When Tracy Thornton first heard the banging in his head, he hammered it out on heavy metal, beating it into shape with a variety of local headbangers. But a chance encounter with Calypso percussion in a rock song changed the path of his life and career.
The Greensboro native was rocking out behind the drum kit for heavy metal bands when he heard Jane's Addiction's “Jane Says” in 1988. Drummer Stephen Perkins used a steel pan drum in the cut from the band’s debut, “Nothing's Shocking.”
“I heard that, and I remember when I was in one of those heavy metal bands. I found a steel pan, and I bought it just to learn how to play 'Jane Says,' and maybe 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” Thornton says. “I was just gonna go off and be a rock ‘n’ roll star being a drummer, but man, I got hooked, and now Perkins is the first guy I call.”
Thornton has been working closely with Perkins for the past five years in Thornton's Pan Rocks projects, fulfilling a dream he's had since starting out in the business. “For me, just to get to play music with him in the steel drum world and him being our drummer has just been a full circle, amazing moment. And now we're buds, which is crazy.”
Thornton's initial foray into the steel pan world was with a 1994 solo Christmas album, “Steelin' Christmas,” then a couple with the regional jazzy calypso group Been Caught Steelin' that produced two albums, '96's “Been Caught Steelin'” and '97's “Steel and Brass.” When that band folded in '98, he founded and led Sons of Steel on a four-year run featuring children he had tutored on the steel pan, touring with the original Wailers band and putting out two albums — “Outta The Blue” in '99 and “Carpe Diem” in 2000.
“It was like a little bubble in time, all the stars lined up. The kids were really good kids, and my sister actually set up school to tutor them on the side,” Thornton said. “We landed management, we landed a national agent, a very beautiful situation.”
But the financial strain of keeping a big band on the road and wrangling maturing kids led Thornton to try another angle. He did some solo work and some tutoring on the side, including local pianist/ organist pannist Sam Fribush's Hot Pink Flamingos. But Thornton was still trying to map out his career path, after releasing his second solo album, “Just Me and My Pan” in 2002.
“In 2007, I was kinda relaxing, playing locally, working at the BMW motorcycle shop during the day to figure out where I was gonna go,” Thornton says. “Then from 2008, I started being a guest artist and a clinician in schools. There were some schools that finally wanted to play my type of music, which had never been done before.”
Thornton started doing clinics across the country, from middle school to high school to college kids, teaching and performing with them. He had gotten a big national push from the release of '06's “Pan for Punks: A Steelpan Tribute to the Ramones.”
He says he did it as a goof, thinking a couple of friends might like it. “The Ramones camp got it and before I knew it, I had their publicist and I was in Spin magazine with it, and Kurt Loder from MTV was calling me about it.”
That prompted Thornton to do “A Steelpan Tribute to Jane's Addiction” in '08, followed by a steel pan tribute to Jack Johnson in 2011, and one to The Police in 2012. Thornton had realized as far back as '07 when he was working with the Hot Pink Flamingos that younger kids often thought reggae and calypso were a bit too laid-back for their sugar-fueled souls. When he started playing rock music with the steel pan, kids loved learning it.
“I started making a lot of arrangements, and now schools from all over the country and different parts of the world have me come out to teach the kids steel pan. They'll learn my repertoire and then I'll come in and that particular school will do a concert and call it a Pan Rocks concert. But instead of calypso, which kids might not be familiar with or really connect with, if they learn a Nirvana song or a Metallica song or a (Led Zeppelin) song, it gets them excited about it.”
But in 2013, Thornton discovered that fusing rock and pan also attracted an older, global audience as well. His Pan Rocks project was based on his experience performing for the Trinidad Panorama competition where bands with as many as 120 pieces compete playing popular songs. Enlisting Perkin's help as well as drummer Mark Shulman (Pink, Beyonce, Billy Idol) and Matt Starr as producer, Thornton built up a following for his project with an 2017 appearance at L.A.'s Whiskey A Go Go, featuring Perkins performing Jane’s Addiction's “Been Caught Stealing.”
A video of that performance attracted other rock percussionists, and the project has taken off since then with more recordings and appearances.
“I've put together these big projects just to turn people on to the art form through the medium of rock music, and then of course getting these rock stars to be on the program,” Thornton says. He also pioneered the concept of a pickup for a steel pan and using a wah-wah pedal as well.
Because of his networking skills and an extensive Rolodex compiled over the years, Thornton is able to call steel drum players from around the world to gather for large steel pan extravaganzas.
“If people want to put together a project and they need two steel drum players, or 150, I can do that.”
Even in the COVID-19 situation, Thornton recently pulled off a steel pan gathering.
“We did a quarantine video, released it last week, and I thought I'd get maybe a few people who wanted to do it. But within two weeks, we had 125 pan players from all over the world playing ‘Baba O'Riley’ with Stephen Perkins from Jane's Addiction on drums.”
That's impressive enough, but Thornton already has plans to surpass it.
“I'm getting ready to do another project this week that’s gonna be 10 times bigger than that,” he says. “It'll probably come out in September with steel pan players from all over the world. I'm still trying to keep busy, keep the community tight, and keep people involved even though everyone's just quarantined and stuck at home.”