Totlyn Jackson is one of the leading ladies of Jamaican jazz, and beyond. She has an incredible vocal range and can scat with the best of them. Many may know her from her recent work with Basement Jaxx on the 2003 album Kish Kash. But Totlyn has had a long career that started in Jamaica before she moved in London where she still lives today.
Although I devote an entire chapter to Totlyn Jackson in my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, I recently came across these photos and articles on her when I was scouring the Star Newspaper on microfilm this summer–only four years have been preserved so hopefully the Gleaner, who owns these archives, will be able to fund digitizing all of them. I know they are in the process of making this a priority before the history crumbles forever, as these newspaper are in a very fragile condition at this point. But I digress.
Here is an excerpt from my book that gives a bit of background on Totlyn Jackson:
Totlyn Jackson was born in 1930 in a small village in Port Maria, St. Mary. Her father worked for the government so the family had a bit of status in their town, and their mother was a skilled dressmaker who took care of the home and raised Totlyn and her three siblings—sisters Claire and Peggy and brother Peploe. The family was extremely involved in the Hampstead Presbyterian Church and other social and civic organizations in the community so Totlyn had the opportunity to sing in the church choir and participate in Christmas and other holiday performances. Plus, there was an organ in the family home, so Totlyn taught herself to play and sing, and she also began taking piano lessons from a neighbor. She was born with a club foot which was aggravated by an operation in her childhood. As a result, she has always had a significant physical deformity but she has never let that slow her down.
When Totlyn was 19 years old she moved to Kingston after winning a scholarship to Lincoln College. It was an enormous change for Totlyn, moving from a small village where her family enjoyed social status, to an urban city where she was an unknown. She joined the choir at North Street Cathedral as a soprano and then, like many other talented vocalists and musicians, Totlyn decided to try her hand at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. Accompanied by Frankie Bonitto, Totlyn won by singing, “With a Song in My Heart.” She then entered a contest at the upscale Colony Club where Eric Deans led the orchestra.
In Myrna Hague’s article in the spring/summer 2009 issue of Wadabagei, Totlyn remembers, “Coming out of a church situation, I was wearing boots and socks and an inappropriate dress, but Eric [Deans] knew what he was doing with me. Eric had inherited a big band folio—we didn’t call it jazz—I didn’t know anything about jazz. I was treated as a curiosity but I didn’t know it then! . . . I began to work with Eric and was making a name for myself at the Bournemouth Club every Friday where I came into my own. When Lester left, many of his abandoned musicians joined the Eric Deans band including Don Drummond, Brevett, and Lloyd Knibb. He [Lloyd Knibb] never had the hang-ups like Brevett and Don Drummond; Drummond and I never spoke more than ten sentences; he had his anger and stuff that he did—I was never a part of what was going on. I was the only full-time professional singer; the others were part-time with daytime jobs. Friday nights at the Bournemouth and Sonny’s [Bradshaw] got in touch with me for the first big band concert at the Ward; by this time everyone thought of me as a jazz singer because of this concert, and I could sight-read, so I was easy to work with.”
Totlyn Jackson also performed at the Bournemouth Beach Club with Lester Hall’s Orchestra featuring Don Drummond and she frequently sang with Baba Motta’s Band, the Zodiacs, Sonny Bradshaw’s Orchestra, and Herman Lewis and the Glass Bucket Band. She performed in a show at the Carib Theatre on February 5, 1966 with the son of Frank Sinatra, the 18-piece Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the Caribs. She even performed for Prime Minister Norman Manley’s birthday on July 3, 1956, singing a song composed for him by Frank Clarice of Little London in Westmoreland that moved Manley to tears. Her only recording on the island was for W.I.R.L—“Island in the Sun” with the B side “Yellow Bird” in 1963 with the Audley Williams Combo.
In the mid-1950s, Totlyn frequently sang with another jazz vocalist who predated her career—Julian Iffla. Iffla had been singing in Kingston clubs since the late 1949s and also performed with orchestras of the day including Eric Deans, Baba Motta, Sonny Bradshaw, George Moxey, Frankie Bonitto, and Lester Hall with Don Drummond. Iffla also performed in musicals and pantomime and was billed as “Velvet Voiced.”
While Totlyn’s life was beginning to thrive in Kingston, her family’s life back in Port Maria was crumbling. Her mother and father split up and her mother came to stay with Totlyn. But Totlyn had been living in the home of one of her professors at Lincoln College as part of the scholarship arrangement and her mother couldn’t live there. So Totlyn moved her fractured family into the home of Joe Issa, owner of Issa’s department store. “One day my two sisters and brother arrived, because Dada said that if I was big enough to look after Mama, I could look after them too,” she said in Myrna Hague’s article. Hague comments, “Her father was probably resentful of her [Totlyn’s] show of independence, and because of whatever had gone on between her mother and him, he no longer wanted them or perhaps responsibility of them.”
Soon, Totlyn had yet another family member to care for while balancing her career. She met an advertising executive from New York on his travels to the island when he came to Glass Bucket Club for one of her performances. “I eventually became pregnant. I didn’t want to get married. I had seen how unhappy these wives were, including my mother. I wondered, ‘Should I have this child?’ There was no one to ask this kind of intimate question,” she says in Hague’s article. But she did have the child, a son named Franz. His father, Jack Conroy, the ad executive, died in a car accident shortly before he was born. Totlyn never married—not then, not ever. But she did have her share of boyfriends. “That’s where I met my contacts and my boyfriends,” said Totlyn to Myrna Hague of her time singing at the Glass Bucket Club. “I wanted a first-class life and so what I needed was people who could take me onto that plateau, to take me up.”
One of those boyfriends who took her career up was a man named Michael Rouse and she left Jamaica to go to London with him in 1960. She also left her son to be raised by her mother. “I went to London to join him [Michael Rouse] when he offered to handle my career, and then he became a fully-fledged impresario who was handling people like Juliet Greco, Los Paraguayos, Gilbert Becaud, Miriam Makeba, and others of that ilk. We eventually broke up because he couldn’t sell me and I resented that. When I complained he said that he loved me too much. I thought that was crap but friends said that it was possible because he was afraid of losing me. . . . He couldn’t or wouldn’t arrange a tour for me. He was not a very good businessman,” Totlyn told Myrna Hague.
You can read more about Totlyn and her career in my book, but suffice to say that she has had a long and successful career in London. Below are a few clips of Totlyn Jackson performing in recent years. She’s still got it!!
Here’s a video of Totlyn Jackson performing a tune with Basement Jaxx to get you in the mood for Christmas!
Amateur footage of Totlyn Jackson performing in 2011, scat-a-lat-a-dong-dong!
Basement Jaxx with Totlyn Jackson, “Supersonic.”
Here is a link to Myrna Hague’s brilliant article about Totlyn Jackson, which begins on page 40: