The Ivory and Steel Recording
40 {50 now Years} Later, Still a Cultural Phenomenon
How a dragon and a butterfly made it historic

by Dalton Narine

2008

Trinidad - They already had a name that fit – Ivory and Steel.


Winifred Atwell

Actually, they made a record, did Winifred Atwell and Pan Am Jet North Stars. It created history – in black and white. Yet, like an Earl Lovelace novel, it exists in colour – that watershed recording of 1969.

An unauthorized 1968 version, though, has been rippling quietly outside the mainstream of pan’s pop culture.  Over the years, this tributary of “richer” music has caught the ear of a privileged audience, some of them gossipers with an itch to be in the know.  For now, the known quantity, a 1969 RCA label, prevails wherever pan has found a home across the globe.  It is that treasured.  Even without guerrilla rank.

Whatever!  It was the first time a classical pianist of Atwell’s prestige had performed and recorded with a steel band.  Forty years later, reaction to the music hasn’t diminished.  People are more outspoken in defense of its historic and artistic merits.

“You can’t define the pan from the piano,” Norman Darway Adams, a former Invaders defender says about a recording with the commonality of laypeople sharing its genius and masterstroke of musicality.  Adams refers to the orchestration of harmonically tuned pans, how it fits to the eminence of a soloist – trained by a prodigy who mastered his scales in 1890s Siberia.

Classical music stations across America have noticed, too.  Some have included Ivory and Steel in their playlists for years, So, it also appeals to lovers of music everywhere.  But, you won’t find it on sale anywhere, not even on eBay, the online auction and shopping Web site.  It is probably the most copied record of our culture.

That is why the recording stands as a landmark feat, Adams says, “because up to today people trying to get the record.”

His argument is compelling.

Dr. Dawn Batson (pictured), Chair, visual and performing arts, Florida Memorial College, in Miami, credits “pan’s ability to forge a meaningful relationship with conventional instruments.”

And, about pan’s role in the repertoire in an orchestral setting, Dr. Batson believes “it certainly expanded the literature for the instrument.”

Furthermore, never has a recording excited steel bandsman Keith Diaz more than Ivory and Steel.  Diaz, an extremely knowledgeable host of a weekly pan programme on I95.5FM, and chairman of Pan Trinbago’s northern region, is not noted for the extravagances of street talk about the history of the culture.  Diaz is a straight talker.

“One of the greatest recordings,” he says.  “The tonal quality alone would testify to that.  It’s the best I’ve heard to this day.  And, the record helped advance pan because of it.  We’re still trying to get to that level.  Besides Anthony Williams, only two tuners have reached that level, Herman “Guppy” Brown and Bertie Marshall”

If the creativity of the two principal artistes responsible for such tingling of the senses was inspired by the Greek Muses of the arts, we could call the source for the steely sound “the dragon” from St. James.  Like his muse, Anthony Williams always had a clear vision.  Voice of Pan.

And we could trace hers, too.  The butterfly, ascribed by the ancient Greeks to soul.  So, Winifred Atwell, the butterfly from Tunapuna.  Soul of the Piano. 

Atwell learned the instrument in 1918 when she was four, and gave back to the country as a young adult.  Cultural activist Holly Betaudier remembers her being driven to Governor Sir John Shaw’s house to teach a relative in the late 1930s.  Another of her students was Sylvia Robin, whose teenage sister, Esther Batson, currently a music teacher in Barataria, did not believe Atwell was good at it.  “She knew a lot about music,” says the mother of Dr. Batson about Atwell, who kept a bottle of sweets on the piano.  “But she couldn’t impart it.”

In 1942, when Atwell was 28 and studying classical piano technique under her Russian tutor Alexander Borovsky in New York, Williams, a spunky 12-year-old, began experimenting with a biscuit drum in the cauldron of social strife, newly stirred by the accident of pan’s birth.  That happening, deep within the underbelly of Port of Spain, would mark the first of a series of accidents of history for the youngster, who claimed to be blessed from birth because his mother named him after St. Anthony.  Because he moved people not by what he said but for who he was.

“Tony never talked much, but contributed a lot,” says Jit Samaroo (pictured), arranger for Renegades steel band.  “He was always careful with what he did with pan.”

Williams, mature at 18,  formed North Stars steel band in 1950; yet, only a year later, was on the boat to England with the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), the first such stellar group to tour the UK.  It was this country’s most innovative gift to the Brits, who, in the crucible of post-slavery colonialism, still summoned all their nerve to ban the drum, to repress creativity.

Luckily, on the tour, young Williams found the truth about music.  It spoke louder than what he had heard about it.  In 1953, he experimented with a tuning procedure that inspired awe from egoistic peers, who had been painstakingly refashioning the pan phenomenon note by note and tone for tone.

Williams says the feat didn’t surprise him at all.  He cited the experience not as a consummation of his goals but part of a bigger struggle, a greater commitment.  He was guided by mystical consciousness.  Christ’s 12 disciples; a clock’s 12 numbers; an octave’s 12 semitones.  Ah, the semitone – smallest interval between two keys on a piano.  These half notes were captured in the spider web, the grooved design that left no dead space on his new pan.  By hammering octaves into each corner of a note on the pan, he had eliminated overtones.  Williams was on top of the world.  The scrabble for the earnest advancement of the instrument was on.

“A religious experience,” he says.  “I achieved harmonic tuning, not knowing it.”

Another serendipitous discovery arrived on Jouvert in 1956 as North Stars was rendering Puerto Rico Mambo at Frederick and Park.

American recording engineer Emory Cook’s German-made Neumann mike, slung from a balcony at the busy corner, not only reproduced the chip-along music’s revolutionary change key, but also the shout-out, “ZAMBIE,” from a man up there to a co-worker down there named Neville Gaskin, a second pan player.  That momentous morning of devout pan, the culture still teething, accompanied the recording to its eventual enshrinement at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the largest museum complex and research organization in the world.

Performance

Winifred Atwell and Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra - "The Devil's Daughter"

North Stars capitalized on its newfound notoriety by blasting off to the heavens like a BOAC jetliner; the giddy ’60s bestowing the first steel band from space one music festival and two Panorama titles – notwithstanding Pan American Airways taking the band under its wing since 1962.

In the UK, meanwhile, Atwell, already married to her manager Lew Levisohn, had the world in thrall to the marvel in her hands.  Forty-four fingers on each.  Eighty-eight in all, fluttering back and forth on the keyboard.  Trinidad’s richest cultural export to its colonizer.  That she was.  In no time, a caterpillar into a butterfly, she was transformed into the British queen of a sophisticated art – an engaging repertoire of classical music and the jazzy boogie-woogie.

She might have had an air of modesty about her, but Atwell, as Marjorie Boothman of Cascade puts it, “was as experimental as pan.”

Atwell’s US$250,000 hands (from varied accounts) ensured she never washed dishes in the years after she relocated to London in 1946.  The first black artist in the UK to sell a million, more records than any pianist in her day, Atwell was performing way beyond the boundaries of her homeland.  Fate would fix it so one day they would meet, these artists from disparate worlds, one fatherless and motherless (she mentally ill) – his granny selling snowball in the yard to catch a little relief from hell – the other’s father running a pharmacy (her mother was a nurse) so in the early ’40s easy living would afford her an advanced education, to hone her skills on Grieg and Rachmaninov in America and England.

Who would dare set up the introduction?

Neville Jules

North Stars was the top steel band at the time, says Neville Jules, a founder of Trinidad All Stars.  And Winnie was one of the best pianists in the world.  “Any top artist would want to play with the very best.  So, it had to work.”

In 1968, Pan Am and Celebrity Concerts, an American company, made it happen.  For sure, Atwell attracted other suitors.  Whispers made the rounds that Desperadoes almost had her hand.  But it was the “dragon” who was dancing 40 years ago at the old house in Nepaul Street, which, for the most part, he rebuilt, brick by brick, manufacturing each from scratch.

The butterfly, traveling with music sheets and a classical record, was taken to the dragon’s den to explore the possibilities of ivory and steel – piano keys the colour of bleached bones sounding out steel pan and its velvet voice.  Yes, they would make music together.  Yes, make Queen’s Hall sing like poetry.  Yes, Woodford Square, and Shaw Park, Tobago.  After completing the local circuit, they would present their work to the new world – Madison Square Garden.  

That’s how the stage would have been set for the following year, no?

Not quite.  Key to the venture’s success would be the pans, which required tuning to the same pitch as the piano.  Atwell solved the problem by shipping a tuning fork with international concert pitch so Williams could retune the entire band.

Anthony Williams
Tony Williams

Williams pressed on, bypassing oil drums to forge tenor pans 29 inches in diameter for richer harmonics.  Each was a 9-inch-deep basin with 36 notes.  

“We called them piano pans,” says double second player Fitzroy Barton, a retired carpenter.

The “piano” panyard around upper Kandahar Street attracted a curious audience, who came to sample the hallucinatory effect of a steel band rehearsing orchestral passages from Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor as well as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the piano solos and embellishments of Winifred Atwell emerging from a hi-fi set in the dirt yard as if from the grave.  

Darway Adams found a voyeur’s vantage point, catching the music through the bushes on a track between a nearby creek and a small hill.  

“The further you go the better the tonal quality,” he says.  “The fellas worked hard.  As soon as Tony rode into the yard, they stop coasting.  Serious business.”

Barton acknowledges as much.  “At first, it was difficult for me,” he says.  “I was young.  The music was challenging.  Afterward, it was exciting.” 

Seasoned panists all, they were well-prepared for Atwell’s return.  The panyard found a new location on upper Bombay Street.  The audience under the big mango tree was larger and festive.  Atwell conducted the band playing along to the recording.  When the players were tight or tentative, she was polite, not once raising her voice.

“We felt like history was being made,” says double second panist Edward “Null” Moore.  “It was a different experience.”

Robert Bailey, Group Solo keyboardist.  must have had similar vibes when she sought him out during her stay.  Atwell and Robert’s dad, McDonald Bailey, a bronze medallist for Great Britain at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, “were very close growing up” in Trinidad, he says.  “They were dating.”

Today, Robert believes her race stunted her growth in classical music, “so she moved to other forms, like blues, like Nina Simone.”

Like pan.  Indeed, Atwell was faced with a resolute challenge to complete her experimentation in Trinidad.  She couldn’t bring a piano to the yard to practice with the band.  And she didn’t dare leave the final sessions to New York.  Fatima College and the Public Library would pull her out of the dilemma.

“We weren’t surprised about the sound [at Fatima and the library],” Moore says.  “Tony’s pans always sounded like piano.  But hearing the music in a building as opposed to a panyard was quite different.  Like a concert hall.”

Moore, about the music: “I liked the challenge of Rhapsody in Blue.”

Barton: “For me, it was Malaguena – the pace.”

Williams: “The Wedding, for the chords.”

Atwell arranged the entire repertoire, including Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and The Devil’s Daughter, which she composed for the band.

“Some people doubted it, but she really could arrange for pan,” Williams says.       

While Queen’s Hall patrons filed in to hear for themselves, RCA was gearing up to record the event. Likewise, local recording engineer Neville Aleong, who, sensing an epic night, brought two Neumann condenser mikes.  His omnidirectional KM56 was the same type used at Abbey Road Studios to record the Beatles, so Aleong wasn’t fazed by the RCA crew and their load.

“With just one mike you get a feeling of depth,” Robin Foster, a recording engineer, says.  “But with pan, you probably need a mike closer to the bass.”

Aleong positioned a mike in front of the piano and another facing the band.

 “A single mike could pick up sound better than the human ear,” he says.  “And more mikes will pick up more wrong notes.  RCA came in with a lot of equipment and the recording didn’t come out good.

“When I play my recording, people always want a copy.”

Aleong has plenty of reasons to keep his masterpiece under wraps.  For one, he wasn’t authorized, Williams says, to record the concert, despite his stint as the house sound engineer.  For another, Atwell misplayed a note in the opening descending flourish of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  

“She played F sharp instead of G sharp,” Williams says.  Hence RCA’s argument for scrapping the record.

“I don’t buy it,” says Aldwin Albino, a Trinidadian artist, composer and arranger in Montreal.  “They could have isolated the note and added G sharp, or ‘white out’ the wrong note.  That recording didn’t cater to the sophisticated classical music lover.  Besides, great pianists have hit wrong notes and her prowess as an international pianist is renowned.  There’s something else there.”

Maybe Albino will find nothing improper if he gets to listen to Aleong’s tape.

RCA, though, resolved to redo the recording in New York, a decision that would prove more problematic than anticipated.

When Winifred Atwell and the Pan Am Jet North Stars Steel Orchestra, featuring 20 members on 13-day visas, arrived in New York, Williams immediately sought a strobe tuner, the world standard for precision tuning.  A piano tuner in the Bahamas, a stopover, had convinced him to buy the unit.  Williams spent all day retuning the pans, completing the chore perilously close to the start time at Madison Square Garden.  The strobe cost him US$135 and was worth every penny, because “it was the first time that I [knowingly] tuned with harmonics.”

The sound and dexterity of Atwell and the band had the Garden hooked.  With Grieg and Gershwin, she reprised a segment of her 1954 concert at a packed Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic in accompaniment.  She might have weighed both performances, as a full house picked up on the synergy in New York City.

They were especially entertained by The Wedding and The Devil’s Daughter, Barton and Moore observed.

“We weren’t really that close,” Williams says, “but she complimented us about the sound.”

Ivory and Steel wasn’t recorded at the Garden after all, leaving Williams appalled a few days later when RCA took Atwell and the band to a recording studio.  North Stars was contracted to perform, not to record, he says.  “The band was in the studio setting up the pans.  I was late.  The committee had agreed to record.  I didn’t know about it.  I don’t know about fees, never asked for money.”

Pressed about his true emotions, Williams says the band could have made TT$450,000 from record sales.  At $6 per unit, he costed out expenses for pressing LPs for the band’s fan base (50,000 by his estimation) at $300,000; and tallied revenues of $750,000 from retail sales of the $15 record.

“But we didn’t have recording rights,” he says.

Moore says RCA was always tight-lipped about profits from the enterprise.  “But it’s still the most popular pan record ever.” That’s a measure he’ll settle for.  The best ever.  A distinction earned, like an Olympic gold medal.  Monetary value doesn’t have that sort of cachet.  Bring your best record to match theirs.  Send Mt. Everest to top their glory.

While a player beats his chest in achievement, another panist and fan of the recording beats his in anger.

Leslie Slater, head of the T&T Folk Arts Institute in New York, questions RCA’s propriety as well as its disrespect of the steel bandsmen that recorded such a signal work.  “It goes beyond the pale,” says the former Highlanders arranger.

Still, it is the quality of the recording that matters to Richard Forteau (pictured), secretary of Pan Trinbago.  He is a devotee of Aleong, the audiophile.  In 1995, Forteau travelled with Pan Trinbago representatives to Canada for the Ontario Science Centre, which challenges visitors through engaging and thought-provoking experiences in science and technology.  One of the exhibits was “Coming of Age.”

“We took along Neville Aleong’s version of Ivory and Steel,” he says, “and the engineer there was so flabbergasted he wanted to meet him.  (Forteau, who hosts a weekend pan show on 94.7 FM, Radio Trinbago, says he will dedicate today’s two-hour programme to the RCA recording, starting at 3 p.m.)

 “It is really ivory.  The blend of instruments truly heavenly.”

Perhaps for the hell of it – as unbelievable as it went down – a year after the band returned from New York, someone associated with Pan Am warned Williams he would lose his contract.  Was there a better offer on the table? How to take such slight?

Williams might have examined his early life for answers.  Like the after-school job at Sookram Bros. provision shop on Henry Street that paid $5 a week – “pulling” rotting onions from bags stacked to the rafters so he and his grandmother, Lillian Roberts, could afford bread.  He could have recalled his teacher at Mucurapo Boys stopping a session of class to teach him the stain of false pride on his character because, for Williams, if he had no shoes he would skip school.  So, he learned.

Now, here was another embarrassing situation catching him unawares that “town” would run its mouth about.  

“I prayed over it,” he says, receiving the message as divine will.  “I turned the other cheek, gave up the sponsorship.  Some people felt it’d be a disaster for me.”

In 1970, Jit Samaroo’s family band, the Samaroo Jets, replaced North Stars and became the Pan Am Samaroo Jets.  “We had a long relationship with the airline,” Jit says.  “Facilities they offered included travelling and a retainer fee.”

Two years after the debacle, North Stars suffocated under increasing tension to stay afloat.  The band was awash with sabotage and divided loyalties that involved, among other wrong notes, a British tour booking that left Williams out in the cold.  An impresario had booked the band – well, 13 members – to travel with a group of other entertainers.  Williams says he was out of the loop.  As the band’s leader, he was not contacted.  Instead, arrangements were conducted through a player “who went behind my back to act as the band’s captain.”

Wherever Williams turned, it seemed, he was shadowed by uneasiness.

 “There were other misunderstandings regarding the logistics for traveling, as well as organizational problems,” Williams says about the time he spent lending a hand shipping the instruments in spite of the attempted coup.

Compounding it all, the tour over, some band members stayed behind.  It was a sure sign that the heavens had lost a once brightest star. 

Meanwhile, in 1983, just about the farthest place on earth from her birthplace, Australia announced Winifred Atwell’s death from a heart attack.  She had lived there for many years after record sales dropped in the UK.  She also succumbed to perpetual grief, her husband having died in 1978.

A diabetic, Williams stands stoic in the face of adversity.  And despite the fading spotlight, still and all, his class remains intact.  If you drop by, he will tell you the truth about pan.  Judy Arthur, his caregiver of four years and a public relations practitioner, will showcase his “museum” in a front room. 

“No course could have taught me what he taught me,” she says.  “He keeps everything from the tours – the plane tickets, the strobe, music books, programmes, everything.”

A four-note ping-pong stays alive in a corner.  One would strain to believe likewise about the piano band.  For a restless Tony Williams, though, the band continues to live on in his head.  Hasn’t he always found a way around the blues?

Tell us about Ivory and Steel, Tony.  And he’ll give you every bit of its colour.


How the experts rate ‘Ivory and Steel’ collaboration and recording

Ivory & Steel

Delightful - Exciting - Unbelievable - Fascinating - These are the adjectives that come to mind when the versatility and creative genius of world famous Winifred Atwell combines with the music of steeldrums, tuned in perfect pitch, with coal-fire and sledge hammer by Trinidad's master pan tuner, Anthony Williams, leader of the Pan Am Jet North Stars steel Orchestra.

Few people who have never seen a steelband in action will believe that such lovely music with perfect tonal quality can be produced from quiet ordinary oil drums.

Miss Atwell being a native of Trinidad herself understands the mood and feelings of the man in the steelband, who inspired by the Queen of the keyboard give their best.

On this record the unique stylings of Winifred Atwell were brought together to give performances to raise funds for a much needed Hospital in Trinidad and has been enthusiastically received at every appearance and praised by such eminent musical personalities as Marion Anderson and Leopold Stokowski.

LP liner notes

More on Winifred Atwell

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Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine joined Trinidad All Stars when the band played in the Garret, the attic of the building housing Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street. While serving as a Carnival and Panorama commentator and interviewer on Trinidad & Tobago Television for more than 20 years, he continued to play the Bomb every J’Ouvert until he switched to filmmaking.
contact Dalton Narine at: narain67@gmail.com

Published with the express permission of the author, Dalton Narine

 



 
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