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A tribute to Joey Lewis

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oswin Rose

The passing of Joey Lewis, my good friend, signals the end of an era which included many well-known bandleaders and dance bands that graced the dance halls of T&T. We remember fondly venues like Tavern on the Green, Lotus Restaurant, Portuguese Association, Perseverance Hall (both in Maraval and Freeling Street, Tunapuna), the famous “Oven” in Arima, the Olive Lodge in Arouca, Palms Club in San Fernando, St Paul Street Community Centre behind the bridge, Himalaya Club, Port Services Club, Maple Club (Green Corner), Guardian Sports Club, Toco Boys’ and Girls’ Association, and Horace Gordon’s former residence in Tunapuna (only on Carnival Fridays). We call those names, and the next sound from our mouth linking them is most likely to be Joey Lewis.

Joey stood tall among many older bandleaders because of the poise, confidence, and maturity that belied his age during the embryonic stages of his musical development. The same could be said of my other friend, Errol Ince, who composed the legendary “Gaza Strip” and recorded it for the Kay Label at Nelson Street, home of “Bolo”" Christopher’s Recording Studio. Many elders at that time would have described Errol and Joey as “forced ripe” youngsters among “big men.” However, they both defied tradition and expectation, and became successful in their respective endeavours.

For Joey to have shared the stage with older musicians and bandleaders like Cyril Diaz, Sel Duncan, Fitz Vaughn Bryan, Cito Fermin, Ron Berridge, Ed Watson, the Bonapart Brothers, Johnny Gomez, Pete De Vlugt, Norman “Tex” Williams, John Buddy Williams, Nev Sampson and the Watsonians, Joe “Chet” Sampson, Choy Aming, Cyril Ramdeo, Watty Watkins, Ray Sylvester, Mano Marcelin, and Clarence Curvan was indeed an accomplishment. He would later share the stage with younger musicians of the combo era such as Andre Tanker, Bert Bailey, Kalyan, Moonrakers, Rockerfellers, Vic Lange, Ancil Wyatt, Silver Strings, Esquires, Johnny Lee and the Hurricanes, Five Fingers Combo, Casanovas, Ambassadors Combo, Jarvo Bros, Solid Seven Combo, and Group Solo. And let us not forget his visits to Canaan, Tobago, three times a year.

But it was Joey’s insatiable appetite for recording music that placed him head and shoulders above other bands in relation to his work ethic and high volume of productivity. As for myself, I am in possession of over a hundred 45 rpm vinyl records and countless Long Play albums recorded by Joey.

I first purchased a record by Joey Lewis at Alexander Bain’s record shop on Park Street while I was still a student at St Mary’s College, in the late 50s. If my memory serves me correctly, the two selections were On Wings of Song and Sayonara, on the Tropico Label. But prior to that, Joey had recorded Endearing Young Charms, and Silencio, this latter on the RCA Label at Strand Cinema with Leslie Lucky-Samaroo. Over the years, Joey recorded unrelentingly: Joey’s Saga, El Reloj, Peanut Vendor (also covered by Sel Duncan on his first album), One of the Boys, a Joey composition, Shrine at the Top of the Hill, (on the LP Tops in Trinidad), If the Boy Only Knew, Don’t Take Away Your Love, Celesta Aida, and Acapulco 1922 in which Freddy Harris, formerly with Clarence Curvan, would execute one of the best extempo guitar solos ever recorded in Trinidad. On Joey’s selection Vuela Vuela La Paloma, he deliberately uttered the words, “Ah want ah cigarette,” probably to inject humour into the studio recording. And if you ever had the opportunity to see Joey in a live performance, the showmanship of the timbale player Billy Green, was something you would always recall. Green was the quintessential showman who was always willing to provide his own sideshow at a time when the lead “guitar man” was the “star boy” of the show.

A distinguishing feature of Joey’s career was his association with Frisco Torrealba, the librarian at Radio Guardian from the 50s to well beyond the 60s. Torrealba provided geographical reminders of Trinidad by composing selections such as Sangre Grande, Chaguaramas, and Las Lomas, among others. Joey himself played Shanty Town Saga with a back-up group called The Saints. The flip side of that 45 rpm was Ay Que Voy Hacer, showing Joey's growing obsession with Latin music, a fact borne out by the high percentage of Latin-based recordings in his repertoire.

Joey’s LP record Latin Caribbean was patterned after the Stanley Black albums, Cuban Moonlight and Tropical Moonlight. Because of the romantic and relaxing nature of the music, young lovers of the day referred to Joey's album as “rent-a-tile” music, where you danced on one tile for the duration of the selection. Joey also recorded I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, a gem of a piano selection, which was backed by his instrumental rendition of Lord Inventor's Ah Want Ah Dress.

One of the things I will always remember about Joey was the inimitable manner in which he would pronounce “for,” or, for that matter, most words beginning with the letter “f.” His delivery was not as strong, say, as the late Lord Kitchener's, or Calypso Rose’s, or that of the late Squibby. Surely my former St Mary’s colleague, the humble and down-to-earth His Grace the Archbishop, Fr Joseph Harris, would appreciate this joke as will other CIC schoolmates Bing Davis and Archie Thompson. Over the years, Archbishop Harris and Joey maintained their common touch, equally the case with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

It was also a joy to hear Joey say “hello, hello,” if he was trying to capture your attention in the course of an animated discussion, or if sweet ole talk was in progress. Additionally, I will always remember going to 21 Leotaud Street in Gonzales to “macco” his practice sessions in the early days. Another noteworthy feature of that great man was his ability to harness human resources with such creditable leadership qualities. To that end, it might be unsurpassed on this side of the globe, or in the rest of the world for that matter, for a leader to have sustained leadership of a musical aggregation for over 60 years.

It is oftentimes said that to every successful man there is a great woman behind him. In this regard, his affable, polite, pleasant, and personable wife, Judy, was no exception. Over the years, Judy was unwavering with her dedication and attention to Joey. Indeed she was the consummate wife.

Some years ago, the president of the T&T Folk Arts Institute in New York, Leslie Slater, produced a commemorative CD, Music Makers Extraordinaire, in which some of the original masters were extracted from collections. That album featured two of Joey’s works, Vuela Vuela La Paloma, and In a Monastery Garden. In the liner notes, Slater described me as a preservationist because of the expansive nature of my collection of Trinidad music and calypso. Equally, I would like to anoint Judy as the preservationist and archivist of the Joey Lewis music portfolio. Indeed her passionate involvement with her husband's passion for music was noticeably very intense, almost fanatical and unrelenting.

Succession planning in music dynasties in T&T has not yet been a successful feature. In the case of the Lewis family, there was a sibling presence in that Sonny, Boyie and Joey all had their own orchestras. Another brother, Randy, played on the Ramblin Rose LP. As such, the passing of the leadership baton now falls in the hands of his son, Jerry. Old-fashioned dance music in T&T is now and endangered entity. The possibility of any orchestra recording post-Carnival instrumentals no longer exists primarily because of the lack of musical content and talents. Jump and wave music, by virtue of the absence of a sustained melodic line, imagination, ingenuity, and a brass-infused musical idiom, is not likely to motivate competent old-fashioned musicians. 

At one time, dancehall music was over-subscribed with all the famous brass and reed players. Additionally, piracy continues to be that non-motivator to many musicians and calypsonians. I will add that I use the term “calypsonian” in relation to the bygone era, which is not meant to encompass “entertainers” of this uneventful time. In that regard, the late Ras Shorty I may have been prophetic when he recorded Latrine Singers.

One would hope that the Ministry of Culture would acquire the works of Joey, the way it did in the case of Sparrow, for the purpose of teaching proper old time music to inmates or occupants of the Youth Training Centre, the Industrial Schools or orphan homes. Surely, the resources of Errol Ince could be utilised since, as the senior musical statesman, his established skill as a musician and arranger could go towards scoring all those gems of Joey.

Pal Joey, now that you are in the heavens, continue to play your music above with the angels and archangels when you’re not resting in peace.

(The writer was head of the Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Consumer Affairs from its inception in 1977 to 1998)


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