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Music icon Russell Henderson dies at 91

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Russell Henderson was a stalwart of Caribbean music in the UK. He performed regularly into his 80s. PHOTO: KEVIN JOSEPH

Popular Trinidad musician Russell Henderson, 91, died yesterday morning. A son of Belmont, Henderson learned to play the piano as a young man growing up in Trinidad and, by the late 1940s, had formed his own quartet. He went on to provide background music for many local recordings by calypsonians such as Roaring Lion, Mighty Growler and Lord Pretender. 

He was the pianist for Beryl McBurnie’s Dance Troupe at the Little Carib Theatre, Woodbrook where he gained some valuable knowledge of the steelband while teaching correct melodies to Ellie Mannette of the Invaders Steelband who also performed there. 

He founded the Russell Henderson Quartet in the 1940s and was soon well known in Trinidad. In 1951, Henderson travelled to England to study piano tuning at the North London Polytechnic, but landed a job as a pianist within two weeks of his arrival. 

In 1952, he quit his studies and formed his own band, playing both jazz and calypso music. Having settled in England, Henderson founded Britain’s first steelband combo (The Russ Henderson Steel Band) with Mervyn Constantine and Sterling Betancourt in late 1952. They played their first gig at The Sunset Club at 50 Carnaby Street. 

While in England, Henderson teamed up with Fitzroy Coleman and Rupert Nurse to accompany Lord Kitchener in his recordings. He is credited with being one of the founders of the annual Notting Hill Carnival after they were asked to play in a children’s festival in Notting Hill in 1965. 

In 1970, Henderson began teaching pan in the schools of Croydon in South London. For his contributions to music in England, by introducing pan in schools and his role in the annual Notting Hill Carnival, Henderson was awarded the MBE in 2006. As he grew older, Henderson fell out of love with the calypso rhythm and continued playing jazz and Latin music on the nightclub circuit well into his eighties. 

On August 24, 2012, just prior to the Notting Hill Carnival weekend, the commemorative trust Nubian Jak organised the unveiling of two blue plaques in Notting Hill, at the junction of Tavistock Road known as “Carnival Square,” to honour the contributions to the development of Carnival by two “living giants,” Russell Henderson, the Trinidadian musician who led the first Carnival parade in 1965, and Leslie Palmer, also from T&T, who is credited with helping transform the local community festival into an internationally recognised event. 

In his retirement Henderson gave numerous interviews with BBC Radio 4 and BBC Four on his Notting Hill past. Henderson was also featured in film and starred in The Pan Man: Russell Henderson, a 22-minute documentary, directed by Michael McKenzie. 

In an interview, Henderson told interviewer Kim Johnson: “By the 60s I was doing well. We had played for the Queen. Pan was respectable in England and James Cummings, who I also knew from Trinidad, asked me to teach pan in a school in Croydon in 1970. 

He was a social worker and on the board of the school. That had never been done before. People donated pans and I started teaching.” 

He also told Johnson: “Now I find the calypso rhythm boring; the melodies are beautiful, but I prefer the Latin rhythms. I like the great jazzmen, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, and of course Miles Davis, Duke Ellington an Count Basie. When I play solo piano it’s popular music, but in the 606 (club) it’s straight jazz. And I love Cuban music, that’s my music.” 

Henderson’s niece, Diane, a human resource specialist at Angostura, fondly remembers her uncle and said: “My father was his eldest brother and whenever Uncle Russ came to Trinidad from England he would visit our home. I used to enjoy his company and would spoil him.

“Uncle Russ was a simple, enjoying the simple things in life but very full of humour. Beside his music, he enjoyed the little things he did, like walking from St James to Cascade. Sometimes he would just sit in the gallery sipping Black Label rum. He really  enjoyed the small things in life.” 

Veteran cultural activist Mervyn Telfer remembered Henderson as cultural ambassador of T&T. He said: “Russell reigned in the heydays of small music groups, like trios and quartets. He had a trio and he was at the forefront of music in that era. Russell made a party swing and if you didn’t have Russell at your party it just wouldn’t swing. 

“My brother Junior was one of the people involved with Russell with the forming of Notting Hill Carnival. Russell was also popular playing music in England and incorporated pan into band music. At the time this was unique in England. 

“Terraseca was one of the songs Russell was popular for. As a matter of fact, Russell loved that song so much he used to call one of his daughters Terri. Russell certainly made a positive contribution to the music and keeping T&T music alive in England.” (Reporting by Peter Ray Blood)


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