Rudolph Valentino Charles (1st Oct 1938-29th Mar 1985)

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 2

Rudolph Valentino Charles is a figure of national importance in the development of the steelpan. This legendary “panman” was involved in the invention of six different types of steelpan. He was also a steelband leader, a world-class tuner and a true and versatile innovator.

Charles was born on 1st October, 1938 in Laventille, Trinidad. His father was a civil servant who had earned tremendous respect in his humble community. In the late 1950s, he was part of the talented small band called Spike Jones. In 1958, at the age of 20, Charles gravitated towards the Gay Desperadoes Steel Orchestra and was made leader three years later because of his ability to read music. In 1965, the orchestra entered into a sponsorship agreement with the West Indian Tobacco Company (WITCO), providing Charles with the financial backing he needed to implement his many innovative ideas for the steelpan. In 1970, the band won Panorama and began touring the USA and Europe. Later on, the band’s name was changed to the WITCO Desperadoes.

Charles became affectionately known as “The Hammer” because he was a keen disciple of the art of tuning and constantly carried a tuning mallet in his hand, always ready to find the perfect note. He gave the WITCO Desperadoes its characteristic mellow, organ-tone that it has kept even to this day. Ever willing to experiment with ways to improve the instrument, Charles was the first to chrome pans, which enhanced their tonal quality, durability and appearance. He was also the first to improve the steelpan canopies by using aluminium to make them, and by designing them in a new shape. These innovations improved sound quality and made the steel orchestras more aesthetically presentable on stage.

Charles’creativity led to the development of several new instruments that are visible in all steel orchestras today. He collaborated with master tuners such as Bertram “Bertie” Marshall and Lincoln Noel, which led to the invention of the Rocket Pan (1971-1972), named for its unique rocket shape, the Twelve Bass set of pans (1975-1976), the Quadraphonic Pans (1978) and the Triple Second Pan with foot bass.

Rudolph Valentino Charles died on 29th March, 1985. His successes as an innovator, tuner and bandleader from 1958 to 1985 are highly regarded in the steelpan fraternity. In tribute to these outstanding contributions, Pan Trinbago created the Rudolph Charles Award for Innovation in the creation of steelpans.