SYCAMORE – Todd Donnelly of Sycamore fell in love with the sound of steel pan drums the first time he heard them.
“I was lucky enough to go on some cruises to the Caribbean with my parents and I fell in love with steel drums in my early childhood,” said Donnelly, founder of the band Mr. Myers. “I followed the path from there all the way to NIU.”
When Donnelly started at Northern Illinois University in 1978, NIU had the only university steel drum band in the United States. He and some classmates started the band Mr. Myers, named after Myers’s Rum, when he was a junior. He has been playing the steel drums ever since, combining their unique sound with Motown, calypso, reggae and pop music.
Mr. Myers has played all over the United States, and in 2011 the band opened for Jimmy Buffet at the Parrothead Festival in Key West, Fla.
Donnelly sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss the musical journey that the steel pan drum has taken him on.
MidWeek: Have you always had a passion for music?
Todd Donnelly: Absolutely. I was playing piano when I was 5 years old, and by junior high I was playing percussion and I just kept going with it. My first band was back in junior high.
MW: Where are you from originally?
TD: I grew up in Eau Claire, Wis. We heard about NIU through the grapevine and I actually looked at several percussion schools, but NIU was by far the best suited for what I wanted to do with steel drums. I have been here ever since.
MW: Was the steel pan a popular instrument at the time?
TD: When we started in 1981 we were one of the few steel drum bands. …I took a rock band and added the (steel pan) sound to it. The way Mr. Myers started was as an expansion of a jazz combo, so we got college credit for Mr. Myers for a few years.
MW: What other instruments do you play?
TD: I still do keyboards quite a bit. For writing and recording I can play a little bass, but the keyboard is where I started so I still do that.
MW: In the scheme of things the steel drum is a fairly modern instrument. Do you encounter people who are discovering them for the first time?
TD: I do sometimes, but it’s funny. Even with the kids today, they are exposed to it on "Sesame Street" and a lot of the Disney stuff has featured Caribbean music, but I find that people don’t really know how they (steel pans) work. They just see them from the front and they don’t see peoples’ hands moving so they don’t know how the notes are played.
MW: What is it about steel drums that the kids like?
TD: An important part of my mission has always been to let people enjoy what I do, so with the kids I relate to "Little Mermaid" and I encourage participation. I have kids of my own and I did a kids’ album in 2001, “Warm Weather Music.”
MW: How and when did you found Mr. Myers?
TD: We started out when I was a junior at NIU. We started out by playing at recitals and at coffee houses. We got good response and we got into some of the local clubs here, and then we started getting gigs in Chicago and we expanded our geographic base. We also found a big niche on the college circuit and we traveled around 17 states. We went everywhere from like Pennsylvania to Texas to Kansas and Oklahoma. We were probably doing 250 dates a year. …Another nice thing is that the Chicago Parrothead Club has embraced us, and we do a ton of work with them.
MW: Where did you get your drums?
TD: This set was built by Cliff Alexis in 1986. They are double seconds and they are still sounding wonderful. I have been playing them since the day they were made for me.
MW: Thirty-two years is a long time for a band to survive. To what do you credit its longevity?
TD: I just really love what I do and I have been blessed with how much work has come to me. I get a lot of return business each year with festivals. …I also made a switch about 10 years ago where I started playing solo, which I hadn’t done before. I probably do about 50 percent solo/duo now, and 50 percent with the full band because of the economy. People are scaling down what they are doing. …What keeps me going this long is the feedback I get from the crowd, and the comments from people on Facebook.
MW: What was the largest audience you ever played to?
TD: The one in Key West was probably 5,000 people, which was really nice.
MW: What styles of music are most popular with the steel drum?
TD: I also did an album called “Healing Steel Drums” with me playing patterns of all the parts. It’s very meditative, and it has some surf sounds. Liam Teague has done some amazing things with jazz and classical. It has gone beyond just the calypso. Even 20 years ago you didn’t hear it in reggae bands because they are Jamaican, and they wanted their own identity from Trinidad and Tobago. We were kind of bridging that gap without knowing it. For me the three big influences were Bob Marley, Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Buffet but I also have Sting as a big influence, and so is Jimmy Cliff.
MW: Do you ever mentor or teach younger musicians how to play the steel drums?
TD: Yes I do. The NIU Steel Band Concert is April 7 and I’m going to be there. It’s always wonderful to go and see what they are doing. I even have some younger players in my band. …They bring a different approach and a different mindset.
MW: What are you working on now?
TD: I am actually working on a new album right now. My goal is to have it out this year, but probably not by summer. I have about 10 or 12 songs in my head that I have wanted to work on for a long time. …The other thing I’m doing is I’m trying to brand myself as a singer/songwriter for the acoustic shows because I have gotten to know a lot of the Key West musicians, so my goal is to do some of that too. I’d like people to know my name, not just Mr. Myers.
MW: What local shows do you have coming up?
TD: May 3 I am at Cabana Charley’s in Sycamore, and on June 1 we are having the full band at Cabana Charley’s. …We have a very full summer booked already.