The funeral of Desperadoes' Rudolph Charles - photo courtesy of David Rudder
Thirty years ago today, Laventille’s Rudolph Charles shuffled off this mortal coil and went out in style - a glam funeral service, his soul encased in the Chariot pans he invented and three religions vying for meager props at his rites on the banks of the Caroni - as an age of innocence was nearing its own death.
Fascinating that, as an uncommon man, he bore the
weight of the absolute
trilogy of personalities, the father son and holy ghost, and that he lived and
died on a hill:
The Hammer, a kinda freedom fighter in his own
Desperadoes, the glory musicians of the steelband age.
Charlo, answering to a romantic nickname.
And Trail, the calypso brand of a folk hero.
To this day, with his refinement as a leader in the bag, his skills as a pan tuner conclusive and his community service making a palpable difference, Rudolph’s eternal truth overmatches the music he made in both the classical and Panorama festivals. Driving Desperadoes’ heavenly sound and pushing his legacy to the extent of Hollywood’s old-time icons, in whose glamour he bathed in the rotten pits of local theaters.
So, who was Rudolph Charles and what made him - a man on fire, a lion - legendary?
ALDWIN ALBINO, musician, former bandleader and Savoys arranger
Rudolph’s creativity comes from Ma Georgie, his mother (Georgiana Charles). She played the upright bass and jammed with younger guys. They had a cuss bud parrot in the house. We used to go to someone’s house and cut loose. It’s why his brother “Slam” (Gerald Charles) plays bass. “Slam” carried the nickname of a famous American bassist in the ’40s. Gerald was a big-time bassist, at one time playing with my orchestra.
Rudolph’s master plan
Rudolph had a plan to integrate both Laventilles, the hill and Success Village. He opened a link by hiring Savoys tuner Carl Greenidge, uncle of current Desperadoes arranger Robert, and mentor to innovative tuner/ arranger and Highlanders leader Bertie Marshall, who eventually became Charles’ lead tuner.
The aftermath of the steel band clash between San Juan All Stars (Battle Cry) and Desperadoes (Noah’s Ark) prompted Dr. Eric Williams to push a works project and named Rudolph manager. The environment engendered such grassroots policy.
Was The Radoes a cult?
Rudolph had that kind of paternity thing. Loyalty. Brothers for the hill. Trinidad All Stars wasn’t a badjohn band, though they had some hooligans. His was a fraternity band, like a cult, a religion. People had an allegiance to the area and he was able to change the complexion of that thought. I didn’t see Laventille as a badjohn band, but an allegiance to each other. He used the music as a glue to keep everybody in line.
- 1971-2 Rocket Pan (triple cello)
- 1974 Nine bass
- 1975-6 12 bass
- 1978 Quadrophonics (Quads)
- 1981 Triple seconds
- 1984 Yin Yang (incomplete)
- Harmony pans (6-piece)
- Marshall tone pans (in honor of Bertie Marshall)
- Baritone pan (6-piece)
- Fifth tenor (improvement on Anthony Williams' fourths tenor)
GERALD “SLAM” CHARLES, musician
Ma Georgie was the musician in the family, a self-taught bassist, who played her uncle’s instrument. Also played the guitar, and was a very good singer, too. She sang at weddings, christenings and Our Lady of Laventille church. My favorite instrument was the trumpet. I learned the bass on my own, like Ma. We both played the bass to the music on the Rediffusion.
My father, Sydney Charles, though not musical, encouraged us by staging singing contests at home. Rudolph was a pretty good singer at Rose Hill RC school. He was good at cricket, too - played in the very same spot where the panyard is now.
Rudolph was stubborn. If he didn’t get money to go to school, he not going. Ma was defiant. so sometimes neighbors would give him a shilling. Very bright.
Spike Jones, the defiant ones
Rudolph was one of the teenage leaders who formed Spike Jones, a small steelband. Wilfred “Speaker” Harrison, a Despers elder, used to admire them because they had the best girls, pulled a big crowd. But they didn’t want to be aligned with Despers, who called them socialites.
Speaker approached him to join the band. They not in the Desperadoes thing, so he threatened them. Rudolph considered it for their safety and became a Desper. He had much respect for the elders and family, but Ma Georgie didn’t like it. She tried to keep him out of pan. Then, one day he was tuning a pan and played a piece of classical music. Ma knew the tune and began to hum it.
Early tuning were not days of wine and roses
He and I were in a li’l war. When a note gave him trouble, he would work all night on it, right through the morning. All that couldn’t be going on if our father was alive. He died in 1953. He was only 47. There were 11 brothers and sisters. Two died when they were young. My father was a prison officer, so he knew the criminals on the hill. And he wouldn’t have allowed Rudolph to join a fighting band.
The rulers, the principals on the hill gave Rudolph much respect because he turned around the band musically. He was trained to take over the band.
He loved classical music and when he began to work at the General Post Office, he bought the music of composers like Sibelius, Mozart, Beethoven. Bach was his favorite. He’d say the essence of tuning was from the classical side. That’s where he got all the necessary notes. He was such a deep lover of the music that he played it when he was going to sleep.
Ma was very religious, and Rudolph became an altar boy. She raised us to be respectful to everyone and be god fearing. Rudolph had a good life. It was about the development of pan.
The 12 bass
For example, after his invention of the nine bass, he wanted to imitate the sound of my upright bass on a set of 12 bass pans. When he called the notes, say C, when I play it for him, he said, ‘Your bass don’t have the resonance of a foreign bass. How your bass don’t sound like on foreign records?’
I say, the strings old. I gave him the envelops the string come in, and he say he coming back just now. I didn’t know he was going away to buy new strings. He called notes and I pulled them. It took him five hours to tune three notes on the 12 bass. After that, he didn’t need me. He knew where he wanted to go.
Up to now, no band has reached Desperadoes tonal quality.
A rift with Clive Bradley over Nu Tones
I hear the talk, but there was never a rift between Rudolph and Clive Bradley. No falling out. Bradley was a self-determined person. He wanted to make a change, arrange for a small band like Nu Tones.
One time, Rudolph approached him:
“I hear you gone with Tokyo.”
“I just feeling for a change.”
“I go beat you.”
The year before, in 1984, a car hit Rudolph and rolled over his leg on Independence Square. A band member who was with him said Rudolph got up and cuffed the man. People shout, ‘That is Desperadoes.’ And the fella dig out. The band played The Jammer. He was dancing to the music in the preliminaries and re-injured the foot. It never properly healed after that.
Honor thy brother
Kenneth went to pick up an award for his contribution to pan and the community at the 2014 National Awards ceremony. They gave him the Chaconia Medal (Silver) - Pan Tuner/Innovator/Community Service.
DAVID MICHAEL RUDDER, recording artist
What’s my name
In my 1986 song, The Hammer, the reference to Trail recalls the Quantrail story (Quantrill's Raiders, a 1958 Western) as most pan people during that era acquired names from the movies. Someone told me a long time ago that his other nickname "Dragon" came from a film entitled "Walk like a Dragon” (a 1960 Western in which a Chinese immigrant gunman is the star). Even the name Desperadoes came out of a movie, "The Gay Desperadoes,” as well as their original name, "Dead End Kids.” Only the nickname "The Hammer" came out of that ongoing movie called Trinidad.
LESLIE “MITCH” WARNER,
former Desperadoes player; steelpan
virtuoso, composer, arranger and tuner
Only a few people in the band knew how close Charlo and I were. He confided in me. He once said: “Leslie, boy, I have some real serious criminals in this band, but if I don’t appear stronger they’ll walk over me.”
Coup de talk
The band went to England on a tour that eventually fell through. It was supposed to be for four years. When they picked the players, five of us were dropped, including me and his brother, Kenneth. Anybody who was close to Rudolph. There was a coup happening.
Leslie "Mitch" Warner, a Desperadoes double second player and confidant of Rudolph Charles talks pan with respected tuner Herman "Guppy" Brown (Photo: Courtesy Mitch Warner)
Rudolph was such a feared man that he told the leaders of the uprising that it would be better if they didn’t get back (to Trinidad).
There was always conflict. Some players accused him of siphoning money from sales of a classical recording the band made. I told him if he took money from the coffers, he was worth more than that. But I knew he wasn’t taking any money. He was too fair. Too much of a gentleman.
Man with the Hammer was a front. If he was the leader of Despers he had to be the biggest and baddest Desperado. Or he wouldn’t survive.
The tension in the band, you felt it. Despers thrived on controversy, and Rudolph would always put the fires out. Muscle. He dealt with rebels on their own terms. If you come with rope, you get it. If you come gentle, he’s gentler than you.
Don’t fence me in
In the early ’80s I led a band, the Bermuda Steelers, and I got Lincoln Noel (a Desperadoes tuner) to blend the drums. A month later, all the drums went out of tune. I think he did it on purpose so he could come back because he really liked the place. When I came home for the Panorama, Rudolph was mad. He jumped into the band’s pickup truck to check on Lincoln’s tuning, because Rudolph was making new pans for the festival. First thing, he asked Lincoln to show him the ones he’d already tuned. And he went through every pan, note by note, separating goat from sheep. The pans he liked and those that were substandard.
Dissatisfied, Rudolph pulled the hammer, jacked up Lincoln and gave him hell. His language was fierce. I’ll be back, he told him. When we got in the truck, he said, ‘Leslie, if I didn’t do that - the same he did to you, he’ll put ratchifee work on mine also.’
Lincoln was surprised. He didn’t expect him to check every single note.
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet
One of the few tuners who eagerly taught others the skill, Rudolph was working on one side of a double second pan and couldn’t get one of the notes perfect. So he pelt the pan in the bush. The next day he called a li’l boy to bring the pan from the bush. He took the wood end of the pan stick and tapped the top of the rim all around the skirt; then with the hammer he whacked the rim on the other side of the drum - G on the top right and A at the bottom. It was at the top of the A he whacked, correcting the fault at the opposite end of the drum. Only then the note began to sing.
Sometimes you have bad overtones and you don’t know where they coming from. You can’t be hasty as a tuner. You got to treat the notes like your children. Patience. Rudolph was an underrated tuner. In 1977, it took him three months to make my double seconds. I play them professionally to this day. They’re so priceless I refer to them as my '77 Stradivarius seconds.
The black stone
A few weeks after the ’85 Panorama, I went to his house and asked him to blend a double second to take with me to Bermuda. He didn’t look like the giant I knew, lying on the bed and hallucinating a bit. We had a nice conversation about the Panorama. I noticed he had a black stone, the size of a fist, that he kept rubbing. He said he got his powers from that. ‘They’re trying to kill me,’ he said, ‘but they can’t get me.’
Where was all this coming from? I smiled and didn’t want to ask questions. I got up and gave him money for the blending, but he wouldn’t take it. ‘When I get back to LA, I’ll give you a call,’ he said. A few days later I got word that he died.
How great thou art
I don’t think the steelband world realizes how great he was - in every sense. His attitude had always been, ‘What else can I come up with to make this whole thing, Pan, interesting?’ Sure, his innovations abound, but he was special because he was never complacent with what he achieved.
CAROL CHARLES, widow
We should mark the memory of what he did for us. Rudolph should be left alone to rest in peace. He prepared a good foundation for Desperadoes, and the band will continue (to thrive). It still has the best rating as a steelband. He was a phenomenal person as a leader and a panman. There’s none, none to meet his climax.
Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams takes in a practice session at the Desperadoes panyard with leader Rudolph Charles at his side (Government Information Services via the Digital Pan Archive)
LENNOX CHARLES, brother; a retired director, Jewish General Hospital,
When he had an idea, he’d push it as far as it could go. He had approached Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams about what he had in mind, and actually was able to get homes and jobs for many people on the hill.
Brainy quote of the day
He wouldn’t let a person’s way of thinking bother him. You had to have a better idea for him to change his mind. Including choice of music. if you play for me you play for the community. Then you play for the island. And the nation.
He carried the band beyond all possibilities, never settling for nonsense. He didn’t accept anything but the top.
BRENDA WALLACE, mother of Cheryl, Rudolph’s daughter
In 1959, I was with friends as we watched Desperadoes players and supporters pushing the pans up Laventille Road. One of them approached me and said, ‘Stay right there, I’m coming back.’
Mas could tell you anything.
He was in costume and had a bushy (faux) beard - that was the year they played Noah’s Ark. It was a good while when he came back and said, ‘Yuh ready?’
If the standpipe could talk, water de garden
Ready for what? I was 15 and never had a boyfriend. He took us to buy oranges. ‘How come I never see you.’ ‘I don’t knock about.’ ‘I coming to check you tomorrow by the standpipe.’
I can’t go to the standpipe like that. So my excuse to leave home was to buy a snowball. My parents opposed to steelband men. I get licks all the time. I took a goblet and we talking by the pipe. He was 20. I scared. I met Ma Georgie. That house had so much stories - and family. She was a bush doctor. People come to the house to be healed, and Rudolph would drink his herbs. Months pass and one day she say, ‘I notice he always have toothache and I tell him, yuh breeding somebody. I know he breeding somebody, because he have a bad toothache.’
I found out Rudolph used to get the most licks because he never listen. He was ma Georgie’s love child.
In 1960, he joined Desperadoes from Spike Jones; I turned 16 and gave birth to Cheryl. He became the leader of the band in 1961.
Copping a feel
From then, girls weren’t important. Pan was his focus. Rudolph was like a beast at Carnival time. Don’t mess with him. People were afraid. He never discriminate. But he didn’t like the police. They were advantageous. So he had to live with the devil, the police and the power.
We’d go down to the foundry to sink the pans before the grooving. He looked miserable. Like the devil self. Carnival is the devil. The fires get red and the heat come up in your face. Black all over from the soot of the burning of the drums, blisters on his hands. He’d take a doze on a slab of wood at the side of the house. A different person. On a mission.
The towel he wore around his neck wasn’t a style. He worked hard and sweat a lot. He’d say my father died at 46 (going on 47) and I’ll die at 46. He believed it.
After Carnival, he shaved his beard and got a haircut, then bring up the story of Samson and how he lost his strength. So I prepared fresh juices, but he ate no meat when he fasted and meditated.
Getting a groove on
When he was funny he’d be a comedian, clowning, dancing and singing. Family time, he and the brothers. There was always music at the house, especially symphonies. Though he was a Marvin Gaye fan. Dancing to Move on Up and Groovin’. I used to go with him to shows at Queen’s Hall.
When he knows he’s wrong he’ll lie on his back, one foot cock up on the other, hands behind his head and twiddle his toes. Quiet and humble. Then he’d take me out and apologize.
Girls gone wild
He wasn’t an ordinary person. Difficult to understand. More ahead than anybody else. Not normal.
Maybe he had a Bob Marley complex. Women gravitated to him, attracted by his charisma. When the band came back from a tour of Calgary, Canada, he treated everybody the same, buying his five girlfriends the same gift. So he was loyal to all of us.
In 1973, he flew to Montreal, where Cheryl and I had relocated the year before, and told us that he was going to marry Carol.
WILLIAM THOMAS, [THUNDERBOLT], former wrestler, a Desperadoes
enforcer or soldier
In the early ‘60s, you could hear him ponging the pans after I sink and groove them. Pong, pong, pong. Brenda (Wallace) was there helping out with the burning, and whipping up sea moss for us.
I also used to chrome the pans at a place on Edward Street and in Trincity, later in San Juan. He was the first to chrome the pans.
As an enforcer, or soldier, as our group would call ourselves, I never walk with no gang. I walk alone and people respected me.
The band has a spirit on the hill. it’s the big, strong man in front of the center (panyard). It represented an African strong man.
Does pan caulk?
Rudolph was the strong man as a leader and tuner, but he was smart to hire other tuners like Bassman from San Juan to produce the band’s magnificent sound. Bassman tuned tenor bass, guitar pans and tenors. Rudolph spent a lot of time on the 6, 9 and 12 bass, the quadrophonics and the four pans. When you hear that Desperadoes sound, people don’t know this, but he’d sit down with the arrangers - whether it’s Bradley, Beverly and Robert, or even Artie Shaw, whose forte was classical music - and show them how the pan tune. It was a collaboration.
Nowadays, the tuners and them caulking the band, caulking the sound of the band, so you hear some people say the band don’t sound like longtime.
Fellas in prison have it to say that as soon as they get out they coming to take back the band. I brought love in the band. We had together people. A glass of mauby would make the rounds in the band and every man had a sip. Not today.
Also, people like MacDonald Ward, Sonny Mohammed and Ronnie Williams, they loved the music and helped the band financially, in addition to WITCO, of course. And when the band win, I didn’t take any money. Didn’t need to. Rudolph and I put a lot of people in houses.
Band of Blockers
I wasn’t around when the band first went down to Cadiz Road in Belmont to rehearse for the Panorama. If I wasn’t sick I wouldn’t have allowed it. The band woulda have to stay. The blockers listen to me. They would’ve listened to Rudolph. You listen to the music when it was up the hill and it’s like you having sex. That’s how he described it when the band was humming in the Savannah.
The band need revamping. No discipline. Despite the crime, I praying hard to bring everybody back on the hill. The blockers, they want people to speak to them. I know how to speak to them.
I hear a woman talk, like she think I’m crazy. I said, Madam, long time is not like now.
If you promise them something, they have to get it.
The new fellas on the block now getting sense.
Bolt in the blocks
When Rudolph and I were hanging together, a man came up and told Carol, “yuh feel yuh husband is de bad man? Look the bad man dey.”
After he died, they called me to be the leader. Mr Brain (Ivan) said, ‘Who’s against it?’ He was saying that to the elders. Nobody stand up. But Rudolph used to say, ‘If Thunderbolt say he come for the band, you have to move and let him take it.’ He told that to the elders.
A blow from the Hammer
I’d given Rudolph money to buy a drum set in the States for the band, and he died with it in his pocket. It was a shock to me. I was at the Coney Island in Chaguanas. I left and went to my hair styling salon on Picton Street to take a rest. Got up at 4.30 and went home.
My madame tell me, ‘I have some news for you but I hope you don’t get
‘I ent go get on.’
‘Yuh pardner dead, boy.’
‘What? Who’s mih pardner?
I jump back in the car and went to the house. Gerald tell me he fall down just so and dead. I didn’t take it too good. I went by Wallace the tuner in Morvant, then to Maraval where the PRO Beverly Telemaque lived.
I get stupid. I get weak.
JOANNE CHERYL WALLACE, daughter of Rudolph Charles and Brenda
I was 10 years old when Wallace Austin got sick and my father was determined to tune the pans by himself, using a little mouth organ. Still, other tuners came to help out. The back of the jitney was full of tires, and we made a bonfire at the back of the house on Picton Road, burning two pans at a time. Day and night. He must have slept two hours. Neighbors complained. Curtains, walls, the ground all covered with soot. Really bad. The Panorama song was Margie, arranged by Bradley. It was the band’s second Panorama victory. The neighbors, the hill rejoiced like it was Christmas.
Cheryl Wallace, daughter of Rudolph Charles and Brenda Wallace, is flanked by her sons, actor Tristan D. Lalla, left, and Brandon Lalla, a hospital supervisor. The family resides in Montreal, Canada. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Wallace)
Very together people. Their support was special. They believed in him and Despers.
My dad was never affectionate. But just a pat and a few minutes of conversation would mean something. He was very protective of me, a special part of my life, growing up in that house.
Say no! No no no!
He sat me down when I turned 13 in Montreal, cleared the table and emptied a bag of drugs. All kinds. This is an upper, this is a downer, whatever. He taught me the road I needed to take and the one I shouldn’t. it was his way of saying to stay away from drugs. My friends in school called me “square.”
My father’s word to me was THE word. The same word I passed on to my sons. Tristan D. Lalla is 31, an actor, singer poet, painter, philosopher. He’s done roles in Shakespeare plays; had a part in White House Down, and is featured in the Assassin’s Creed video game series.
Brandon Lalla, 34, is a supervisor of sterilization at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.
Shades of grampa
When he was 13 months old, Tristan adopted some mannerisms of my father while we were on visit to Trinidad. He had fallen asleep without his pillow and blanket, which never happens, and next thing you know he gets up, goes to the pan room, walks around a pan, shivers - then slips into Rudolphs’ bedroom, lies on his back with his hands behind the head and cocks his foot just like his grandfather does when he rests.
Part of my dad was in him.
Back in time
Rudolph had four girls, two boys and nine grandchildren. He would have had two great grands if he were alive today. He didn’t like getting old or fat. He worked out, ate well. I remember in ‘69 Dr. Williams came up the hill and ate pelau from an enamel plate with a spoon. Rudolph always brought home people for lunch or dinner.
And I recall there were a few guys who had the proof that the hammer existed. They wanted to take away the band because he was too strict. What grieved my dad a lot was their ungratefulness. Not only did he fight for band members to get paid but also all panists, period.
Sometimes, he’d sing ‘I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.’ He did so many things, Even modeling for Habib’s Men’s Store. But there was too much on the brain, dealing with the band, the women. it was about control. He wasn’t God. You can’t be perfect.
The end of the innocence
(Both Brenda and Cheryl are speaking)
When he was hallucinating, he always saw a man waiting for him on a horse with a chariot. Everybody would tell you he had a premonition of his death.
Cheryl: If I thought of him, the phone would ring. I kept dreaming about him the week before he died. Called the house, but the phone wasn’t working. The night before he died, I dreamt him lying naked in his room. When I passed by the room, he called me. He wanted to talk. ‘Bring my briefcase in the corner there. Look for an envelope. Read it.’ The letter was the one I wrote him about the changes he was making in his lifestyle. I was not happy about it. He said not to worry, it would not happen again. I put the letter back.
I was angry at him for not keeping his promise. He had already bought a plane ticket to come see me.
Next morning I told my mom about the dream.
Right then, an uncle called.
Where’s your mom?
I turned to her. He died, didn’t he?
My dreams are so exact, they scare me sometimes. Like Ma Georgie’s.
The phone worked right after he died. I guess it wasn’t meant to be, that we’d connect in time. So the dream was a revelation.
Brenda: Two days before, on Wednesday he held a meeting of the elders at his home, then travelled to the southland. Thursday they were treated to lunch at a Chinese restaurant on a tour of his favorite places, including a roti shop in San Juan.
That night, he was hallucinating and fighting his demons with half a sword, running across the road to Berlin, where he lived, and falling between a wall and a fence, bruising his face.
It wasn’t like, natural.
He died in his house, though he was rushed to the hospital. But the end had already come.
Cheryl: He was a health nut. I swear he had never dabbled in drugs. I guarantee it.
I don’t think he enjoyed it. Tried to talk him out of it. When he got the news of his diabetic condition at the hospital, he decided that was going to be the end of his life.
I accept that he died. But that he had to die? No. The man that he was was no longer the man that we all knew and loved and cared about.
Déjà vu all over again
Back in Trinidad for the funeral, we are at Gerald’s house. I told him to look into Rudolph’s briefcase and see if there’s a letter, also my First Communion, graduation and wedding pictures. He took the letter out, read it and started to cry.
Brenda: Artists are living a part of their life that they were supposed to live. They’ve lived it and they had a purpose, and they lived out their purpose, and then they moved on.
Cheryl: There were three cremations at Caroni. Rudolph’s body, covered with a black satin cloth, ensconced in a Chariot pan, was positioned in the middle. Two doves flew in a circle over the body on the pyre. They put camphor, ghee and incense over the body and lit the fire from his mouth.
I’m thinking about it now. That my father was churched at the Catholic Cathedral, burned on the banks of the Caroni like a Hindu and lived like a Muslim.
Dalton Narine interviews Rudolph Charles
Dalton Narine spent his formative years at St. John Street, Laventille, where Rudolph Charles and the late Highlanders and Phase II frontline player, Franklyn Ollivierra, were born. Charles was a favorite interviewee, though he chided Narine on television on a Panorama night for being a panist for Trinidad All Stars and not Desperadoes, where he was born. Narine, however, is from the Gonzales clan, and it was requisite that his grandfather’s children and grandchildren be born on Gonzales’ hill. Narine scored the last extended interview Charles granted when he visited his home in Los Angeles to write a feature, The Doc, The Hammer and The Shoebox, mere months before his death. Narine grew up also in Gonzales, Belmont; East Dry River and Success Village, Laventille. The Charles family asked him to read a eulogy, but Narine balked, having never attended a funeral following his stint in Vietnam. Eventually, he relented, read his eulogy and left the church.
Related articles and media
Leave a comment in the WST Forum