The Rise and Fall of the Pan Am North Stars

by Jerry Bain

Published with expressed permission of the author

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - This is the story of the Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra. They started off in Upper Bournes Road in St. James. Up in that section of St. James was Ross Lands in the foothills of Fort George and Isaac Terrace where the ‘Pepper Pot’ nightclub used to be. Further up was a community that was given the name of ‘Pig Town.’ The Roach family lived at 33 Upper Bournes Road and as a kid, Sonny started beating small tin pans in order to get into the Orisha yard near Patna and Guthrie Streets. This yard was also called the Shango yard. Sonny tuned pans for the Harlem Nightingales and eventually formed Sun Valley in 1946 after playing for a while with a band called Nob Hill from Khandahar. Members from Casablanca used to come by Sun Valley yard to tune and play their pans, so much so, that Sun Valley was the only pan side from the West that could go and play on Charlotte Street on Carnival nights.

As the story goes, in 1950, on Carnival Tuesday, Sun Valley was going up Henry St. by Queen St. and decided to take a rest. Neville ‘Zambie’ Gaskin and Sonny decided to take a walk down to Marine Square when they saw Carlton Blackbeard hitting the pans with a tomahawk while other pan players were sitting around, doing nothing about it. At a pan meeting after Carnival, Sonny told the members that he was fed up because of the incident and he quit the band. After the meeting, Roy Harper, Bertie Walker, Herman Betancourt, Christopher Newton, Edmond Patterson and a couple other players also decided to leave the band and after having a meeting among themselves, decided to form a new band that Edmund Patterson called, the Stars from the North and that ‘Northern Stars’ would be their name. About three months later, Anthony Williams joined the band after leaving the band Young Sun Valley, which was also from Upper Bournes Rd.

Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra
Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra

Northern Stars eventually left Upper Bournes Rd. and relocated at a yard owned by Ralph Springer at the corner of Hudson St. and Hill Lane in Khandahar. They also introduced a vocalist named Michael Roberts who sang with the band, which was a first for any steelband. In 1950, they decided to play a Seabees mas and gave a guy named William Carew from Ranjit Kumar St. to print some tee shirts, but the name ‘Northern Stars’ was too long to fit on the shirt, so he cut the stencil to say ‘North Stars’ and from that day, the band has been known as ‘North Stars’. After the carnival of 1951, they were playing at a club on Park St. called ‘The Waldorf’ owned by a Mr. Khan and the person in charge was a guy called ‘Massife’ along with the bouncer for the club, named Sylvan, from Isaac Terrace in St. James. After a confrontation at the club, Sonny Roach decided to leave the band.

The members of the band at that time were Roy Harper, Ralph Springer, Anthony Williams, John Mc Nicholls, Neville Gaskin and Cletus Millington. Another confrontation occurred when Cletus accused Roy Harper of not paying the members enough money and threw Roy’s pan in the Khandahar River. At this point, Anthony Williams became the tuner for the band which eventually moved from Ralph Springer’s yard to Brunton Rd., but later got a place on the corner of Bombay St. and Seventh St. by a place owned by Carlyle ‘Beaver’ Lovell where they remained for almost 12 years.

In 1962, the band won the Music Festival. That same year, they were playing at a function at the residence of a BWIA (British West Indies Airways) manager and the PRO for the band, Leonard Marshall, also an employee of BWIA, was approached by Mr. David De La Rosa, the executive from Pan American Airways in Trinidad, who offered to sponsor the band. (BWIA... you snooze, you lose). As a result, the band became known as the PAN AM North Stars after Tony Williams signed the contract. Before going on tour to Jamaica Mr. De La Rosa asked to change the name because of the acronym of the band, which was P.A.N.S., they however decided that the new name would be Pan Am Jet North Stars. When the band returned from the tour, there was yet another disagreement between Herman ‘Rock’ Johnson and Leonard Moore which led to several players in the band being expelled. As a result of this, Rock took all the tenor pans which he had made and a number of players and formed West Side Symphony which practiced in the yard on Brunton and Kathleen St. at the home of one of their players named Cox. They got sponsorship from BWIA and later became BWIA Sunjets West Side Symphony.

Garvin Blake, Winston Wellington and Frankie McIntosh
Frankie McIntosh, Garvin Blake, and Winston Wellington
@ Ray Allen book review of “Jump Up!”

After this exodus of Rock and the players, Tony and Zambie decided to bring in the players from Ross Lands, which was a band led by Winston Wellington called the’ Rising Sun’ who had changed their name to ‘Sunny Serenaders’ comprising of Winston and Fitzroy Wellington, Kelvin Griffith, Collins Moore and his brothers Cannet and Norris Moore, along with Fitzroy Barton and Earl Gibbons. Meanwhile, rumors had begun circulating that Pan Am North Stars had disintegrated and could not fulfill their engagements because of the lack of pans and players. Tony rushed to make new pans and took the band to Woodford Square to play in a free concert when they returned from an overseas tour. With this appearance, the Pan Am North Stars was reborn. In 1964 the band won the Panorama for the second consecutive year, playing ‘Mama dis is Mas’, with Despers in second and Starlift in third. On a trip to play in Guyana that year, they were put on a bauxite boat for the trip over and by the time they arrived, most of their instruments were covered in rust and on returning home, they were not able to compete in the 1964 edition of the Steelband Music Festival.

In November of that year, they went to New York on a trip sponsored by Pan Am. Leonard Marshall was the manager, with Neville ‘Zambie’ Gaskin, Edward ‘Null’ Moore, Ronald ‘Becky’ Montrose, Fitzroy ‘Lyn’ Barton, and Kenneth ‘Headers’ Lewis, Frederick ‘Tookah’ Lovell, Leslie ‘Pedrito’ Jordan, Winston Wellington and Lennard ‘Arab’ Moore, Cyril ‘Bram’ Lashley, Kelvin Griffith, Norris Moore, Noble ‘Eggy’ Marshall, Kenneth Clarke, Steve Miller, Ken ‘Belvedere’ Superville, Mervyn ‘Cashew’ Thorpe, Winston Young and Anthony ‘Skip’ Williams. The Julia Edwards Dance Troupe and Sam Ghany also accompanied the band.

The year 1966 was a tragic one for the band. Neil Blackman, a player with the band and a student of St. James Secondary School, died as a result of a motor vehicle accident along with four others from the Belle Vue area while on their home from Valencia. At their funeral, because of a feud between some youths from Belle Vue called ‘Gunderos’ and some youths from the Jerry St. area, there was a bottle pelting incident at the Western Cemetery. Also that year, the band returned to its original home in Upper Bournes Rd. at the yard of Mr. Orlando ‘Lando’ Farrell, due to a noise complaint by a neighbor who lived on Bombay St. With this move, the band started practicing for the Steelband Music Festival and with the assistance of Mervyn ‘Bunny’ James, set out making new pans for the entire band. On finals night of August 21st 1966, they won the Festival.

With the 1966 Carnival now over, the Executive of the band approached the Port of Spain City Council in finding a new place to practice, since they had to move once again because of the noise complaint. The City Council decided to give the band a month-to-month lease on a lot for 24,000 sq. ft. east of the Bournes Rd. Ravine at #1. Mucurapo Rd. At the same time, the Council also granted a piece of land next to the Woodbrook Youth Centre, to the Starlift Steel Orchestra. The band however, was aided by Mr. Muhammad Khan on Brunton St. just west of Bombay St. in the St. James area. During the next three years, the band went on several tours before returning home to prepare for a concert with Winifred Atwell called ‘Ivory and Steel’ to be held at Queen’s Hall in August of 1969.

The band made no more trips in 1969 or 1970. In April of 1970, a State of Emergency was declared in Trinidad and Tobago because of the ’Black Power’ demonstrations, and the band resumed practicing in August of 1970. In 1971, Aubrey Adams contracted the band to play on a tour with 62 other artists from Trinidad. They left in July and returned in August of 1971. ‘It is alleged’ the members were not too happy when they returned home, because ‘it is alleged’ they were only paid half of what the contract had called for, and decided to visit Mr. Adams at his office of the Prime Minister to see about the balance of funds owing to them. They were asked to wait for a minute while ‘it is alleged’ Mr. Adams went through the back door.

In September of 1971, Mr. Marvin Ochoa made arrangements for the band to play at a number of venues in England. As fate would have it, within a few days of the players arriving, most of the pans did not arrive and the band could not perform and so the tour was a major fiasco. Tony was left with seven players and as he had done in the past, tried to make new pans and get new players, but the task was just too much. Mervyn ‘Bunny’ James who had assisted him in making new pans in the previous years, had since moved to New York.

After the Carnival of 1972, Tony informed the players that it was the end of the band. In August of 1972, he gave the Pan Am organization one month’s notice of his decision to terminate the sponsorship agreement. According to Tony, he would have had to pay $250,000.00 if he was unable to provide a band under the terms of the contract. The band became inactive in 1972, but regrouped in 1995 at its former home on Brunton Road in St. James.

Notable players:

Tony and David
Tony Williams and David ‘Papa’ Maunday


by Jerry Bain

In 1999, Pan Trinbago announced that they would be holding a concert featuring the 11 steelbands that had won the Panorama competitions from 1963 to 1999. This concert was called ‘A Tribute to Excellence’ and would provide a fee of $100,000.00 to all bands taking part. This event was timed to coincide with the Miss Universe Pageant, which was being held in Trinidad for the first time on 26th May 1999.

North Stars - Mama Dis Is Mas -
ʽPanorama Champions of the Twentieth Century’ show

With the sum of money stated as the prize, some of the former players decided to restrict the North Stars so that they would be able to receive the money. They set up shop on Hudson Street once again, but this time at the corner of Hudson and Bombay Street in St. James. Some of the players from the Hummingbirds Pan Groove and Power Stars Steelbands helped to make up the 85 players required as one of the conditions for participation in the concert. They learned two tunes chosen by the arranger who was a member of the T&T Defense Force. The 1964 rendition of ‘Mama dis is Mas’ with which the North Stars had won the Panorama with and Anthony Williams’ ‘Pan Down 5th Avenue’ were chosen for the event.

Anthony Williams, right - with the Spider Web pan he invented
Anthony Williams, right - with the Spider Web pan he invented. Herman “Rock” Johnson is at left

The concert was held on May 22nd 1999 and provided an incentive to the winner of the competition between the bands for the best non-calypso tune, a competition similar to the ‘Bomb’ competition of former years. The prize money for this was the ‘winner take all’ sum of $25,000.00. This competition was won by Phase II Pan Groove with their rendition of the ‘Kool and the Gang’ tune, Cherish. The 11 bands which took part in the competition were, North Stars, Cavaliers, Desperadoes, Hatters, Solo Harmonites, New Tones, Exodus, Trinidad All Stars, Phase II Pan Groove, Starlift and Renegades.

The resurrection of the North Stars under captainship of Fitzroy Barton did not last long and after about three years, the band once again dissolved.

Pan Am North Stars “Voices of Spring” (1962)


Pan Am North Stars
Pan Am North Stars

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