Business

Lexington upholsterer Claude Singleton dies at 83

Claude Singleton at his sewing machine in his upholstery shop on East High Street in 2002. He relied solely on word of mouth and a listing in the Yellow Pages to keep the Claude Singleton Upholstery Shop running.
Claude Singleton at his sewing machine in his upholstery shop on East High Street in 2002. He relied solely on word of mouth and a listing in the Yellow Pages to keep the Claude Singleton Upholstery Shop running. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Longtime Lexington upholsterer Claude Singleton, who prepared everything from church pew cushions to a chair for iconic basketball coach Adolph Rupp, died Tuesday.

Mr. Singleton, 83, was a well-known presence on East High Street during his 42 years of work, finally hanging up his tools in the summer of 2002 to spend time with his grandchildren.

Beginning in 1960, Mr. Singleton relied solely on word of mouth and a Yellow Pages listing to keep the Claude Singleton Upholstery Shop running. The strategy worked, reaching customers including the group that honored Rupp at the opening of Rupp Arena. The committee bought a plush recliner in 1976 for the former coach to sit in at courtside, but the cushions weren't blue.

Within days, Mr. Singleton had covered the chair in blue velvet, and then he watched from the crowded seats as the coach sat in the recliner for the first time.

The chair now sits at the home of Rupp's son, Herky, who has agreed to let it be displayed at Mr. Singleton's services, said Singleton's son, Roger.

Roger and his two older brothers, Bruce and Claude, didn't follow their father into upholstery work, but they did fondly reminisce Tuesday about the years they helped their dad in the shop growing up.

Mr. Singleton would bring the boys over to help take out old tacks and pull materials off furniture to be reupholstered.

"He paid $2 an hour and whatever change we would find," Roger said, laughing. "We would fight over the couches. There was a treasure trove there."

In his four decades in the business locally, Mr. Singleton helped launch the careers of others.

Among them were sisters Jackie Goodpaster-Cooke and Carmileta Rose, who started C.J.'s Upholstery. Goodpaster-Cooke came to the shop one day looking for work as a seamstress.

"I said, 'I've never done this before, but I know how to sew,'" she said Tuesday. "He called me that evening and said, 'You can start working part-time, and we'll see how this goes.'"

Nine years later, she and Rose, who started doing outside trim work for Mr. Singleton, opened their business, which they turned over to Goodpaster-Cooke's daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

"He was very supportive. He always said, 'There's enough work for all of us,'" Goodpaster-Cooke said. "He said, 'I know you all can do the work, and if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know.'"

They took him up on the offer. "If we ran into a problem, we'd put a piece of furniture up in the back of the truck and go right up to his shop," she said. "He'd take his time and explain to us what we needed to do."

Mr. Singleton was a master of an increasingly lost art: spittin' tacks. Before technology simplified the work, upholsters would start their work with a mouthful of tacks and "you would spit them out and hammer them down," Mr. Singleton demonstrated at his retirement, spitting them from his mouth to his metal hammer before striking a small strip of wood. In another connection to UK basketball, he once regaled coach Tubby Smith, whose father did upholstery work, with the display.

"I remember Tubby was just watching him and was amazed," Roger Singleton said.

Mr. Singleton is survived by his wife, Mary; three sons and their wives; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Visitation is Thursday from 5-8 p.m. and funeral service Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road.

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