Greensboro native Tracy Thornton’s steel pan resonates worldwide

US – 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.

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