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A Not-so-brief History of the United States Navy Steel Band

by Skip Poole

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

 © 2011 When Steel Talks - All Rights Reserved

Navy Steel Band on the roof of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Navy Steel Band on the roof of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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I have been asked by When Steel Talks to write a history of the Navy Steel Band during my tenure as the Leader

Before I get to my years of association with the band, I think a brief history of the origin of the band is needed:

Excerpted and Edited From the Official History of the United States Navy Steel Band.

By Navy Steel Band Historians:

MU2 Steven C. Gray, Tenth Naval District, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1973

MU3 James B. Fox, Eighth Naval District, New Orleans, LA, 1976

While serving his final active tour as Commandant of the Tenth Naval District in San Juan, Puerto Rico, between December 1956 and July 1960, Admiral Dan, immortalized his name with a unique achievement subordinating even his earlier military exploits because of the novelty and world acclaim.

In February 1957, the Admiral conceived and established the United States Navy Steel Band, the first all-American steel band and the only military steel band. Controversial and unorthodox, Admiral Gallery would not be content with the conventional military brass band assigned to admirals so long as he could substitute something unique and novel in it's place and be the first to have that novelty. That opportunity came in February 1957, when for the first time he heard the famous steel bands of Trinidad during the annual Carnival. "The music just got inside me and shook me up."

Gallery immediately ordered sixteen steel drums to be built for which he paid $120. He returned to his headquarters in San Juan with news of his purchase and to the surprise of Chief Musician Charles A. Roeper, leader of the Admiral's conventional band, he ordered the band's eighteen musicians to lay aside their instruments and begin playing the steel drums exclusively. It was indeed strange news, however when given direct orders by a Rear Admiral it is not the place of a Navy Chief to question them. Within two months, in April 1957, Chief Roeper and his band members traveled to Trinidad to take delivery of the new steel drums. They also received steel drum lessons from Ellie Mannette (legendary leader of the Invaders Steelband, noted today as the inventor of the modern steel drum, and known the world over as "the Father of Steel").

After one week of intensive training, these Navy musicians acquired adequate proficiency on their new instruments and transported them back to San Juan, (unofficially) calling themselves, "Admiral Dan's Pandemoniacs", a name derived from the slang term "pan" used to describe a steel drum. Unlike the musicians in Trinidad at that time, these sailors were professional trained musicians, capable of reading music, an ability that facilitated their learning of these new instruments and to rapidly build a diverse repertoire. The original sixteen drums covered five voices: There were four ping-pongs or soprano lead drums with a range of an octave and a half (in contrast to modern "pongs" with two and a half and three octave ranges). There were three "second" pans (the alto voice), which were single drums, unlike the pair that makes up the modern "double-seconds". There were two "guitar" pans (a pair played by one man), which provided rhythmic accompaniment. The were two "tune booms" with nine notes each, skirts three quarters of the original length of the 55-gallon oil drum and played by one man. There was a single set of basses, consisting of four full-length barrels with five notes each (in contrast to the five-barrel basses introduced in September 1964). There was also a "bonga-bonga" drum, which had only two notes.

Altogether the drums covered three and a half octaves, much less than modern steel bands. Besides the melodic drums there were many rhythm instruments, including "chao-chacs" (maracas), claves, guirro and a set of automobile brake drums (played with engine push rods). The band quickly began to build a diverse repertoire, including traditional calypsos like "Marianne" and "Brown Skin Girl" (Gallery's favorite), as well as, meringues, cha-chas, sambas, rhumbas and also classical works including Schubert's "Serenade", "Poet and Peasant Overture", and Gounod's "Ave Maria". The band also learned popular songs such as Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender". The tradition of diversity stayed with the band throughout its entire history and became a major reason for their widespread fame and worldwide recognition.

(Note: I would love to provide exact dates and times for the performances listed in this history, but unfortunately my memory of events of over 40 years ago is just a little fuzzy.)

MY ARRIVAL AS LEADER

As I was in the process of transferring to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Steel Band was performing at the opening of a new Enlisted Men’s Club at the Naval Base, Charleston, South Carolina.

Navy Steel Band leader Skip Poole performing at the Admiral's Quarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Navy Steel Band leader Skip Poole performing at the Admiral's Quarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico

After the Band finished their performance at the Club, they opted to leave the pans in place and pack them in the morning for the return trip to San Juan.

Murphy’s Law prevailed that night and the brand new Enlisted Men’s Club burned to the ground, including the pans.

So, my first official duty as the brand new leader (and I might point out, also a brand new Chief Petty Officer) was to pack a bag and fly to Port of Spain, Trinidad to purchase new pans. To keep me from getting into too much trouble I was accompanied by one of the band’s First Class Petty Officer’s, Cal Stewart. Cal had a great knowledge of the pans and the process for purchasing them. In retrospect I think Cal really enjoyed this trip because he knew what I was going to experience. He never mentioned a word; he just let me set myself up…

Upon arriving at Chaguaramas I assumed we would be checking into visitors quarters for a place to sleep.

No…we didn’t do that. Instead we took our bags and caught the bus to Port of Spain.

Arriving in the heart of Port of Spain our first stop was to stop at a store and pick up a couple of quarts of rum. My questioning this was met with a terse, “you’ll see.” We then walked for what seemed several hours until we came to what I would call an industrial area. We approached a large fenced area that for all intent purposes looked like a junkyard and walked through the gate.

My first impression was that we had made a wrong turn someplace. Inside this fenced area there were about 90 men standing around in a sea of steel drums. We moved to the inside edge of the fence and sat down. I had no idea what was going on…these men all stood quietly in their places as a rather small man moved from group to group speaking rapidly to them. After about 25 minutes of this, he moved to the front of the group and gave a sort of downbeat.

It was a good thing I was sitting down, because what happened next would have knocked me over. Out of this conglomeration of men and barrels came the most wondrous sound I had ever heard in my life! Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rolled over me like a giant musical wave. Whatever this was…I wanted more!

Thus was my first introduction to Steel Band and the pans.

We were listening to a rehearsal of the famed Shell Invaders and the pans of Ellie Mannette! What was truly amazing was the fact that the man moving amongst the players was the ‘Band Captain’, and he was teaching each section their parts by rote, telling which note to strike and for how long…none of them could read music!

After the band had finished we talked with several members of the band, including Ellie…that’s what we had brought the rum for.

When these men found out that I was the leader of the Navy Steel Band and that I had never seen or heard the music of the pans much less that I had never touched a pan, they didn’t just chuckle politely…they laughed their heads off! How could I be the ‘Band Captain’ and never played a pan in my life. Not one of my most heart-warming moments.

Anyhow, to shorten this story, we struck a deal with Ellie for a complete set of pans. (Actually, I just sat and watched and listened as Cal did the bargaining.) We spent the night under a banyan tree at the Queen’s Park Savanna. In the morning we caught a bus back to Chaguaramas and caught our flight back to San Juan.

For the next few months we pretty much just sat on our hands and watched the world go by. Without our pans there was not much we could do. On the books we were officially a 13-piece Navy Band (conventional instruments) and there just wasn’t much call for our talents in this format. To be honest we had to rehearse quite a bit just to play Anchors Aweigh.

After about two and a half months we were notified that the pans were ready.

We packed the whole band into a plane and flew back to Trinidad, picked up the pans and returned to San Juan. The next two weeks were spent cleaning and painting the pans. (We got them right off the fire so to speak – full of soot, grease and dirt.)

Once the pans were ready we got down to re-learning how to play them…

In addition to the pans we had previously had, we also received some of the newer concept pans: double tenors, cellos and 6-barrel basses. Within a month we were up to speed and ready to return to our performance schedule.

THE MUSIC

Vance Hart(?) on Tune Booms and Ron Propri on Tenor.  This photo was taken at the quarters of Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier/Commandant Tenth Naval District, at one of his receptions/cocktail parties for visiting dignitaries
Vance Hart(?) on Tune Booms and Ron Propri on Tenor.  This photo was taken at the quarters of Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier/Commandant Tenth Naval District, at one of his receptions/cocktail parties for visiting dignitaries

Since there was no source to purchase arrangements or compositions, we had to learn how to arrange and compose for the band ourselves. The fact that we were all ‘trained musicians’ in that we could read music was an advantage that almost all of the bands of the Caribbean did not enjoy. Because of these music reading skills, we were able to visit the various islands that were the home of steel band, listen to the hundreds of bands that were performing and record the top songs of the day. We then could ‘lift’ the tune or song from the recording and be playing it within days. The more intricate arrangements and compositions could take us several weeks to bring to performance level. At any given time we could perform over 150 different songs, tunes, arrangements and compositions.

We could perform the traditional songs of the islands plus current popular music and also offer some very rich and vibrant arrangements of many classical pieces. During my tour as leader of the Navy Steel Band I, along with several of the band members arranged or composed selections of many musical styles. Our biggest hits were the winning songs written for Carnival – the top calypso songs of the year. Mixed with that we also ‘had’ to perform the ‘traditional’ songs of the Caribbean, Yellowbird, Marianne, Matilda, etc.

Added to this was the selection of ‘classical music’ arrangements in our library. Many of them were transformed into calypso style, with ‘jump up’ beat. We also did several arrangements of the classics faithful to their original intent…one of the most beautiful and effective was Cal Stewart’s ‘Beethoven’s Little Fugue in G Minor.’ This arrangement took us months to perfect, but it was worth it based on audience reaction.

For me personally, it was a great challenge to learn the characteristics of the various pans and then write a tune or an arrangement. My favorite arrangements were The Theme From Mondo Cane or ‘More’, and a driving arrangement of ‘Meadowland’, a semi-classical piece that caught the fire and spirit of the Cossacks. ‘More’ was lifted from a performance by Anna Maria Alberghetti as a vocal arrangement for the band vocalist, Louis Garcia. When Garcia was transferred from the band I redid the arrangement as a Double Second Solo.

Having the opportunity to travel throughout the Caribbean, we were fortunate to be exposed to the many different musical styles of the islands and create an extensive library of arrangements. We not only performed music from the Home of the Pans, Trinidad and Tobago, but we also included music from Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the rest of the Island Nations of the Caribbean.

THE PERFORMANCES

The US Navy Steel Band in Port of Spain, Trinidad
The Navy Steel band performing at Mas in Port of Spain, Trinidad

Almost all of our performances were for social events, with most of them underwritten or sponsored by the Navy League. We also received requests from various Naval Commands throughout the United States and Caribbean and many performances scheduled by Navy Recruiting.

We prided ourselves on the fact that we were the premier Steel Band to perform in the United States and as such we were pretty much single-handedly bring the music of the pans and the Caribbean to the U.S. Probably the most interesting performance was when we returned to Charleston, South Carolina to open the new, new Enlisted Men’s Club. Attending this performance was the father of the Navy Steel Band, Admiral Dan Gallery. It was a great honor to meet the Admiral and perform for him.

In the spring of 1968 we were invited to attend and perform at the All Eastern Band Clinic hosted by the Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia. This event was held annually to present military music as a possible career to thousands of high school and college musicians and their instructors. Although steel band had been around for decades by 1968 and the Navy Steel Band had been operating since 1957, this was the first opportunity for the band to perform for our peers, so to speak, and of course to present the music of the pans to a large audience of young musicians. The response was stunning! Not only were the guests overwhelmed by what they saw and heard, our peers, the military musicians couldn’t wait to talk with us after the concert. Everybody wanted to sign up for duty with the Steel Band!

ON THE ROAD

The band was based or home ported at the Naval Station Annex in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but we spent very little time on the base. On average we were on the road 9 months out of the year.

On average we performed about 500 gigs per year, which was around 55 concerts or social events per month. We received requests from throughout the United States and the Caribbean, with a bulk of the performances being in the Continental U.S. In the 10 years before my arrival the band had performed at two World’s Fairs (Brussels and New York), multiple Presidential Command performances (Eisenhower and Johnson) and a many local and national TV Shows including the Today Show and Ed Sullivan,

Some of my most memorable performances were in some interesting places. Perhaps one of the most unusual was performing as part of the Commissioning Ceremony of the USS John F Kennedy CVA-67.

Attended by many dignitaries including Jacqueline Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy, it was an honor to be invited to perform.

A little side story: When we arrived at the ship we were originally told we would be performing on one of the aircraft elevators – out in the sun. I explained that this would be difficult because the sun would alter the tuning of the pans, so we were then assigned space that had been reserved for the Navy Band from Washington, D.C. We move our pans aboard and set up in our space just to the left of the dignitary stand in the hanger bay. I thought we should do a little sound check on the acoustics. While we were playing several men in dark suits and dark glasses gathered in front of the band. They were part of the Secret Service detail assigned to protect the dignitaries. I don’t remember what we were playing but I’m pretty sure that it was one of the more lively calypsos. Anyhow, the Secret Service was holding their own impromptu Jump Up. After we finished we got a big round of applause. We had some new fans!

Later, as the Navy Band came aboard, the leader highly perturbed that the lowly Navy Steel Band would dare take their assigned place for the ceremony. He went so far as to order me to move my men and equipment immediately! With me being a Chief Petty Officer and he being a Lieutenant Commander, I pretty much figured we had to move.

The United States Navy Steel Band - Blowin' In The Wind
United States Navy Steel Band - Blowin’ In The Wind

Ahhh, but enter the Secret Service…they asked me what the problem was and I explained as tactfully as I could – we had to move so the Navy Band could take their place of honor. Without a word the Secret Service guys walked over to the Lieutenant Commander and explained in the most eloquent of terms that the Steel Band would NOT be moving and perhaps he and the Navy Band should take the Steel Band’s originally assigned space on the aircraft elevator – out in the sun. As the Lieutenant Commander started to bluster and complain, the Secret Service guys took him by the elbows and escorted him to the elevator. They then returned to tell me that there would be no more problems with ‘that jerk.’

While performing in the Philadelphia, PA area we were invited to appear on the Mike Douglas Show. Mr. Douglas performed with the band singing ‘Yesterday’ the famous Beatle tune. It was a struggle because this particular song was written in 7 bar phrases instead of the normal 8 bar phrase format. Mr. Douglas could never get the feel or the song so we had to add an extra bar to each phrase…and we also had to re write a lead sheet in a different key to accommodate Mr. Douglas’s singing range.

In the fall of 1968 we were invited to perform at the Arizona State Fair. We were there for the full two week run of the fair, with nothing much to do than go to the fair grounds each day and do an hour concert. We got a lot of time to see the city of Phoenix and a pretty good reception during our shows at the fair.

In 1968 The Navy League invited us to Los Angeles and Hollywood for a series of concerts and social events. While we were there we appeared on the Donald O’Conner TV Show, a talk show similar to the Tonight Show. Again, the star of the show wanted to sing with the band and of course he selected that nemesis of vocalists, ‘Yesterday.’ Same song, same problem…Mr. O’Conner just couldn’t get the hang of 7-bar phrases.

We also performed for a huge Ball at the Hollywood Biltmore for the Navy League. We were in the Grand Ballroom and I would guess we had about 3,000 people in attendance. This was supposed to be a dance and it was scheduled for four hours, from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am in the morning. However what it turned in to was a four-hour concert. The audience was so mesmerized with the sound of the band that they just stood in front of us and listened. I had to plead with them to dance.

Most of our performances where like that…we would be booked to play for a dance and the people just stood in front of the band and listened. Eventually we started teaching them about ‘Jump Up’ and got them in to the spirit of things.

In August of 1967 the National Press Club invited us to New Orleans, Louisiana. While there we did several Public Affairs concerts throughout the city as well as a concert for the Press Club. The City of New Orleans and specially the Mayor were quite taken with the music of the pans, so much so that we were all made Honorary Citizens of New Orleans. When we returned home to San Juan we found that we had been invited to participate in Mardi Gras in 1968.

MARDI GRAS 1968

This invitation was unusual in several ways. First, to get to New Orleans the Navy opted to send the band by ship. We boarded a Destroyer Tender in San Juan and took a week cruise up through the Caribbean and in to the Gulf of Mexico. To my knowledge, this is the only time the Navy Steel Band went to sea. When we arrived in New Orleans we discovered that the Navy had prepared a flat bed truck to move us through the streets. What they hadn’t told us was that we would be performing in two parades per day for three days. This would have been OK, except nobody thought about the fact we would be on the back of this truck for up to 8 hours, without bathroom facilities! Needless to say, we came up with some very inventive and ingenious ways to solve our problem.

Dream Along with the U.S. Navy Steel Band
Dream Along with the U.S. Navy Steel Band

The night parades were unbelievable! During the day parades the crowds were rowdy but controlled. As soon as the sun set, the alcohol flowed much more freely and the folks got pretty raucous. It seemed that the last leg of every parade was down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. At best, with no people in the street, this piece of road was just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. During the night parades this street was packed with humanity up to the top floors of the buildings on the street. Apparently it became a challenge to the crown to see if they could hit the pans or the musicians with full beer as we drove down the street. After the first night parade I decided the only thing we could do when we reached Bourbon Street was to set the pans on edge and duck down behind them. I would have the truck driver hold and wait for the street to be cleared of other performers for the 4 blocks we had to cover. Once we could see that the street was clear, he floored the accelerator and we roared down the street as fast as the truck could go! Luckily, no damage to the pans or the humans!

AT HOME IN SAN JUAN

One of our regular and ongoing jobs was at the quarters of the Commandant, Tenth Naval District – our boss.

Being in the heart of San Juan, the Admiral received many visitors from both the United States and throughout the Caribbean. No matter who was in town, the Admiral held a reception/cocktail party at his quarters on Friday evenings and we would set up in his backyard and perform.

As we played the guests would leave the veranda and walk out in to the center of the band…they just had to see where the music was coming from. We eventually set up plan to play for a few moments until we were knee deep in guests and then we held an impromptu seminar on steel band. Although it took our Friday nights away from us, we enjoyed the intermingling with the folks and teaching about the pans.

THE ALBUMS

Tenth Naval District Steel Band - New Paths For Steel Band
Tenth Naval District Steel Band - New Paths For Steel Band

Most folks don’t know this, but the Navy Steel Band was a non-appropriated unit in that the government did not fund us. To support our equipment needs the band made LP albums and sold them at our performances. The funds from these sales provided us with pans, the bright flowery shirts, etc. We made so much money that we donated a large sum to the Special Services Office to refinish the base gymnasium floor.

To my knowledge the Navy Steel Band recorded four LP albums.

The first was by the original Admiral Dan’s Pandemoniacs.
Dream Along With The US Navy Steel Band
– MUC Charles Roeper, Leader:
The quality of the pans was crude compared to the pans of today, but the album was in great demand wherever the band performed.

The second album was the first stereo album:
New Paths For Steel Band – MUC Franz Grissom, Leader
By this time the quality of the pans had greatly improved plus the penny whistle talents of Hyland Miller were showcased.

Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier presents the United States Navy Steel Band - 'New Bag for Steel Band'
New Bag for Steel Band

The third album was made during my tour as leader.
New Bag For Steel Band – MUC G. R. ‘Skip’ Poole, Leader
Due to the loss of the pans in Charleston, SC, we had state-of-the-art pans and some exciting arrangements put together by several members of the band. If I recall correctly we sold 10,000 of these albums, but I may be off with that figure…40year old memories are very fuzzy.

The final album.
Blowin’ In The Wind - Leader unknown
The last album that I know of was again made with some of the latest pans and the improved sound quality is obvious.

Note of interest: One of the common and persistent problems with recording the pans was the overwhelming sound waves that assaulted the microphones. While the mics of each recording were top-of-the-line, they were not designed to handle the power of the pans. With each succeeding recording you can hear the improvement in the ability of the mics to capture the quality and depth of sound emitted by the pans. I could go in to a long explanation of the overtone series and its affect, but that’s for another time.

SUMMATION

Duty with the Navy Steel Band was a very unique opportunity, there was no other US Military Band like it, and probably no other military steel band anywhere (expect possibly in the Caribbean). To me this was one of my favorite tours of duty.

The audience appeal of the pans was a given…it didn’t matter where you went or where you played they wanted more! Even more important was the opportunity to learn a new musical concept…not only learn it but also to arrange for it, compose for it and best of all – play it.

In my Navy career I went on to several other bands serving as leader, but the Navy Steel Band was my first band as leader and the most demanding and exciting!

contact
Skip Poole at his WST profile http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/profile/SkipPoole

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