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Tony Williams to Mark 50th Anniversary of Voices of Spring on 81st Birthday

by Dalton Narine

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Anthony Williams
Anthony “Tony” Williams

Global - Anthony Williams, leader and arranger of the defunct Pan Am North Stars, has planned a special occasion to celebrate his 81st birthday.

On June 24, at the St. James Amphitheatre, Williams will commemorate the 50th year of the band’s rendition of Johann Strauss Jr.s’ “Voices of Spring,” a landmark performance that won the 1962 Steel Band Music Festival in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The invitational event begins at 6 p.m., and will also honor pan legends Ray Holman, Robert Greenidge, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Pelham Goddard and Earl Brooks.

In early May, Williams was reminded of the festival anniversary by Judy Arthur, his caregiver of 14 years. Williams pushed for an observance party that would include Desperadoes, St. James Tripolians, Scrunters Pan Groove and St. James North Stars, relying on Arthur to organize the function.

“We’re still trying to reach alumni of North Stars, besides the surviving members of the original group of 16 music festival players.” said Arthur, a senior media officer at Ample Advertising. “I’m planning something that everyone will remember.”

Honorees Sharpe, Holman and Brooks are scheduled to perform. “They were all moved not only by the “Spider Web” awards, but also the fact that Anthony, who is so widely respected, recognized their achievements in Pan.”

Williams’ Spider Web approach to tuning made the art - and playing of the instrument - easier through the placement of notes he called the cycle of Fourths and Fifths. His methodology would help lead to the eventual standardization of the instrument - as well as his greatest accomplishment, collaborating with international pianist Winifred Atwell on the Ivory and Steel concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969.

“My second greatest was Voices of Spring,” he says. “I was looking for a piece of music that was impossible for Pan. And I heard the waltz on a neighbor’s record. It was hard to play. Some notes were on the beat and some off. We tried to get the pans to equate to a symphony, but adapted music is an illusion.”

Williams, who learned music from Lt. Joseph Griffith, musical director of Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), which toured the United Kingdom in 1951, says it took the North Stars players three weeks to learn just the first few bars. And six months to imitate the complete work on steel.

He had tried to copy the “styling” of the music, which was written in B-flat but “the creator gave me mystical vibes and I played it in B.”

“Tony knew what he was doing,” says Cliff Alexis, co-director, tuner and composer of the Northern Illinois University Steel Band. “He read the score and gave the piece full orchestration. It was an eye-opener, where steel band was heading. After that breakthrough performance, steel bands played every waltz in the book. They weren’t playing them in their entirety before.

“[Emmanuel] Eamon Thorpe [leader and arranger of Crossfire] used to call Williams the Police Band,” Alexis recalls, “because of his intricacies of orchestration and musical embellishment. He was genius.”

Reaching for a classic evening, Arthur says guests will be regaled by a recording of North Stars’ bravura showpiece as a prelude to the proceedings.

From the 1962 album “Pan Am North Stars” let us celebrate spring with their version of
“Voices of Spring” (Johann Strauss)

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