Known today as ‘Pal’ Joey Lewis, he is one of the last of the two remaining bandleaders with active orchestras on the island of Trinidad and Tobago; the other, Roy Cape and the All Stars.
Joey got his nickname Pal when his friends invited him to a movie. In that movie, there was a business place with the sign Pal Joey written on the front of a building.
“We all enjoyed it,” says Lewis. “After that, they started calling me Pal Joey. Well, the name sounded nice so we adopted it for the band.”
Lewis was making reference to the 1957 film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak about the title character, Joey Evans a.k.a. Pal Joey, a small- time nightclub singer and dancer who fell in love with a middle-aged married woman, Vera Simpson.
Interestingly, this adaptation came from a Broadway musical by the great composers Rogers and Hart, whose songs became standards. I Could Write a Book and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered were included.
Subconsciously, whether or not there were other familiarities that may have influenced Lewis’ friends to nickname him Pal Joey after the character in the movie is left to the imagination. One thing for sure is that the music of Rogers and Hart during the 50’s was very influential over the airways in the Caribbean.
When Joey Lewis formed his band in the 1950’s, they called the band Joey Lewis and the Teenagers. At the band’s first engagement, they received a tidy sum of $16, he remembers.
The 50’s also was an era when the fashionably trendy culture of the Saga Boys, (parted wavy hair, gold teeth, cigarettes, shirt unbuttoned midway, pants seamed razor-sharp, and tattoos) ruled the town. Lewis quickly took note and one day while plucking his guitar, he came up with a new beat, which he called the “Saga Ting”.
The emphasis of the beat was based on a unique style of strumming the guitar, says Lewis. The beat picked up and a Saga Ting dance soon arrived in the dance halls around the country. Party-goers stepping onto the dance floor started pointing their index fingers towards the sky. The rest were just natural movements in true Trini style.
Joey Lewis was also the first youth band to hit the scene in the 1950’s. After them came the Dutchy Brothers, Clarence Curvan, Boyie Lewis, Vin Cardinal and Ed Watson, among others.
Competition was fierce, he says, and his band had to hold tight to survive. But most importantly, to stay in the business successfully for more than 60 years, he learned to compose and arrange his own music.
“When I opened my band I was forced to learn to write music, because when you have to pay a man to compose and arrange, then that is a big bite off the band’s earnings.”
Joey has travelled extensively throughout the Caribbean, North America and Europe. He remembers meeting a lot of celebrities, among them jazz greats Buddy Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie at Carnegie Hall.
He remembers Dizzy’s advice to him in 1965: “If they (musicians) selling oranges, you sell apples, Joey,” Lewis said. “I did exactly that and it has kept me going to this day.”
On New Year’s Eve, lovers and devotees of Caribbean orchestra music will have an opportunity to experience the living legend Pal Joey Lewis and his Orchestra – In Memory of Victoria & Owen at the Convention Centre, 20 Torbram Place in Scarborough. Enjoy dinner, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and champagne at midnight.
Guest appearances will be by Singing Francine & Guney, DJ Dave Gibbs, DJ Love Man Nick and MC Jai Ojah Maharaj.
Final day for tickets is Dec. 26. Ticket hotline is 416-268-9220 or visit TicketGateway.com.
This story includes material from a July 23, 2000, Sunday Express piece by Caldeo Sookram.