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Nigel Hoyow: Musical Success On Both Sides Of The Atlantic

By Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge
Sunday, May 2nd 2004

The Crystals: (from left) Nigel Hoyow, Andy Nichols, Godfrey McLean
(on drums) and Rector Schultz.
(Photos courtesy of Nigel Hoyow)

Nigel Hoyow grew up in a home where music had a central place. His father had a wonderful collection of 78 rpm records, and his favourite musical group was the Ink Spots. His father also had a powerful hi-fi set that was built in British Guiana by 'Uncle Harvey,' an "electronics genius" who built amplifiers and other electronic equipment in his radio workshop during the early 1950s.

The Hoyow's hi-fi set was "mounted on the wall with large steel brackets."

"This was to eliminate the vibrations from the wooden floor when my friends and I ran through the living room causing the record on the turntable to 'skip' and possibly damage the much revered collection," said Hoyow.

This scenario indicates the central place given to recorded music in some Guyanese homes in the 1950s. It is in this environment that Hoyow developed his ear for music.

"My father," said Hoyow, "taught me to listen keenly to the music and was especially annoyed when a record had a scratch which produced those annoying clicks during the quiet passages."

Hoyow had some influential music teachers. Lynette Dolphin was his music teacher at Queen's College, and from her he got training in voice, as a result of which he won third prize at the national school song contest held at the Georgetown Town Hall in the mid-1950s. His short singing career included performing Corina, Corina with Michael Bacchus on Radio Demerara's Ovaltine Show in the mid-1950s.

In 1958, Hoyow was awarded a scholarship to study telecommunications - ship-to-shore and Morse at the Cable and Wireless training facility in Barbados. While he was there, the Mighty Sparrow and the band leader Joey Lewis introduced him to the guitar.

Sparrow taught him to play three basic chords on the acoustic guitar and Joey Lewis gave him additional pointers. Those lessons took place at the Rydal Waters Guest House in Barbados. "There was no turning back. I could not put the instrument down," recounted Hoyow.

On his return to British Guiana in 1959, he purchased an acoustic guitar and "practised every available free moment." Despite being unable to read music, he was "gifted with a good ear and rhythm."

In his Bel Air Park neighbourhood lived the popular musician Andy Nichols. Through Nichols, Hoyow was introduced to "a real electric guitar." The two of them struck up a friendship and soon were talking about forming a band. The band that emerged was the Crystals. It included Andy Nichols, Rector Schultz, Godfrey McLean, Nigel Hoyow, Sven Amo, and Alvin Koon How.

In addition to being pioneers of a new musical sound, the band also demonstrated Guyanese ingenuity in a period when musical instruments were not generally imported by the commercial sector. Godfrey McLean made some of the musical instruments for the band, for example, building his own drum set with some hat boxes.

The drum set was "quite professionally done and sounded good too," said Hoyow.

In addition to building the drum set, McLean helped Hoyow make his first electric guitar. The two drew the shape of the guitar on a piece of carefully selected wood and then got it cut and sanded.

"A local guitar maker put in the associated fretwork on the neck, and we painted it white," said Hoyow.

The Crystals' first engagement was an Old Year's Night Party at the Carib Hotel. Despite a late and shaky start, they won the audience over, and quickly became the toast of the town.

They were in demand. They played at the top spots such as the Woodbine Hotel, and had a weekly gig at the Bamboo Gardens. The band was the first to perform with an amplified piano.

The disturbances of the early 1960s led to the break-up of the band. Some members went to London, and some went to Canada. In 1962, Hoyow travelled to England with the white home-made guitar and a plan.

His plan included reuniting with Godfrey McLean, Errol McLean, Sven Amo, and former Rambler Vic Gonsalves to form a new group.

The five Guyanese and Gene Lawrence joined forces to create the Gene Lawrence Combo: Gene Lawrence (lead and rhythm guitar), Vic Gonsalves (vibes, accordion, electric organ, steel pan, and piano when available), Godfrey McLean (drums), Errol McLean (congas), Sven Amo (bongos), and Nigel Hoyow (rhythm and bass guitar).

The Gene Lawrence Combo became active in the swinging London scene of the early 1960s, helping to bring diversity to British popular music. According to Hoyow, they were very popular with the growing West Indian community. They played in every town hall in London and travelled as far north as Newcastle to provide entertainment for the "lonely Londoners" and other recently arrived West Indian immigrants. This popularity was helped by Guyanese musician Ivan Chin.

The band also became popular with mainstream audiences. Among its highlights was being the featured band on a BBC television's episode of This is Your Life hosted by Eamonn Andrews. The episode celebrated the life of legendary West Indian cricketer, Sir Learie Constantine. "The band composed and wrote the music for this auspicious occasion," said Hoyow.

The Gene Lawrence Combo also performed on Ready, Steady Win, the pilot for Britain's famous television music show Ready, Steady, Go. Other performers on that show included Lulu and Kenny Lynch. This meant that Hoyow and his group were recognized as being among Britain's significant popular musicians. Other contemporaries at that time included Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry.

On another occasion, the Gene Lawrence Combo played for Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, Princess Margaret and Prince Charles at the Grosvenor Hotel ballroom. He recalled the royals visiting with the band during an intermission and young Prince Charles's fascination with the steel pan. According to Hoyow, Prince Phillip had to restrain Prince Charles.

During this period, the band's musical repertoire was a mixture of Latin American, calypso, and ska music. In 1964, the Gene Lawrence Combo recorded two 45 rpm records for Chris Blackwell's Island Records. The songs were calypso and merengue versions of popular tunes, and included Bachelor Boy, A little bit of soap, and The Longest Day.

Hoyow got married in 1965 and retired from popular music.

The McLean brothers, the subjects of a separate feature, went on to create the influential Rhythm and Blues (R&B) group The Gass in 1965.

After retiring from professional music, Hoyow continued with his career in electronics, riding the transitions from telex to computers. In 1975, he migrated to Jamaica, where he is a successful entrepreneur and is actively involved in Jamaica's amateur radio community.

Like his father, Hoyow is a collector of music and has become very enamoured with Jamaican reggae and reggae jazz.

The Nigel Hoyow story is another story about the construction of the Guyanese diaspora. It is also a story about Guyanese ingenuity. Hoyow believes that the white electric guitar he and Errol McLean made might be in St Lucia with Gene Lawrence. If Guyana ever decides to develop a musical hall of fame or to contemporize the exhibits in the National Museum, every effort should be made to find the white home-made guitar and repatriate it.

Posted: June 5, 2004
First Published Stabroek News


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