Steel drummer Mickey Mills feels at home in Carrboro

Steel drummer and keyboardist Mickey Mills, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, learned to play the keyboard during his late teens in New York City. Photo by Trevor Kapp

By Trevor Kapp
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Mickey Mills has performed in front of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He has worked onstage with artists like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney.  He has played in California, at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte and at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Yet none of these concert venues is the 54-year-old steel drummer and keyboardist’s favorite.

“I always feel good in Carrboro—that’s where Cat’s Cradle is,” Mills said. “Madison Square Garden can hold more people, but the thing is, in Carrboro, it’s more like a family-oriented type, and that’s what I like. I don’t need things to be mega, mega, mega all the time. I like to be able to feel and communicate with other people.”

Mills grew up the youngest of 11 children in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, “a very diverse, rather upbeat city,” as he described it, in the western part of the country.

He first heard the steel drums when he was 8, sparking an interest in music. He moved to New York City at 19 mainly to fulfill his childhood desire of working at a Wall Street bank, but he continued to play steel drums in his spare time.  He also began to practice the keyboard.

During his five years in New York, Mills joined a band comprised mostly of Caribbean musicians, and went on several trips to perform, most notably, he said, to North Carolina in 1981.

“It didn’t have all this fancy stuff all over,” Mills said of the area. “There was trees, and it was like Caribbean style.”

While Mills enjoyed his time in New York and made several friends with whom he keeps in regular contact, he said he ultimately decided to move to free himself from the distractions of a big city and to pursue a dream that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“When I came down here,” Mills said, “I devoted myself to art and music programs in the schools. I would go to the schools and teach kids how to play steel drums.”  This was a welcome change from his life in New York where his music came second to his work on Wall Street.

After moving to North Carolina, Mills started an educational music program called Steel-A-Rama, which instructs hundreds of high school students along the East Coast.

Mills has traveled all over the country, but calls Carrboro "home." Photo by Trevor Kapp

He continued to put together his own albums, and worked closely with Willie Hill, a recording studio operator in Durham.

“When we’d work on an album, we would come in and I’d put the tape on and I’d turn the lights off and Mickey would let it flow,” Hill, 58, recalled. “He didn’t always write out lyrics; he just went with what he thought at the time.”

Since moving to North Carolina in 1981, Mills has recorded six albums.

He continues to perform regularly across the country and has recently worked with Chesney and Buffett at various VIP parties.

Though Mills has gained fame while working alongside these entertainers, he remains “very, very real,” Hill said, and a small-town guy at heart.

By night, Mills said he sleeps in Mebane, but he spends the majority of his time in Carrboro, and refers to the town as his “home.”

“I always feel good in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” he said. “I know all the back streets.”

Mills isn’t entirely sure what his future holds. For now, he said he will keep performing and coaching students to play the steel drums.

Asked whether he had plans to move away from North Carolina, Mills said, “It’s hard to predict…but right now, I know this is where I’m at, and this is where I want to be.”

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