kokomo – The Beach Boys (1988)
We Kinda Music – Andy Narell (1989)
Venus As A Boy – Bjork (1993)
Bananas And Blow – Ween (2000)
Pass This On – The Knife (2003)
P.I.M.P – 50 Cent (2003)
Bingo – M.I.A. (2004)
Crank That (Soulja Boy) – Soulja Boy (2007)
I Can’t Stay – The Killers (2008)
Far Nearer– Jamie xx (2011)
I Follow Rivers – Lykke Li (2011)
Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas) – Regina Spektor (2012)
Britain got its first taste of Steel Pan music on 30 June 1950 when Trinidadian Boscoe Holder introduced the instrument on his own television show Bal Creole, broadcast on the BBC live from Alexandra Palace in London. The television show also introduced Britain to the Trinidadian dance, Limbo.
The popularity of Calypso music in Britain in the early 1950s, thanks to stars like Lord Kitchener, led to Edric Connor bringing The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra to the Festival of Britain in 1951. They were the first steel pan band whose instruments were all made from oil drums and had been formed in 1950 especially for the Festival of Britain. Lord Kitchener sang about the festival on his 1951 single ‘Festival Of Britain’. Released on Melodisc with it’s sing-a-long chorus of ‘Britain forever’, it was backed with ‘London Is The Place For Me’ which included the chimes of Big Ben. This 10″ of Shellac was Lord Kitchener’s ode to his new home.
The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra’s (TASPO) members included Ellie Mannette, Sterling Betancourt, and Winston ‘Spree’ Simon. They were the first steel pan band to perform in the UK. TASPO then toured Britain and France for three months. After the tour, The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra returned to Trinidad. However, pannist Sterling Betancourt remained in England and settled in London. In London, Sterling Betancourt met with other immigrants from Trinidad and formed Britain’s first steel pan band.
London, Liverpool, Leeds
Britain’s first steel pan combo was The Russ Henderson Steel Band, formed in London by Russ Henderson, Mervyn Constantine, and Sterling Betancourt in late 1952. They first performed at The Sunset Club on Carnaby Street. Russ Henderson also played piano and, in Trinidad, he had been the pianist for Beryl McBurnie’s dance troupe. In England he played piano on recordings made by Lord Kitchener and accompanied Young Tiger in cabaret.
Another steel pan band, the Royal Caribbean Steel Band, was formed in London by Gerry Goblin in 1955. The band moved to Liverpool in 1958, perhaps following in the footsteps of Winston
‘Spree’ Simon who had arrived in the city in late 1957 to teach steel pans to the West Indian communities there. Before moving to Liverpool, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon lived in Manchester where he performed regularly at Lord Kitchener’s club. After moving to Liverpool he joined the Royal Caribbean Steel Band. Lord Woodbine, who had lived in Liverpool since 1949, was the band’s lead singer and tenor pannist. The band now became known as The All Caribbean Steel Band. They performed at clubs in the city including Lord Woodbine’s own club The Colony Club, the Jacaranda Club, owned by Allan Williams, and the Cabaret Artists Social Club joint-owned by Lord Woodbine and Allan Williams. The band played a variety of musical styles that not only included Calypso and Mento songs but popular songs of the day. Their most popular tunes were ‘Day-O’ and ‘Yellow Bird’. These two tunes proved to be popular with Steel Bands and Calypso singers up and down the country. Frequent visitors to the Jacaranda Club were two young musicians named John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The pair became friendly with Lord Woodbine, the first singer-songwriter they had met, and occasionally they would play steel pans and guitar on stage with the band. In 1960, members of The All Caribbean Steel Band followed in the footsteps of Lord Invader and travelled to Hamburg, Germany to perform in the city’s St. Pauli district. They were the first band from Liverpool to perform in the clubs in Hamburg and were soon followed by Lord Woodbine and The Beatles. When The Beatles performed at the Indra Club in Hamburg on their opening night in August 1960, Lord Woodbine acted as their opening act, performing a couple of Calypso numbers.
Steel pan bands also formed in Leeds. One of Leeds’ first steel pan bands was The Caribbeans formed around 1958. Led by Wilfred Alexander, The Caribbeans made their own instruments and performed in Working Men’s Clubs around Leeds. They mixed steel pans with bongos. Their lead singer and bongo player was St. Kitts born Sonny Marks. The band turned professional in the early 1960s and toured the UK and later Europe and the Middle East. In July 1965 they appeared on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks where they were billed as The Caribbean All Steel Band. They performed two numbers, an instrumental version of ‘In The Mood’ and a version of ‘My Baby And Me’ with Sonny Marks on lead vocals.
The Russ Henderson Steel Band (under several different names) quickly became England’s most popular steel band. As Russell Henderson’s Calypso Band they recorded for the Melodisc label in 1952, backing Young Tiger and Ricardo. They also recorded Steel Pan music for Melodisc in 1952 becoming the first steel pan band to record in the UK. They released the single ‘Ping Pong Samba’ billed as “Sterling Bettancourt, Wizard of the Ping Pong”. In 1954 they were billed as “Russell Henderson Calypso Band, featuring Sterling Bettancourt on “Ping Pong”” and released the single ‘Carnival In Cuba’. Their first releases as The Russell Henderson Steel Band came in 1956 when they released ‘Mambo Ping-Pong’. They made regular appearances at the La Ronda Restaurant in London and made several appearances on Radio and TV. Their TV debut came in June 1953 when they appeared on the Children’s Television programme ‘Caribbean Carnival’ alongside Boscoe Holder and others. They also performed in front of royalty on several occasions; they performed at the Queen’s coronation in June 1953 and at the Royal River Pageant in July 1953. In May 1954 they performed for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at a Gala Performance at the London Palladium. During the performance Russell Henderson dedicated his own composition, ‘Welcome Home’, to the Queen. Later that year, in November, the band took part in the Lord Mayor’s Show. As well as appearing regularly at the La Ronda in London, the band also played to students at Universities. Calypso and Steel Pan music was popular with University students throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Not only were University students partly replaceable for booking Steel Pan Bands but they also made up a percentage of record sales of steelpan music on disc.
In 1954 Vitadisc released a set of EPs titled ‘Music From Trinidad’. These four EPs gave the listener a mix of Calypso and steelpan music and included recordings by Lord Melody, The Trinidad Panharmonic Orchestra and The Vitadisc Steel Orchestra. EPs like ‘Music From Trinidad’ and recordings made by The Russell Henderson Steel Band in England helped popularise the instrument not only with the West Indian communities around the UK but also with University students. Public appearances by steel bands, radio appearances and television appearances also helped to spread the joy of steel pan music. Edric Connor played an important role in promoting steel pan in England. His 1960 short documentary ‘Carnival Fantastique’ showed Carnival in Trinidad and included footage of steel pans being made and played. Similarly, Pete Seeger’s 1956 documentary ‘Music From Oil Drums’ went into detail on how the instruments were made and played.
In 1957 Russ Henderson and trumpeter Lesile Hutchinson formed The Hutchinson-Henderson All West Indian Band. Playing as two separate units, the band performed material arranged by Rupert Nurse on their own radio series that ran for 13-weeks in the summer of 1957.
In 1959, Trinidadian-born civil rights activist and founder of The West Indian Gazette, Claudia Jones held a “Caribbean Carnival” in St Pancras Town Hall in Camden, London. The indoors event showcased elements of Caribbean Carnival in a cabaret style. It featured Mighty Terror performing Calypsos and the steel pan bands the Trinidad All Stars and Hi-Fi Steel Band. This event is considered by many to be the birth of Notting Hill’s West Indian Carnival. More indoor Carnival events took place in London over the following years until Claudia Jones’ death in 1964.
At the beginning of the 1960s, musicians began to travel from Trinidad to England especially to play steel pans. These included Selwyn Baptiste who, after winning “Best
Pan Soloist” at Trinidad Carnival in 1960, came to England and settled in London. Around the same time, pannist Fitzroy ‘Jimmy’ James arrived in Liverpool looking for Winston ‘Spree’ Simon. By this time Winston ‘Spree’ Simon had already left Liverpool. Fitzroy ‘Jimmy’ James remained in the city and joined Lord Woodbine and the The All Caribbean Steel Band.
In 1965 former Social Worker, Rhane Laslett held ‘Mrs. Laslett’s Jump Up’ in Notting Hill – a street party for neighbourhood children. During the party, Russell Henderson’s steel band began an improvisational Carnival march from Tavistock Crescent, bringing steel pan music to the streets of London and attracting large crowds along the way. In 1966 Rhane Laslett organised the London Free School Fair which also included Russell Henderson’s Steel Band and later evolved into the Notting Hill Carnival.
The following year in Leeds, Arthur France held the UK’s first true West Indian Carnival on the streets of Chapeltown. The parade included music performed by The Gay Carnival Steel Band, The Invaders (both from Leeds) and a band from Birmingham called the St. Christopher Steel Band. The Carnival also included a Steel Band contest which was won by St. Christopher Steel Band performing ‘Elizabethan Serenade’.
In the following years there would be a boom of West Indian Carnivals founded across England, helping to spread steelpan and Calypso music across the country. Bristol (1968), Birmingham (1969), and Nottingham (1970) all followed in the footsteps of Leeds and Notting Hill. An increasing number of steel bands formed in the UK during the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Leeds had witnessed a the birth of at least eight steel bands in the city. Some, like The United Caribbean Association’s Steel Band and The Gay Carnival Steel Band, were short lived while others, like The Caribbeans and Paradise Steel Band, stood the test of time and are still active over 50 years later.
Leeds Steel Pan Bands of the 1960s
Esso Steel Band
The United Caribbean Association’s Steel Band
Wilberforce Steel Band
Invaders Steel Band
The Gay Carnival Steel Band
Boscoe Steel Band
Paradise Steel Band