Jon Lukas, singer of 1970s hit ‘Can’t Afford To Lose’, passes away at 72

Maltese singer found brief fame in UK with iconic 1970s song ‘Can’t Afford To Lose’

Jon Lukas, real name Frank Agius, in one of his Malta performances
Jon Lukas, real name Frank Agius, in one of his Malta performances

The Maltese singer Jon Lukas ‘Woodenman’ has passed away at the age of 72. He had been ill for the main part of the year.

Jon Lukas, real name Frank Agius, was a well-known name in the Maltese musical world, whose claim to fame remains his 1970 hit ‘Can’t Afford To Lose’. The Gary Benson composition was originally slated for P.J. Proby to sing but was snapped up by the young Frank Agius after being spotted by an A&R manm singing in London.

Lukas, brother to the one-time Soho restaurateur Jean Agius, always called the song his ‘national anthem’, such was the evergreen pull of the hit on Maltese radio.

He would say his musical career, which never stopped until his last years, which were spent in London, started with some luck. “Back then, telling anyone you wanted to be a pop star was tantamount to madness – they’d give you a funny look and think you’ve lost it,” he said of his intent to move to London from Malta.

“It really all just happened when I wasn’t looking – that opportunity fell from heaven, but it hasn’t quite been as easy ever since,” he later conceded of his modest singing career after his 1970 hit. “I’m convinced that there was something lucky about Can’t Afford to Lose; it was the right song at the right time, and I happened to be in the right place.”

1970s: Jon Lukas
1970s: Jon Lukas

He started his singing career in 1966 as frontman for the group The Fenders. Then in 1969, he was spotted by an EMI-Columbia producer, Henry Hadaway, who was in the audience at a Kensington gig, where he sang a casual interpretation of ‘Summertime, from Porgy and Bess’. Hadaway asked him to have his voice on ‘Can’t Afford to Lose’, with a 25-piece BBC orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The arrangement the song was by Paul Rodriguez, who at the time was a member of David Bowie’s first outfit.

In the 1990s, his brother succumbed to AIDS, prompting him to launch a nationwide awareness campaign, and penning the song ‘Depend on Me’ to promote the cause. In 1993, Jon, accompanied by Marita, placed second in that year’s Malta Song Festival with his own composition ‘Żommni u Għannaqni’ – the first time he sang in his native Maltese language.

Lukas counted soul legend Marvin Gaye among his friends. “I knew Marvin quite well. He was a person I really respected and was close to… he is one person I really look up to. Yes, he had his demons too, as all artists do, but I knew him beyond that, for the simple things he taught me, so when the opportunity to pay tribute presented itself, I grabbed it.”

Then later in his life, he underwent cancer treatment. “That was a big challenge as I didn’t know if I was still able to sing,” he had said.