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The story of 'Goin' Places' and the New York novelty that traveled the world

The cover of 'Goin' Places' by Symphonic Steel
Lucas Willard
/
WAMC

I’ve been collecting vinyl records for about two decades, and I’d like to tell you about one of the more unusual discs I’ve plucked from a crate.

While digging through boxes at a pop-up sale inside a trendy barn-turned-events space in the Hudson Valley not long ago, I pulled a standard 12-and-a-half inch sleeve with the title “Goin’ Places” – and I’m not talking about Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.

The album cover features four colored snapshots of white high school kids with long hair – typical for the 1970s – posing with their drums, which at first glance just look like large, dented barrels. And the music…there’s everything from jazz standards to the Oscar Meyer wiener song, sounds like it’s being performed somehow both on-stage and underwater.

The record made an impression on Andrew Barger, the proprietor of Rust Records, who sold it to me for eight bucks, after purchasing inventory for his shop out of a garage somewhere in New York.

“So, I remember buying the lot of records. They were in bunches, all tied together with like twine, you know? And I didn't even look at them, to be honest. I would just like, yeah, I'll take them all. And I got home and kinda was like searching through if there were like some winners in there, and I happened upon these, which, for one, I thought was like so niche? Like, I don't think I'd ever seen anything that was like a high school like steel drum band. And especially not in, like, upstate New York,” laughed Barger.

This is the story of Goin’ Places and the Symphonic Steel Steel Band.

Goin’ Places was published in 1979 and it was the first record released by Symphonic Steel, a steel drum band made of students from the Dundee Central School District and their music teacher/band director Ron Miller.

Ron taught for 36 years at Dundee and still lives in the Finger Lakes, a rural corner of upstate New York.

“Dundee has one stoplight at the four corners. That's it. And we don't have movie theaters. We don't have McDonald's. And so, the steel drum became for those kids a ticket, a ticket to go places,” said Miller.

The origins of Symphonic Steel are chronicled on the back of the “Goin’ Places” jacket. Ron writes it all began in the spring of 1974, when he attended a humanities conference at a hotel in the Catskills.

“Well, I was at the Concord for the convention. And in the evening, they had a steel band there, Jimmy Leyden’s group from Chappaqua down in Westchester County. It was Horace Greeley High School and he had a group of steel drums there called Calliope’s Children. And it's the first time I'd ever heard steel drums. And so, I'm listening and just being fascinated by the whole thing,” said Miller.

Ron’s first time hearing steel drums was three years before their tropical tones saturated Jimmy Buffett’s beach-bum mega-hit “Margaritaville” and Star Wars fans first stepped inside the Mos Eisley cantina.

Ron estimates there were 1,500 people watching the performance at the Concord Hotel. Calliope’s Children got a standing ovation.

The next day, there was a workshop. Ron went.

“They had the drum set up, and they allowed some of us to try to play them. It was very frustrating, frustrating from the standpoint that you wanted to play a D, and all you had to do is find it on this drum and you're searching all over for the D and now it's too late. You need the next note,” said Miller.

Steel drums were traditionally created out of discarded oil barrels. The man who is credited with first creating and tuning steel drums in Trinidad was Ellie Mannette – who was friends with Jimmy Leyden, the director of Calliope’s Children – and was also at the workshop.

Now hooked by the drums and wondering how he could bring them to Dundee, Ron struck up a conversation with the steel pan pioneer, who at the time was living in Queens. He agreed to make Ron a basic set of drums for $700.

“And I thought fantastic.”

But Ron still had to convince the school board in Dundee.

“I came back to the school and tried to explain what a steel drum looked like, what it sounded like, et cetera. And the school board said, ‘Well, we don't have the money. But we will support you if you can do it.’

So, I went to my chorus, high school chorus, and I said, ‘Can I borrow $700 to buy the steel drums? And then we'll pay you back with some interest,’ which they said ‘fine.’

So, Ellie made the drums for it and we got started. And the first thing I had to do was tell the kids I had an absolutely no idea what I was doing and we're going to have to work on this thing together.

So, we set the drums up. And I remember the very first night I wanted the kids to walk out feeling successful. So, we did the hymn ‘Fairest Lord Jesus.’

And within an hour, those kids had found the notes. And we were playing it from beginning to end, no music, and it was beautiful. So, now these kids are all excited about learning to play steel drums. And my biggest problem was they wouldn't let me play.”

The students did eventually. Ron got to play bass. With some sheet music sent up from Jimmy Leyden, Symphonic Steel was born. The band, an oddity for its location in an area of New York better known for its farms and vineyards, began playing in schools and at community events.

“When we started, we were the only steel band in upstate New York,” said Miller. “And it was kind of interesting. When we went to do a concert, people saw the steel drums being put up on stands and they were kind of wondering what the sound was going to be. And as soon as we started playing, then they would say, ‘Could you stop for a few minutes I have to make some phone calls to get people to come down and hear this.’

A lot of steel bands, they play Calypso, and Calypso and more Calypso. My goal was to play Calypso, but also to play a lot of other styles of music.

We loved doing the Elementary concerts, and the teachers, I don’t know if they liked it or not because I got ‘em so wound up…and we’d have on the gym floor six, seven hundred Elementary kids and you have to engage them. And so, I would do the Hustle and it was either four or five times where you would turn around and they would have to scream ‘Do the hustle!’”

“If you could play a steel pan or listen to steel pan music and not smile, you might want to seek medical advice or something. It’s so much fun to play.”

Randy Knapp played in Symphonic Steel during his high school years at Dundee, from 1980 through 1983. By the time he joined the band, Symphonic Steel had already made a big impression on him.

“The music that was coming out of the band suite was so cool. And it just sounded like and looked like so much fun to play. I had some older cousins who were already in the band. And it just was something that I thought, ‘Wow, this is a chance to do something really, really cool that I might never get a chance to do again,’” said Knapp.

Like it was for Ron, Randy said it was challenging to learn how to play steel drums. At least initially.

“It was definitely overwhelming at first,” said Knapp. “They’re unlike any instrument that you could ever play. And I was given the opportunity…my cousin, Steve Wignall, was about to graduate in a couple of years. And so, they were kind of looking to pass the torch for somebody to play basses.”

To help the students learn where to strike the steel drums with their sticks, the pans were labeled.

“…Whether it's an A D, G, on each one. And then basically, you just went through and it became much like most other instruments, it just became muscle memory.”

Randy says just like when his cousin Steve Wignall helped him learn the instrument, there was something of an expectation within Symphonic Steel to keep the band running and help recruit and teach new members.

“You became a family. And so, it was just an understanding that you wanted to make sure that the people who took over your drums were well trained and that they really wanted to and that they appreciated. Oneof the many things that Ron Miller taught us it was an appreciation for the music and appreciation for the instrument, appreciation for the culture behind the instrument, and just being willing to work hard. I mean, we played pretty much every weekend in the summer,” said Knapp.

Symphonic Steel had a steady line-up of gigs. Parades, ice cream socials, church functions. The community performances helped Symphonic Steel raise money and its profile. “Goin’ Places,” the band’s first record, helped bring the group to new audiences. That travel was also part of the appeal for Randy.

“Before I got in the band, they went to Copenhagen, Denmark, they went to Germany, they went, they played at Walt Disney World. And it was just this bigger than life program that was based in music and, man, I was just thrilled for the opportunity.

Ron Miller brought a world to me and to the rest of us that we would never have had an opportunity to get to if we weren't in the steel drums. I played at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, played for roughly half a million people at a huge grape festival parade in Ontario, Canada, went to Boston five times, played in front of Faneuil Hall at Quincy Market five times. I mean, who gets to do that?” said Knapp.

One of Ron’s favorite memories of Symphonic Steel’s trips to Boston is from 1990, when the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, a thousand-foot Navy aircraft carrier, was docked for Independence Day celebrations and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Bicentennial. According to the Navy, more than 130,000 visitors came to see the carrier week.

“So we're playing Quincy Market, which is a great place to play on the cobblestone. And of course, a lot of the Marines were standing around looking at my high school girls, and they're starting their conversations. And this one kid, Monty, was probably 22, he says, ‘Have been on the Kennedy?’ I said, ‘No! There's no way we can get on the Kennedy, its three hours long to just stand in line.’ He says, ‘Well, meet me down here at the flagpole tomorrow morning and I'll take you right on.’ And so, the kids are all excited and we go back to the hotel in Framingham and they said, ‘You don't seem to be excited.’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope he's there.’ I said, ‘The problem is these guys…they're just, you know, they're excited about the steel band and you girls and everything. And he says he'll be there. And my problem is he may not be there and I don't want you to be upset!’ ‘Then you don't want to go?’ I said, ‘No, I want to go and I'm hoping Monty will be there.’

So, we pull in with his big charter bus and there's Monty standing by the flagpole. And he took probably 25 of us right up onto the Kennedy. He had total clearance, he’s a Marine. And so, when we got up, of course they have the big American flag and you have to follow this path, and he says ‘No, follow me.’ And he goes under the rope and it goes back down through the U.S. Kennedy. And those kids, you know, it was just fantastic. Because it's not a cruise ship. You don't see the light of day, you know? And he was explaining what it's like to be on the Kennedy and be out to sea for weeks.

And when we came back, the kids were really excited and they wrote back and forth to Monty. And one day they came in, and they said, ‘Did you see the U.S.S. Kennedy has been sent to the Persian Gulf for the war?’ And you know, these things become very real. And you never expect that to happen. But because that opportunity to be there and meeting some really wonderful people, it was just a part of education, that you can't put a price tag on.”

Ron Miller directed Symphonic Steel for 33 years. The band took trips to perform around the country and across the ocean.

“Goin’ Places,” where on the cover Ron stands next to the first iteration of the group – in a shirt and tie, next to the students with their colorful, patterned garb – on a dock, near a waterfall, remains special to him. But the only exotic places listed on the back of the record sleeve are Boston, Buffalo, and Northern AND Western, New York.

“That first record, ‘Goin’ Places,’ I owe a lot to those students because they didn't get to go to Europe, they didn't get to go to the Bahamas, they didn't get to go to these other places. They just kind of started the band and then they graduated. And in some ways, it's you know, there could be some jealousy, say, ‘Look, I started this band and I love what they're doing.’ But I owe I owe them a lot because they're the ones that really helped develop the whole thing.

The steel band was not the only thing I did. I used to take busloads of kids to New York to see Broadway shows and tried to get the kids out of Dundee to realize there's a great world out there. And one of my things I'm excited about is the number of kids that are now teachers in Dundee or area schools that have come back and realized it's a beautiful place to live. It's nice to travel but when you come back to the Finger Lakes it's such a gorgeous place so…I have a number of students that played in the steel band and they’re teachers now in our area school,” said Miller.

Including Randy Knapp, Ron’s former student and Symphonic Steel member.

“I was a voice major for a brief time, but didn't really…the classical training that comes along and the dedication that it takes to make a career and that, I just…it wasn't as fun to me as it was in high school. So, I eventually moved over into the fisheries and wildlife end of things and after that I became a teacher and, actually, my one and only teaching job was back at Dundee,” said Knapp.

Randy began teaching at Dundee in 2000 and Ron was still leading Symphonic Steel. After Ron retired in 2008, the band changed hands. Eventually, Randy and his wife led the group – he says for about four or five years in the mid-2010s.

But over the years, interest in Symphonic Steel at Dundee waned. Randy says the pandemic also took a toll.

“Unfortunately, I hate to lay it on the COVID, but we just couldn't practice nothing, nothing could be done. So, it really hit music departments, and sport, athletics, both but it hit music departments really, really strongly,” said Knapp.

The steel band is currently inactive, but Randy says the pans are still there at Dundee.

The what-used-to-be oil containers hammered into instruments by a Trinidadian master for $700 traveled the world and served middle and high school students in the Finger Lakes for more than four decades.

A note on the “Goin’ Places” sleeve thanks Ron for his dedication. Credited to Symphonic Steel, it reads in part:

“It’s to Mr. Ron Miller and his many ambitions that we owe the privilege of recording our first record album.”

On the same jacket, a note from Ron reads in part: “Success is never easy, but once achieved the possibilities for continued success seem endless.”

“It was just great. And we never competed against anybody because as I say, we were a novelty. And I don't know, we just we changed a lot of lives by doing this,” said Miller.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.