Meet Len Church - Panist, Composer, Musician Extraordinaire - Up-Close!

Close friend of the late, great steelpan music arranger Clive Bradley

“In the old days you had to depend more on your talent or God-given gifts, and a whole lot of the type of creativity that is only developed through DIY ‘do-it-yourself’ grit and determination. If you were short on talent it was much harder to make it back then compared to today.”  Len Church

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks Exclusive icon

Len Church is a respected member of that extraordinarily talented group of musicians that ushered in the period commonly referred to as ‘the Golden Era of Caribbean Music.’ He performed and/or recorded with the likes of Winifred Atwell, Ed Watson,  Clive Bradley, Felix Roach, Mavis John and many, many more greats from that era.

In this exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - musician, writer, composer and arranger Len Church shares his thoughts on the steelpan instrument and music of the Caribbean, then and now.


WST - “Tell us about Len Church.”

Len Church - Panist, Composer and Musician Extraordinaire
Len Church

Len Church - “I was born in Woodbrook, Trinidad, and attended Beryl McBurnie’s kindergarten school. Even at that early age I began to be absolutely fascinated with music of all kinds. I remember as a kid staying up after everyone was asleep to listen to the big band competition, anxiously waiting for my favorite band Bob Wilson to come on, salivating on the then-current hits like “Take The A Train.”

“From those rather musically promiscuous beginnings I developed a love for everything musical: calypso, pop, Latin, Jazz, East Indian music, African music and of course Steelpan. I still remember Katzenjammers and the excitement around TASPO (Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra) visiting England. I spent most of my time sitting under that Redifusion box listening to Radio Trinidad, soaking in everything including the classics which they played a lot of. I still hum the orchestration for some of those symphonies and concertos today.

“We lived in Gonzales Place for a while and I played cricket with Joey and Boyie Lewis who lived across the street, and marveled enviously at the musical gifts of that entire family; both parents and siblings were all skilled musicians. When I turned sixteen I had my first real entrée into the magical world of music, beating pan for the Blue Stars steelband in St James and then Symphonettes where I was introduced to the leader of a stage side that performed at the Miramar Nightclub. By that time I was pretty skilled on all the pans and joined the stage side playing the Bass Pan. As good fortune would have it Sonny Lewis—another of the Lewis clan—was the saxophonist and he invited me to join a combo he was putting together.

“That really started an amazing journey leading to a gig with Ed Watson followed by a very rewarding and successful period as a freelance musician doing shows, clubs, studio work, calypso tent, radio and TV when that arrived. This involved working with folks like Johnny Gomez, Ed and Angela Johnson, and a host of contemporaries of that era too numerous to mention. I did a single gig with Sparrow in Tobago and along the way had the good fortune to meet Clive Bradley.

“Clive and I became great friends and musical soul mates. We did so much work together. I fondly remember, must have been ’67, we did music for carnival bands - I worked for George Bailey, and Clive got first place at the Savannah, with me second, and I got first [place] downtown with him. Second we ended up at a club in Carenage that Tuesday night, exhausted, having our last pre-Lenten drink, enjoying that one and figuratively slapping each other on the back.

“There are a few musicians who I can credit for directly shaping who I became as a musician [myself] starting with Sonny Lewis who took me around and introduced me to some of the top musicians, some who were like “walk on water” idols to me. Ed Watson who was extremely generous in sharing his skills, Felix Roach who I worked with about a year for the discipline I had to acquire to blend with his impeccable playing, Clive Bradley for all that we shared together which would be impossible to document, we were really inseparable as friends and musical associates, and Pat Castagne who wrote our national anthem, [and] on the only gig I ever did for him, got me in touch with how simplicity and less is better.

“My first love was arranging and composing, I got my first opportunity into that arena through Clive who invited me to write four songs for Sparrow. Anyone who was on that first and only rehearsal would have one word to describe it – CATASTROPHIC! It was a great lesson however, and I finally accepted the advice of Pat Castagne and on my next opportunity with a popular group at the time called “The Sparks” from Petit Valley, I totally reprieved myself on their minor hit “Mr Postman.” That led to an invitation by her manager Jeffery to compose and arrange for that sweet Lady of Soul Mavis John, which led to Sad Songs and Peace and Love.

“I also did some arranging for Johnnie Lee and The Hurricanes who recorded another minor hit “La Rumba La Reyna,” as well as with Silver Strings who I worked with for a short while and they recorded “Candace,” a song I wrote for my elder daughter of the same name. I actually started arranging a song for Desperadoes Steel Orchestra under Rudolph Charles, again through Clive, but other assignments made it impossible for me to finish. My musical career in T&T (Trinidad and Tobago) was one of the best periods in my entire life, filled with only fond memories. Things were of course much different and simpler then overall, there was less to do and less to do it with; somehow that seemed to engender a different significance to one’s accomplishments.”

WST - “You were a highly respected musician in what has been called ‘the Golden Era of Caribbean Music.’ What made this period so unique?”

Len Church - “Ah - the good old days – there’s much locally during this period that was common to musicians globally. We were coming up in an age when music electronics was in its infancy and the skill set required to be a successful musician then, was in most ways, more demanding than today. One aspect of that period that was uniquely different was the communal spirit that existed among musicians. There was no internet so guys would hang out together (in person) and everyone knew where the best lime was. Guys would gather to listen to the latest music - sometimes releases someone got from the States and of course there would be some Fernandes [rum] to make the lime merrier. That last part is one reason my mom never wanted me to be a musician.

“The music was also consistent with a different morality and lyricists were much more subtle and clever in their handling of sensuality. The music was always evolving, influenced by what was coming in from the States, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and other foreign sources. After the big band era the groups got smaller with three to five horns featuring groups like Cyril Diaz, Sel Duncan and so many more. The next wave saw the Dutchy Brothers, Joey Lewis, Ed Watson, Clarence Curvan, Ron Berridge et al. This was followed by the onslaught of the combos which signaled a whole new direction with its youthful, energetic and rhythmic fervor, picking up the tempo and preparing the stage for Soca and its spawned genres of today.

In parallel to all this were the “Jazz men.” I grew up salivating on the music of Rupert Clemendore, Bertram Inniss, Ralph Davies, Chick Springer, Felix Roach, Gordon Collins, Leroy Mayers, and Kenrick George - and after coming on the scene myself it was pure Nirvana to know and/or play with these guys. After our individual Saturday night gigs we would meet in the clubs, like Gigi and Penthouse, or at the studio in Radio Trinidad and jam until it was time to go down to the town hall for Sunday Serenade where some of us were paid regulars. That’s another thing unique about that era, where musicians would get together specifically to have jam sessions or just break into one after band rehearsals.

“Calypso was also evolving due in large part to the innovation of Sparrow and the always solid contributions from Kitchener and others, followed by Shorty who created an entirely new course for the music. It’s really unfair to only mention these few and not those who came before, as well as so many others who all combined to give to the world this very unique genre we can proudly proclaim as indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago. Those of us who can reminisce about that period have truly lived through a Golden Era that will be eclipsed for sure but never replaced.”

WST - “Your musical journey has allowed you to rub shoulders, and perform, with many of the iconic musicians of Caribbean music like Ulric Belfast, Clive Bradley, Ed Watson, Felix Roach and Winifred Atwell - to name a few. What is it about this period that generated so many great musicians?”

Len Church - “That’s such a great question. We had less to work with compared to the musicians of today. You can go online today and get tutorials on just about anything you need to know about music, and equipment, even though still expensive is much more accessible. Back then we had to import material. In the old days you had to depend more on your talent or God-given gifts, and a whole lot of the type of creativity that is only developed through DIY (do-it-yourself) grit and determination. If you were short on talent it was much harder to make it back then compared to today. As a result the ones who made it were the crème de la crème. We have a great group of talented musicians and artistes today, and they are really blessed with so much better access to the resources requisite for success.”

WST - “How and when were you first introduced to the steelpan instrument?”

Len Church - “I was about nine years old and a steelband was started two houses away by the Adams family, this was on Jubilee Street in Gonzales. I remember them practicing for days the hit “The Breeze and I” by the Katzenjammers steelband. I mentally memorized most or maybe all of the parts and would sing them in my head all day even at school; it’s amazing that my grades didn’t plummet. I had a brief twenty-minute exposure to a single guitar pan; I believe it had five notes, and “joy of all joys” I was able to figure out an I-IV-I-V (basic strum) pan tuners would always use to check their work - “pure ecstasy.” The group disbanded shortly after, and I was sixteen before touching the pan again with the Blue Stars steelband two weeks before Carnival and tasked to learn all those songs – “more ecstasy” - I could have been called home to heaven on that Ash Wednesday morning.”

WST - “Tell us about your Pan years.”

Len Church - “I did a stint with Symphonettes under the captain whose nickname was “Shadow” (I think one of his names was Nathan), then Tripoli and Silver Stars both under Junior Pouchet. I learned to play all the instruments and probably was headed for greatness as a panist, until conventional instruments quickly consumed my life and wiped away any opportunity of that as a possibility. There’s something about the pan, probably its percussive timbre that I believe sharpens the ear. Along with having to memorize all the music for the steelpan I was more than well prepared for the switch to conventional instruments.”

WST - “You encountered Len “Boogsie” Sharpe when he was a child. What was your impression of him?”

Len Church - I met “Boogsie” during my stint with Symphonettes; he actually lived in a house next to the pan yard and I believe he was related to the captain who was an incredible panist himself and probably had an influence on “Boogsie.” “Boogsie” was probably about nine and had to stand on a box to play the pan. What he was doing at that age was mind-boggling, he was without a doubt a prodigy and probably more talented than I was. The kid was freakishly mesmerizing. There was no doubt that if he stuck with it he would be the phenom that he is today.”

WST - “Tell us about Winifred Atwell, and how did that gig with her come about?”

Len Church - “I heard through the grapevine that she was coming to Trinidad and would need a local rhythm section for her show. I was playing the upright bass at the time and quickly bought a bow and a book on reading for the bass. I had no experience using the bow, and only a less than rudimentary idea of music notation. Never having read music before I had three weeks to get gig ready. Winning the spot is another milestone in my career; we did concerts in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando then traveled to French Guyana, Barbados and ended with a performance at Carnegie Hall in NYC. I was offered the gig to go to Europe and Asia, but being newly-married, did the family thing.”

WST - “Ms. Atwell obviously had a lot of respect for the steelpan instrument. What was it that attracted her to Pan? And what about the Ivory and Steel project?”

Len Church - “I didn’t think much of it then but in hindsight based on the little I learned from being with her for even such a short time, my guess is that she wanted to do something of legacy proportions for her homeland, something big and ground breaking that could be built on.”

WST - “In your When Steel Talks forum post you said you experienced “one of the most surreal musical moments of my entire musical life” during that history-making tour with Winifred Atwell. Can you elaborate on that moment?”

Len Church - “I never could remember which island, maybe it was St Thomas, but we had a concert at this really nice hotel, and I was on my way to the concert hall area from a break when I heard what sounded like the music that comes over the PA system.  As I got closer to the hall I suddenly realized that the violins and reeds and symphonic sounds were emanating from North Stars Steel Orchestra accompanying Winifred on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.” I had never paid much attention to the tourists who spoke in awe of the ability of the steel pan to simulate symphonic instruments, thinking they were merely being polite and hospitable. As one who had an acutely trained musical ear - the realization that I couldn’t differentiate the difference left me quite over-awed, but with a renewed sense of pride for our unique art form.”

WST - “Beside the ‘Who’s Who’ list of musical giants that you have worked with, you had very close encounters with two of the geniuses of pan - Anthony “Tony” Williams of North Stars and the late Clive Bradley. Tell us about them from your perspective, and your take on these two men as people, musicians and professionals? What is it that drove them to such creativity and excellence?”

Len Church - “Tony I knew personally albeit not that intimately, he was extremely genteel and accommodating, sort of the quiet genius type. I really knew more about him from his music pan tuning skills. I recall how he seemed to be deeply focused in his work. He was in his time a great innovator as a pan developer and tuner, always experimenting and a major contributor as an arranger. It’s not really easy to figure out which pans and in what combination should play which orchestral parts in order to approximate the sound of a conventional orchestra. He was one of the important pioneers in that arena.

Clive Bradley at left, with Len Church, right
Clive Bradley at left, with Len Church

Clive as I stated before was a very close friend for years and we hung out almost every day, he was the best man at my wedding and we collaborated on many projects in the studio, commercials, shows, club dates, radio, TV. On club gigs we would have so much fun playing new music that we never even practiced, on the fly, and no one would suspect that we may have only heard the song once or twice on the radio. Besides being good friends and musicians we had an incredible camaraderie and we thought alike.

“What can I say about Clive that everyone doesn’t already know, he was a musical genius. I marveled at how he could sit in a crowded noisy room and write music from his head without the aid of an instrument. We greatly admired each other’s ability and would jokingly accuse each other of being abnormal, crazy and looney tunes, which he definitely was but in a genius sort of way. Musically things really came very easy to him, whether it was starting to arrange for horns or steel pan from the ground floor up. He didn’t even have experience beating pan when he started arranging for Desperadoes. I rest my case - he was abnormally looney tunes crazy.”

WST - “From Winifred Atwell, to Clive Bradley, to Anthony Williams, to Len “Boogsie” Sharpe - you have encountered Trinidad/Tobago genius many times. Is there a connecting thread, or recognizable trait?”

Len Church - “These are people who are naturally gifted and honed their gift into a creative well-spring that just keeps on outpouring. They’re tireless and have a propensity to work harder and longer until they reach that plateau where they become efficient, prolific producers at what they do best.”

WST - “To this day, very few have experienced a steel orchestra that sounds like an orchestra of ‘conventional’ instruments – which do NOT sound like ‘pan.’ The genius and music icon Anthony “Tony” Williams accomplished this feat – with the steelpans he himself constructed and tuned – several decades ago – for North Stars, which accompanied Ms. Atwell. Why is this type of ‘sound’ in Pan, not heard anywhere today?”

Len Church - “That’s a really interesting question. You would think that with the entire historical pan tuning knowledge as a resource for the technological innovations available today, that we should be able to achieve the sounds of a Tony Williams or even improve on it. My guess is that the tuners of today are tuning to accommodate the type of music arrangers are producing, as well as the musical tastes and expectations of the listening public. The music of today is much more percussive, rhythmic and frenetic. The music of the previous eras was more harmonically and rhythmically balanced and lent itself to a more subtle tone, rendering it closer in timbre to conventional instruments.”

WST - “You have played with several steel orchestras in the past including Blue Stars, Tripoli, Symphonettes, Silver Stars and others. Talk about your times with these various bands.”

Len Church - “They all had markedly different sounds influenced by the size of the band, tuning of the pans and style of the arranger, who mostly was the captain of the band then. With Blue Stars I started with the guitars for the road side and switched to Bass for the stage side. I played double seconds in Tripoli and seconds and bass with Symphonettes. An interesting aspect of the steelband then (I’m not familiar with the situation now) was the “following.” Followers aligned not only with the music, but with the social make up of the followers, and a pretty girl in your following was, as in so many other areas of society ‘a biggie’.”

WST - “What are your fondest music moments?”

Len Church - “I do fondly remember the first time I heard myself on the radio, I was only in music for a few months and a recording by Ed Watson popped up on Radio Guardian - that was pretty special - I couldn’t even tell anyone what the smirk on my face was all about. Working with Mavis John was exciting in many ways. First she is a great lady and extremely talented. I happened to be a fan before I met her, and she was so easy to work with. It was extremely exciting to see both of the songs we did on the top ten hit parade program at the same time, I believe ‘Peace and Love’ made it to number one, if I’m not mistaken. My entire musical career was a joyful and fulfilling ride. I was involved in music from the time I got up to the time I went to bed. Music gave me access to many privileges in other areas simply through name recognition, and I was very fortunate to be one of the musicians who worked all year round. It was truly all fun and fond moments.”

WST - “What are you most proud of in the development of the steelpan music movement?”

Len Church - “I have seen the steel pan movement develop literally from “duh dup” and single pans hung around the neck, to the many innovations of today. I remember when it was “indecent” to even talk to panists, and today we have people of all ilk involved in the movement. We have more super-talented panists who can do much more with the instruments than ever before. The movement has come a long way.

“I’ve been a fan of Andy Narell for a long time albeit the “panorama controversies,” but he is making a valuable contribution. The work he did with Lord Relator and the WDR Big Band in Germany is a template that could create huge opportunities for exposure and revenue streams to our panists on the international stage. Unbeknownst to many, Pan is alive and well in small musical enclaves all over the world, creating music and musicians with skills and styles much different to that of our local culture. This is a good thing, but I hope we could maintain prominence and stay on the forefront of the movement, to ensure that our musicians don’t get the short end of future profits from pan revenues, and that we are able to play a major role in developing the future of our beloved art form.”

WST - “What do you think of the current music of Trinidad and Tobago?”

Len Church - “I have two perspectives on this:  firstly from a local point of view the music is vibrant and exciting - most importantly it satisfies the tastes and interests of the listening and buying public. The musicians have so much more to work with and the creativity, musicianship, music arrangements and production keeps improving. On the other hand the music has little appeal outside of the local and expatriate culture that embraces it. This represents a drawback in that the market for the music is so miniscule it cannot adequately support the producers of the music and this continues to inhibit growth of the industry. If somehow the music or some particular genre new or existing could be tailored for both local and foreign consumption, much like Reggae, Bossa Nova and Salsa were, this could create a sorely needed infusion of capital and create a better climate for innovation.

“There are too many artistes to mention and I’ll probably get blow back for omissions, but I do want to congratulate my dear friend Dr. (I love this) Roy Cape for the body of work he’s accumulated. Also notable mention for Raf Robertson whom I met on my last visit back home for keeping the Jazz idiom alive.”

WST - “Do you think the emergence of the “DJ” killed the big band era of Trinidad and Tobago?”

Len Church - “No doubt about it, but not just in T&T, this is an international phenomenon. We all saw it coming and accepted it as inevitable. Fact is it’s cheaper and in most cases better sounding. There are some things it can’t do so the band format will not die, but it’s hard to beat for what it does especially since the public sensibilities have given its stamp of approval.”

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