Rudolph ‘Rudy’ King - The Father of the Steelband in America

by Doris Green

Republished from -  Steelbands of New York with permission from the author

A When Steel Talks Exclusive Reprint

Oral History

Rudy King making a point as he reminisced during the interview at Basement Recordings studios
Rudy King making a point as he reminisced during the interview at Basement Recordings studios

Born in Trinidad, Rudy King is known as the first person to bring the steel pan to United States in 1949. He started his first band in Brooklyn the same year. Rudy moved to Harlem in 1950 on 112th Street between St. Nicholas and Seventh Avenues and continued his band. He later moved to 123rd Street and Morningside Avenue and then returned to Brooklyn. Rudy called his band Tropican. In appearances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May 12, 1956, he was billed as the Trinidad Panamonic Steel Band and at other concert halls he was known as Rudolph King and his Trinidad Steel Band.

How did you get involved in steel pans?

His response was that he was born and raised in the heart of where it all began - the place where the bamboo bands came from, La Coup Harp, Trinidad. He grew up with the creation and evolution of the pan. From his recollection, steel pan began in Trinidad without a specific creator. The pans emerged out of bamboo playing, the use of bamboo shoots to provide a rhythm. The bamboo shoots were struck against the ground and body producing percussive tones. As he recollects, music playing (bamboo) and public parading (carnival) had been banned. News of end of World War Il ushered the people out into the streets in droves. They were rejoicing and picked up anything to pound on it to make noise. They picked up empty cans that were in the streets. They took a stick and started to bang on them. That was how it all began. The creation of the steel pan was accidental; no one singularly created it; nor was it copied from anything else. No one had it in their mind that a steel pan was going to be made. If there were any African relationship or association, they were totally unaware of it.

The concept of the steel pan as a musical instrument was entirely accidental. The first pans were hit constantly in the same spot and it finally made a dent, producing a tone on both sides of the dent. A rock was later used to make more dents to create another tone. You then had three tones. A kettle drum was used and also a du-dup (two-note pan). The biscuit drum came in at another stage. These three drums then comprised the early steel band. Later the tune boom (four notes) played the part of the bass and then the lead ping pong pan, with about seven notes. These pans were still being played with the parts of a broom stick handle. The improvements came by bands from different districts in Trinidad.

In the early stages, the person responsible for creating additional notes from five to seven was, Neville Jules of the All Star Band in the 1940’s. Winston “Spree” Simon further improved the steel drum by additional notes. Up until then 30 gallon drums were used. Enter Ellie Mannette introducing the 55 gallon drum, sinking the drum inwardly, whereas before, the drums were pounded outwardly. He added sharps and flats.

How many styles of pans are there?

There are several styles. The Ellie Mannette type, the Spider Web pan, created by Anthony Williams, the Bertie Marshall style and the Jackman “Bassman” style. The difference between these styles is the arrangement or placement of the notes on the pan.

What is the difference between the Spider Web pan and the Ellie Mannette-type pan?

The Spider Web pan has the design of a web that a spider weaves. It is tuned in cycles of fifths. It is easier to make because you are grooving only lines not circles. The pan is arranged In rows of octaves.

What is the average size of a band?

Seven players would be sufficient to play almost anything. More than seven players would be doubling up of an instrument or instruments, which would produce a bigger sound.

Which do you prefer to play calypso or classic?

He stated that he didn’t have a preference. He plays calypso, reggae and popular selections. Sometimes he will play a classical piece in order to show what can be accomplished in the pan. He composes music.

What was the role of women in steel band playing?

There wasn’t any taboo against female players per se, but steel band players were held, by society, in low esteem. They were considered as outcasts, thus it did not attract female players, until the late 1950’s. Today female players can be found in many bands.

Tell me how you would contrast the older pans with the pans of today?

The resonation of the pans in the past was short. Therefore, you had to roll on the note to get a longer resonance or to sustain the tone. Today they can construct the pan so it can resonate. Many tuners tune the pan in a concert pitch, and to get a clearer tone musically, they have to tune the high octave to that note.

Since you were the first person to introduce the steel pan in Brooklyn, can you tell me what it was like being the first?

To this question he responded, “You say in Brooklyn”...there were no steel pans in the entire United States when he introduced [them] at that time. Rudy went on to elaborate that he never really tried to achieve anything special with steel drums. It was something that he liked, his hobby, his source of traditional recreation that gave him pleasure. When he came to the United States, he transported his source of recreation with him which he continued to play.

What were some of the problems that you faced being the pioneer who introduced steel pans to the United States?

Rudolph King with Pan Harmonics
Rudolph King with Pan Harmonics

He stated that there were very little problems. Rethinking his statement, he began to relate the problems he faced when he first started to construct a pan in United States. He searched and found a backyard where he could construct his pan. This backyard was surrounded by tall buildings. He remarked that available space was not as plentiful as it was in Trinidad. When he began to sink the pan, the hammering caused so much noise which reverberated off the surrounding tall buildings, echoed across the open backyard and rebounded off the buildings across the court yard. The people started to complain about the noise. Not having any other place to make his pans, Rudy continued to hammer. To his chagrin a woman, who was fed up with the noise, threw a bucket of water out the window. He should have considered himself lucky for it could have been something else besides water thrown on him. When he finished the pan, the people began to realize that he was making an instrument which made music. They became inquisitive because they had never seen this type of instrument. Still looking for a place to make his pan in peace, Rudy went to Morningside Park. He made a fire to fix the drum and the police came and wanted to arrest him for lighting a fire in a public place. He got off the hook by explaining that he was a stranger in this country and didn’t know it was against the law. 

What kind of places did you use to rehearse?

Mostly basements. One basement on St. John’s Place, Brooklyn was especially troublesome. He had his problems with this place as it was habitually flooded. The people who lived in the building proper and the adjacent building became annoyed about the constant noise particularly when they brought in a pan constructor. It sounded like a boiler factory.

Was pan playing ever a full time occupation for you?

He responded affirmatively stating that he made extended tours throughout the country. Before he got established with the steel drums, he had a regular job. He would perform in the evenings and weekends for small parties, house parties and free parties. After a while he started charging for playing. He went from house parties and branched out to boat rides, bus rides and large dances. What were some of the places that you appeared during that time? Renaissance Ballroom, Audubon Ballroom, Hunts Point, St. Nicholas Arena, Chateau Gardens, Park Palace, Ansonia Ballroom and Bellrose Ballroom.

The Hotel Ansonia Ball-Room
The Hotel Ansonia Ball-Room (courtesy the Byron Company (New York, NY)

What particular time of the year was most productive for you performance wise? (For example, Lenten season).

He responded that as far as he was concerned there was no Lenten season in United States with regards to playing music. It is a different way of life here. If one has a job, one can’t think of Lent. In Trinidad he was forced to adhere to the tradition of not playing pans during Lent according to Catholicism. This is a practice which foreign religions forced upon our animistic ancestors. It seems that these foreign religions divorced our animistic ancestors from their musical festivities in exchange for Lent, Ramadan and education, and that this practice can still be seen today. In Trinidad there was a ban on calypso and all music during the Lenten season for everyone regardless of their religion, says Rudy.

How was your group promoted?

Rudolph King (right) and his Trinidad Steel Band
Rudolph King (right) and his Trinidad Steel Band

Rudy stated that they had different people act as managers. Sometimes it was a person who could not play steel drums who acted as the manager or agent for the band. He used friends to act as managers because he didn’t have a telephone. Therefore, whoever had a telephone and showed some interest in the band would act as agent.

Did you ever have a sponsor?

At one time he did some work for “Coca-Cola” - a commercial. He also heard about performing at the Apollo Theatre on Amateur Hour. Rudy went to the Apollo and won second prize. He performed for a week at the Apollo in the 1950’s.

Large companies have been utilizing steel band music as background music for their commercials. How do you feel about it?

It is nice to know that someone is benefiting from it. Those of the future generation will profit more from it. Rudy admits he never really pursued the business of steel pans. It was his hobby that he liked to participate ¡n. In the meantime he takes his hobby to make money. Presently he plays the summer circuits in the south. Wherever the opportunity arises he makes himself available.

Have you ever thought of forming a large group and doing world tours?

To this question he hastily said, he had a large group of fourteen guys and would prefer not to deal with large groups again. The arrogant pompous attitude of many steel band men was more than enough to contend with. He added, in this country, one cannot make it with a large group because of finance. It costs too much to hire a large group.

How many other steel bands emerged during your first five years here?

He replied that there was only one other group that came into being. It was lead by Gabriel. The writer recalls Gabriel very well. He and his group practiced in a basement on Albany Avenue between St. John’s Place and Sterling Place. In fact, the writer used to play du-dup pan with the group. The writer also played the ‘tire iron.’ Then a group called the Tropic Tones which later became the Harlem All Stars emerged.

Did you do any work for public schools or television?

To this he responded 'yes' adding that he used to work for an agent playing out ¡n New Jersey and upstate New York. He used to give lecture- demonstrations and little shows for school children. He also played ¡n the parks for the City of New York in the summers.

What about television work?

Yes, he recalled doing a television film called “Bubonic Plague,” ¡n which Henry Fonda played a doctor in this film. He did several other television programs, but he does not remember the titles.

Rudy enjoyed himself playing in the 1950’s because the people were very responsive to the new musical instrument called steel drum. In fact, he had so many jobs that he could not fulfill all of them.

In the 1950’s, the pan was unique, but now that the novelty has eroded, what is your outlook or prediction for the pan?

He responded that as far as he knows there isn’t any group that makes a full time living from playing steel pan. It seems to be dying out. It appears that everyone wants to have a band. Therefore, there are numerous band leaders, but no bands - all chiefs and no Indians.

What can you suggest that can solve this problem?

To get fellows who appreciate it, understand it and are willing to work for it.

What seems to be the problem among steelband players?

To this he responded these players want things easy. They don’t really want to work for it.

They are often late, take their own time in doing things, but they expect to get paid big money. Sometimes, they cause you to lose a job because of their lateness. While one is trying to elevate the band, they are dragging it down. They only want big jobs. They expect to come to New York and play on Broadway, but refuse to accept the fact that they must work to get there. These are some the problems that Rudy faced with his groups. Rudy has a long background in playing steel pan. He has become disgruntled with steelbandmen, but he will continue to play the pans.

Have you written any books on the subject?

No, he responded, adding that he never attempted to do so, but feels he has the experience to write comprehensively about it, as he is actively participating in the creation and evolution of the pan to date. Rudy admits that he has a streak of laziness that may have been the reason why he has not pursued writing about the steel pans.

Rudy King (left) and company
Rudy King (left) and company

The steel pan has afforded Rudy. the opportunity to travel all over the United States. He unfolded a story about one of his trips on tour in the prejudiced, racist south during the 1950’s. In fact, his piano player died because he wasn’t able to get water to take his medication. This white town refused to serve him. They returned to the van and proceeded to another town where the player got water for his medication. Mr. Murray took sick and succumbed while playing. If only he could have gotten the water to take his medication on time. At other times on these tours they met other incidences of prejudices. They saw signs “We don’t serve niggers in here.” For the benefit of those who could not read, there were black and white indicators. Even the doors to the toilets ¡n some gas stations were painted white for whites and black for blacks. His hair-raising tales of prejudices were to say the least, unsettling. He finds that although there has been improvement, prejudice still exists. He unraveled a story of a recent incident where one of the band members got in trouble in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This band member had a passion for horses and stables. He spent his pastime at a nearby stable which was owned by white people. All the warnings and counsel Rudy could give could not persuade this band member from visiting the stables until the white owner accused him of breaking in and stealing. He was accused of stealing some menial items such as eggs, bacon and beer. He surrendered, however, and was later convicted of this crime which was not true, because he had several witnesses who could place him elsewhere at the time of the crime. Crooked white justice prevailed and this band member has a criminal record for something he did not do.

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