Catching up with the King of the bongos
Freeman Trott lights up when he gets a drum in his hands.
To him it’s not just an instrument, but an old friend.
For 70 years he played the bongos and other instruments, and sang in hotels and nightclubs. Although glaucoma took his sight 25 years ago, it didn’t take his spirit.
The 86-year-old retired only three years ago, shortly after the death of his long-time music partner David Moniz.
“Castle Harbour, Harmony Club, St George’s Hotel, Elbow Beach, Clayhouse Inn — you name it and I’ve played there,” said Mr Trott.
He’s more often called “King”, which was the nickname he was given in recognition of his talent and his easy way of making friends.
Although he can’t play the drums like he once did, veteran promoter Cleveland Simmons won’t allow him to stop entertaining. He makes a point of introducing Mr Trott to passing tourists as a music legend, and insists he tell them stories about his life.
The first time he played was with Ghandi Burgess, Al Butterfield, Albert Fox Sr, Hubert Smith Sr and Tab Bassett at the Savoy Nightclub in the Victoria Lodge Hotel. He got tossed out on his ear.
“I was 15 and you had to be 21 to enter,” he recalled. “I was sitting in on the Al Davis band, having a great time making some noise on the bongos. We started at 9pm and I made it to 12.45am, 15 minutes before the club closed.
“One of the security men came past me and looked at my face. He noticed I didn’t have any moustache or beard. He marched me right on out — bongos, music and all.”
It did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm; he’d wanted to be a drummer since he was a child.
“The teacher would ask what we wanted to do when we grew up,” said Mr Trott, who then lived on Angle Street in Hamilton. “I always said I wanted to be a musician or a drummer.”
His eight siblings didn’t share his passion. His mother, Anna Maria Trott, sang with the Salvation Army Band but didn’t play any instruments; he doesn’t remember his dad, Robert Trott, being interested in music at all.
“I was always fascinated by the variety of drums that there were,” he said. “Eventually, I learnt to play them all — the Congo drums, commercial drums, African drums ...”
In his late teens he played “here and there” but didn’t make any money out of it.
“I got a job at the St George’s hotel as a waiter,” he said. “They had a show there one night with two dancers, Erma Butterfield and Vincent Godfrey.
“The band was a dance band and couldn’t get the tempo up. One of the waiters serving drinks said, ‘Listen there is a bongo player here, King Trott’.
They said, ‘Get him out here!’ I played for them and when the night was over they gave me ten shillings. That was big money in 1949.”
It was the start of his music career. Major Donald Burns often put on shows at Castle Harbour Hotel and invited him to play.
“They had a sunken floor, which was great for shows,” Mr Trott said.
“It meant that people sat at tables raised above the stage. It was a lovely place to put on a show, because everyone could see.”
In 1959, he started performing with limbo dancer Bryan Butterfield. The following year, while the two were working in Jamaica, they got a letter from 40 Thieves Club owner Terry Brannon. He wanted them to help open the Hamilton nightspot.
Mr Trott never had any formal musical training. Having taught himself to play “every percussion instrument he could get his hands on”, he moved on to the flute and the guitar.
“Eugene ‘Stacker’ Joell sold me a guitar for $20,” he said.
“At the time, I was still playing the drums nightly with the limbo dancers.
“To learn the guitar, I got a book with all the guitar chords. I already knew rhythm.”
As it turned out, his fingers were stiff from years of drumming. He wasn’t able to pick the guitar but he managed to strum.
It made him versatile enough to stand in for popular musicians whenever they were overseas or taking a break.
He was working at the Carriage House in St George’s when he met Mr Moniz of the Bermuda Strollers.
“He needed a singer in his band because he wasn’t getting along well with the singer he had,” said Mr Trott.
“I worked with him from 1992 to 2015 when he died.
“I would put myself out for requests, which meant I had to have a good repertoire.”
He bought many song books and memorised the lyrics but eventually threw them all out.
“I had hundreds of songs in my head,” he said.
His last public performance was at the Fairmont Southampton in May 2016. Mr Simmons organised the show to honour Bermuda’s musical legends.
“It was a wonderful event,” Mr Trott said. “When I retired in 2016, that was 70 years of playing music. You couldn’t learn all those instruments and songs without love.”
His wife, Ismay, died on July 4, 2016, two days short of their 40th wedding anniversary. They met while working at the Belmont Hotel.
Recently, he’s been putting together a collection of his old photographs. Mr Simmons plans to publish it as a book in the near future.
It’s a legacy for Mr Trott’s six children, Elvin, Robert, Barbara, Queenie, Frieda and Freemagene, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
“I want them to have something to remember what I’ve done,” he said.
“I still had a bit of eyesight when I started doing it. I’d use a magnifying glass to write captions on the photos.”
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