Steelpan Music Legends

Herman Johnston
HERMAN JOHNSTON (second from left)                           Photo by Eddie Adams

Herman Johnston

Herman Johnston - North Stars, West Side Symphony/Sunjets, ESSO Bermuda, Johnston Fantastic Symphony Steel Orchestra
Festival Championships 1964 - West Side Symphony
Trinidad & Tobago

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Info below posted with special permission from the by Ronald C. Emrit - check link for updates

Herman Johnston (born 4 February 1938 in Port of Spain, Trinidad)

Specialties: Tuner, Player, Arranger, Ambassador

Career: A former body-builder who learned to tune pans under Anthony Williams, Johnston gained wide recognition for his lead tenor performance in North Stars' 1962 Steelband Music Festival winning selection of Johann Strauss' "Voices of Spring." Referred to as the "piano pan," Johnston's tenor pan contained 36 notes and was the special creation of band-leader and tuner, Anthony Williams. In 1963, Johnston left North Stars to form his own band, Westside Symphony, which he led to victory in the 1964 Music Festival with Johann Strauss' "Roses from the South." Westside later changed its name to Sunjets and gained the sponsorship of BWIA. In 1967, Johnston left Trinidad for Bermuda where he spent 13 years playing with the Esso steelband. He migrated to New York in October 1980 where he formed the Johnston Fantastic Symphony Steel Orchestra primarily with family members. Johnston was an ambassador for pan music and his career included New York performances at the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and Radio City Music Hall. He also performed with the Boston Symphony at one of its summer festivals in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Johnston eventually moved to Spring Hill, Florida, in 1989 where he continued to be active in steelband music until 1997, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The following is a summary of Johnston's' record in significant steelband competition:

  • Steelband Music Festival 1964 - "Roses from the South" (Johann Strauss), 1st
  • Panorama 1965 - "Steering Wheel" (Mighty Sparrow), 3rd

Died: April 30, 2001

Steel drumming legend dies at 63

Tampa Bay Times

Herman Johnston, who rocketed to fame from his native Trinidad with his innovative work on the steel drum, loses his battle with cancer at age 63.


© Tampa Bay Times, published May 2, 2001

Herman Johnston, who rocketed to fame from his native Trinidad with his innovative work on the steel drum, loses his battle with cancer at age 63.

SPRING HILL -- For as long as anyone can remember, people called Herman Johnston by his nickname, "Rock."

The former body builder-turned-steel-drum-band-leader gained international acclaim in the early 1960s after coming up with an innovation that stretched the instrument's musical range from 24 to 36 notes.

On Monday, (April 30) Mr. Johnston, who moved his family to Spring Hill from New York 12 years ago, died at home after a four-year battle with prostate cancer.

During a career that catapulted him from his native Trinidad to appearances at the United Nations, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall and with the Boston Symphony at its summer festival in Tanglewood, Mr. Johnston's repertoire spanned musical genres, including rock, spiritual, classical, show tunes and Caribbean folk melodies.

May 19 would have been his 64th birthday.

At a ceremony last week in Brooklyn, Mr. Johnston was honored with 11 other steel drum musicians identified as "Legends of Pan," by the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute.

Mr. Johnston, who was bedridden for the past two years, was unable to attend the tribute.

His illness forced him to stop playing four years ago.

"That was devastating for him," said his wife, Joan Johnston.

Mr. Johnston performed with the popular North Stars band in Trinidad, where he introduced his steel drum innovation, which came to be known as the "Piano Pan," for its extended musical range. He later formed a band called the Westside Symphony, which won the 1964 Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band Musical Festival.

Courting his future wife in Trinidad, he was already a household name, but that didn't matter to her parents, who insisted their dates take place at church, with chaperones present.

"He tried to steal a kiss here and there . . . and then we'd hold hands when we were walking up the road," Mrs. Johnston said. "That's why we got married in six months."

The couple wed in 1966 and moved to Bermuda, where they lived for 14 years before heading to New York City in 1980.

In New York, Mr. Johnston formed the Johnston Fantastic Symphony Steel Orchestra, in which his wife and two sons played with him and several members of their extended family.

At first the move, which was a staggering leap away from the nightclub scene where Mr. Johnston had made a name, met with surprise from other professional musicians.

"People thought he was crazy," said Les Slater, director of the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute. "But he put together this band, and they were really quite a fantastic performing unit."

One of Mr. Johnston's last performances was at Springstead High School, his wife said.

In addition to his wife, who is director of Little Explorers Preschool & Daycare in Spring Hill, survivors include two sons, Garth H. and Herman Jr., both of Spring Hill; a daughter, Ann Marie Mierez of Brooklyn; three brothers, Hector of Trinidad, Samuel of Fort Lauderdale, and Courtney of Montreal; and a sister, Barbara Johnston of Trinidad.

Festival Winners 1964 - Westside Symphony with Herman Johnston

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