Recalling the Music Scene in 1950s Penang

From left to right – Noel (Bull) Remedios, Jacob Chin, Leander Jeremiah, Frank Rozells, William Scully and Stevie Ooi, circa 1960s. Photo: Penang House of Music

Radio Malaysia Studio in Penang in 1966. From left to right – Ali Cek Ros, Loh Fun Eng, Jamal Abdullah, Rubiah Lubis, Stevie Ooi, Jimmy Ooi, John Lim, Suria Md Noor and S.M. Idrus. Photo: Penang House of Music

SOME CALL THE era The Swinging ᾽50s. But that was over 60 years ago, and with the music of the decades since then permeating local popular culture so thoroughly, one has to wonder what the music scene was actually like in Penang.

And so, Penang Monthly seeks out four music veterans who have vivid impressions of the dance halls, and of the arrival of rock and roll.

Leander Jeremiah. Photo: Kelvyn Yeang

Leander Jeremiah

Imagine if you will, weekends in 1959 at Springtide Hotel in Tanjung Bungah; boys and girls in fine dresses and pressed suits, dancing wildly to the music of guitar legend Joe Rozells. Entertainment was sparse but there was dancing, and that was prevalent.

It was also at Springtide that Leander Jeremiah cut his teeth as a guitarist, under Joe᾽s mentorship. When the doors opened for the evening, Leander would welcome expectant guests with sultry Hawaiian tunes; and as the night wore on, the pace would pick up and dancers would begin strutting and twirling to familiar country music.

“There was no such thing as breaks, except if nature calls,” Leander says. “It was four straight hours of us performing, but we were paid handsomely at 15 dollars (Ringgit Malaysia was not used then) each. It was never about the money though, no matter how big the sum was. We performed because we wanted to make music; and right after the gig, I’d cycle to the Sia Boey market in the wee morning hours for supper. You were able to eat like a king for 15 dollars!”

In those days, forming a band was easy enough but purchasing instruments was a costly affair. Leander recalls having to borrow a drum kit from a funeral band for a gig once. “We had to hastily plaster pieces of paper on the kick drum skin to cover the name of the funeral band just before going onstage so that no one would know the drum kit was borrowed. It was expected that we brought along our own drum kit for shows; nowadays that is readily provided at venues.”

Safety standards were different too. “When electrified instruments were only just introduced, we did not have any test pens. But we had George Baum. When we hooked up the guitars, we would ask George to play them. If he got electrocuted, that’s how we knew we had to change the plugs. He was our test pen,” he chuckles.

S.M. Idrus. Photo: Kelvyn Yeang

S.M. Idrus

S.M. Idrus was originally from Perak. At the age of 19, he was trying to decide if he should move to Penang and actually aim for a musical career. At New World Park, then a coveted entertainment centre, he competed in a local singing competition and won. That boosted his confidence as a performer and encouraged Idrus to make a permanent move to Penang.

A jovial man with plenty of charisma and optimism, it didn’t take Idrus long to become a familiar musical figure; he featured regularly on RTM. “Do you know that popular genres found in Malay songs like Keroncong, Lagu Klasik and Dangdut didn’t even exist at the time?” he asks rhetorically.

Penang folk remember Idrus’ golden voice. He was frequently hired to sing at cinemas as pre-entertainment. “Gigs like this would pay anything between five to 15 dollars,” he says. That was not bad, “considering that 50 cents would get you a good meal with sides to spare.”

Walter Ambrose

Walter Ambrose experienced his first stirrings of love for music in 1958, when he spied a guitar at his uncle’s home in Bukit Mertajam. Soon after, he met local musician Patrick Boudville, who agreed to give him music lessons.

Walter Ambrose. Photo: Kelvyn Yeang

Very few back then were privileged enough to afford formal lessons; so a good ear for music had to be developed and resourcefulness cultivated. With bits and pieces of wood, Walter fashioned Hawaiian guitars and Skiffle basses; and founded the band The Ristonians. Its members included lawyer-poet Cecil Rajendra, who incidentally gave this writer his FIRST paying gig during high school, and Johan Saravanamuttu.

Competitions for aspiring musicians were rites of passage, and these were held at the unlikeliest of places. One actually took place at the now-closed Odeon Theatre; it was quite common to have live music in a theatre in those days.

“Dancing was also very popular,” Walter says. “There were two competing nightclubs, Springtide and the Green Parrot that was formerly along Gurney Drive. Dance events, or socials as they were called, were organised outside of these two clubs. Before discos and DJs, the music scene in Penang was relatively consistent; and where there was dancing, there was sure to be a band. If one wanted to advertise their dance, they’d just place a banner by a busy road and hope for the best. Everything was done by word-of-mouth.”

Lee Chong Heen. Photo: Kelvyn Yeang

Lee Chong Heen

In the late 1950s, rock and roll began taking the music scene by storm. This delighted youths and dismayed parents – especially those whose children were enrolled at Penang Free School.

It was customary each year on October 21 for the school to organise an annual speech-day concert. Unbeknownst to pianist Lee Chong Heen then, who was invited by headmaster J.M.B. Hughes to perform, that event would be catalytic and would deepen his creative spark. In fact, he put on such a showstopper that he was invited back the very next year.

There were only two ways one could learn music in those days. “The first was through one’s parents, but they would determine which instrument you were to play and in most cases, it was either the violin or the piano. The second was to be inoculated by popular music and to learn to play by ear. I happened to fall in the second category,” says Chong Heen, adding that he became a better musician through jamming with friends like famed guitarist Larry Rodrigues and Jimmy Boyle.

Schooled musicians were few and far between, and Jimmy Boyle stood out as a musical giant. Very few in the 1950s could rival his prowess in composition and musical ability. “Both Larry and Jimmy taught me a great deal.” Being strapped for cash also made musicians an inventive bunch. “I remember DIY-ing Skiffle basses from old tea crates with a cane pole attached to them. We also used parachute strings; we would try to get these from the Royal Australian Air Force base whenever they had excess strings to spare.”

Joe Rozells' band. From left to right - Loh Fun Eng, George Baum, Walter Ambrose, Jimmy Ooi and Joe himself (seated) during the launching of RTM Northern Region on October 1, 1964. Photo: Penang House of Music

Larry Rodrigues' Sextet at the Royal Australian Air Force Dance in Butterworth. From left to right - Bobby Law on bass, Larry Rodrigues on guitar, Lee Chong Heen on accordion, Austin Rajamoney on drums, Max Fletcher on saxophone and Ee Fook Sin on bongos. Photo: Penang House of Music

Proficient in multiple creative disciplines, Kelvyn Yeang is a musician by night and media content creator by day. When he is not writing, designing, or creating, Kelvyn wanders the streets of George Town in search of a good story and a cup of coffee.

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