Soulful voice the key for Jiggs
AS EARLY AS age nine, Llewellyn “Jiggs” Kirton recognised he had a voice that would one day take him places.
As a student of St Leonard’s Boys’ School, his clothes were frequently “soaked down” by a mother trying to deter her young son from getting involved in the entertainment business. But no sooner had she left for work than a determined Lew would “grab the clothes, wring them out, put on the wet clothes, run around Combermere playing field several times until they dried out”, before heading off to school.
Even when he found himself locked out of the house because he had defied his mother’s orders and gone out singing, he was not deterred.
He grew up in St Cyprian’s Church Choir, and emulated his brother, Edward, who sang lead soprano.
He met Desmond Weekes and the two became headboys in the choir, singing together on their way to church, practising on the music of the Blues Busters.
There were also on the then Barbados Rediffusion talent programmes with Auntie Olga and the late Alfred Pragnell – “that whole slew of people who were very good in terms of keeping you grounded and showing you what to do”.
Lew’s first group was the Starlighters, formed with Desmond Weekes, Hugh Bishop and Lennox Grazettes.
The three auditioned for Mike Wilkinson at the Blue Waters Hotel and were hired.
But it was the more experienced musicians of the Blue Rhythm Combo, a big band of the day, who were able to persuade Lew’s mother to let him out at night to perform with the band. Though he was out and about doing several gigs with the popular band which attracted a large following, still Jiggs’ mother was not happy.
She sent him to be apprenticed to an auto body repairman in the neighbourhood, intent that he should learn a trade.
When Lew’s sister eventually migrated to Canada, her young brother was forced to follow, and she wasted no time enrolling him in Canada’s Algonquin College.
Lew had other ideas and he never went. He did go to the talent competition she booked him into, sang Joe Tex’s Hold On To What You’ve Got and the Platters’ Love Of A Lifetime, and won.
He was spotted by a band owner and hired, much to his sister’s and brother-in-law’s disapproval.
Fortunately, he met Ahmad Jamal, a Trinidadian living in New York, who had started a record label and liked Lew’s voice.
Lew went to New York, called Jamal, and “some songs were arranged but nothing happened”.
He was later introduced to Jean Goldstein, the owner of a club which had produced singers such as Millie Jackson and Wilson Pickett and soon he started performing there once a week.
Hearing the fresh, sultry voice, patrons would ask: “Where are you from?”
They reacted in disbelief on learning the new singer was from Barbados.
The experience led to Lew signing his first singing deal.
He was recording, and doing well. He recorded Jerry Butler’s For Your Precious Love, and when it was flipped with the song They Say The Girl’s Crazy, the single hit the Top Ten charts.
“The next thing you know, I am travelling with the Temptations, Bobby Womack, The Dells, [and] Cool And The Gang; we are booked in these massive shows, and again I would come out and do my thing, and people would be asking ‘where are you from?’”
It looked like Lew Kirton’s singing career was finally on the way, but around the corner was the problem which has dogged so many musicians who break into the professional scene, but are green to the business side of it – monies were not being paid out by the producers.
For the second time, Lew walked away after glimpsing the horizon of success.
He explained: “In that era, black artistes were never paid their due.”
According to him, black entertainers were not welcomed in the entertainers’ organisation, ASCAP, whose doors he said only opened to people like himself after another collection agency had been formed and Blacks started turning to that agency.
But he drew on his talent as a writer and started to record his own music, while writing. More important, he found “a good lawyer who helped me in terms of my own representation”.
This Jewish lawyer whom Lew describes as “a good friend” started looking after the Barbadian’s publishing,
and deals with major labels started rolling in.
“I started to see monies coming through from airplay, [and] sales; I started writing for other artistes. To me, that was a major accomplishment in terms of controlling my publishing.”
But the industry made “a serious turn” to rap music at the height of what he was doing. Companies were no longer signing artistes singing his brand of music.
It was the opportunity to fulfil his sister’s wishes and he finally went back to school, obtaining a degree in radiologic technology from the New York City Technical College.
He went to work as radiologic technologist at Beth Israel Medical Centre and at NYU, but even during those years music still figured prominently in his life as he continued to perform on weekends.
When he quit that job after 15 years, Lew formed his own record label, Tweedside Records, turning to Internet music sites such as I-Tunes, Rap City and others as his distribution outlets.
Today, he reports a lot of success in Europe. His music is still doing well; the duet Don’t Want To Stop sung with Karen Bernard on his latest album reached No. 3 on Britain’s soul charts.
After the early difficult years and the obstacles encountered in his music career, Lew Kirton is not hesitant to admit that he, his wife Maureen, a former nursing administrator and their 15-year-old son, Omar, now live “comfortably” in a “nice home” which he built in the Pocono Mountains.
Looking back, Lew says: “I am still alive because I took the beating but I took the time to learn the business end of it.”
His advice to aspiring artistes in Barbados?
“Learn the business.”