Jimmy Boyle: The Man and His Music

By Paul Augustin

March 2023 FEATURE
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Jimmy Boyle.

Probably one of the most brilliant and imaginative musicians in the Federation today…

... As a Malayan Musician, Jimmy is in a class by himself. His technique is excellent and his musical integrity 100 percent…”

(Singapore Standard June 1959)

JAMES WILLIAM BOYLE, known to many as Jimmy Boyle, was a Malaysian of many talents, of which music was the foremost of them. It was his talent and passion for music that made him known as an extraordinary musician and brilliant jazz pianist. Being one of the pioneers in the field of music in the early days of the Malayan independence, Jimmy played a major role in the development of the Malayan, now Malaysian, “sound” through his many musical contributions and compositions.

Born in Penang on 26 July 1922 to Jeanne Moissinac and John Walter Patrick Boyle, Jimmy received his education at St. Xavier’s Institution. He was involved in the school’s Scout movement as a Wolf Cub before obtaining the coveted King’s Scout badge at age 15. He was an all-round sportsman who represented the school in hockey and track and field events, setting a record in the 100-yard dash that stood for many years. He also received a certificate of art for painting.

Jimmy’s mother, an accomplished pianist, started Jimmy on the piano at age 10. One of his first music teachers was R.E.G. Long from the Penang School of Music. Long was reputed to have contributed significantly to making the pre-war younger generation musically minded. Then, Jimmy was only allowed to play classical music and sit through the usual lot of exams until an American jazz pianist, Teddy Weatherford, visited his home in Penang.

Weatherford played what he dubbed to 11-year-old Jimmy as “Something hot, child," and it was then that Jimmy’s interest in music was roused.

It was from this moment on that Jimmy, with his close friend, Alfonso Soliano, a budding pianist, would steal moments off to play something they both loved - jazz. When they were found out, it infuriated his parents!


Alfonso Soliano

With a name as old as the country’s radio and television orchestra, Alfonso Soliano was a key figure in the development of Radio Televisyen Malaysia’s (RTM) professional musicianship. As the first conductor of the RTM Orchestra, Alfonso selected the musicians and arranged the music. He had hundreds of tunes to his name. Alfonso came from a musical family. His father had stayed behind in Malaya after being brought over by the British to fill a position in a brass band.

During the Japanese occupation, he and two of his sisters were in Penang, working in a Bangsawan troupe with their mother as a chaperone. In 1951, he was in Kuala Lumpur playing in a five-piece band at the Selangor Club, when Aziz Abu Hassan, head of the Malay Section at Radio Malaya, invited him to write music for broadcast as a part-time gig. In March 1961, he became the first official leader and conductor of the Radio Malaya Orchestra with a nucleus of 10 musicians.

In 1965, Alfonso resigned and left for Thailand. He was there for eight years before returning to RTM in 1973 as an arranger-pianist.

When he was residing in Bangkok, Jimmy would visit him often. During one of his visits, Alfonso invited him to play at a Sunday jam session which he organised on a weekly basis. At that time, there were many foreign musicians performing in Bangkok who attended the jam sessions. When Jimmy played, the crowd was astonished at his musical skills. When he finished, Alfonso announced, “this guy is not even a full-time musician, he’s only a teacher at a school in Penang![1]

Alfonso Soliano and Jimmy Boyle.


During the Japanese Occupation

In 1941, after obtaining his Lower Cambridge Certificate, Jimmy joined Raffles College in Singapore. However, his studies were interrupted by the war. He returned to Penang and he played pit piano (accompanying piano in cinemas and theatres) to earn a few dollars during the Japanese occupation. This caused much dismay to his parents as they were hoping that he would end up as a serious classical pianist.

It was during this time that Jimmy’s friendship with Alfonso Soliano, whom he fondly called Nonong, grew through a common love for jazz. They played together on many occasions, working for Malay Bangsawan troupes and also doing a number of shows at various cinemas like Rex, Cathay, Odeon and Majestic. The bandleader was Gerry Soliano and their repertoire included all types of songs. However, they were asked to perform predominantly Japanese tunes.

Jimmy recounted an incident as a musician during the Japanese occupation to the Sunday Gazette in 1966, when they were playing in the centre of Padang Victoria. “Alfonso was on accordion then and we were to play the Japanese national anthem when the Air Force came over the field. This was to mark the opening of a grand festival at the venue. I then saw three seaplanes with floats and very confidently played the Japanese anthem. Whoops! Our world crashed. Two Japanese officers came up and it was a go-go with accentuated pizzicato slaps; ears got swollen as a result! When the real flight planes came over in formations of 27, we must have played the anthem without having heard it ourselves, because as I said, our ears and faces were swollen. It was a case of mistaken identity and gross underestimation of the Japanese Air Force.”

Jimmy’s Internment

Then came the “blackout” period for Jimmy.

He was an enthusiastic fan of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw whose music was aired over Voice of America and BBC radio broadcasts. Jimmy was among those unfortunate ones who got caught listening to them. He was immediately interned by the Japanese for tuning in to the banned Allied radio.

He became a prisoner of war and was incarcerated for three years. Known only by his prison number L124, Jimmy had the grim task of an assistant in the execution chamber. Part of his duties was to bring down the bodies of those hanged. It was a phase of his life he never liked to talk about. In a rare comment, written in response to a Sunday Times request to readers for their memories of the weeks around September 1945, Jimmy was quoted as saying, “I do not have any grievances against anybody at all. I’m only grateful to be alive and to have lived up to the present on what I may call borrowed time."[2]

On 2 September 1945, weighing 72lbs (about 32kg), Jimmy was released. With his frail body, he made his way to church to give thanks and mingled with the thousands who lined Light Street to welcome the troops before collapsing from sheer fatigue.

Music After the War

A few weeks after the war, on 4 October 1945, security officer “Duggie” Hayhurst was looking for a four-piece band to play for a party at the Officer’s Mess at Runnymede Hotel. He approached Jimmy who gathered some of his schoolmates – Larry Rodrigues, Max Fletcher and Wilson Rajamoney – to form a band. The first number they played that night was a Benny Goodman Classic – “Stealing Apples”, and at the end of the night, they were paid $15 each and four cartons of cigarettes.

Max Fletcher, Larry Rodrigues, Austin Rajamoney, Wilson Rajamoney and Jimmy Boyle (Rajamoney Collection).

This first engagement was the start of a weekly affair. Jimmy brought in Inigo Geronimo, Andy Castello and Ah Keng and expanded the band into a seven-piece group called the “Jimmy Boyle Runnymede Swingtette”. This band was to become part of Penang’s musical landscape for the next two decades. Members of his band underwent changes over the years. Some of those who played and sang with the band included James Symons, Austin Rajamoney, Ahmad Daud and Ee Fook Sin. 

Jimmy and his band played at various other venues around the island including St. Andrews by the Sea (also known as Springtide) and the British leave centre at Sandycroft.

Music was a part-time stint for Jimmy as he continued with his day job as a teacher, a career which began in 1946 at his old alma mater, St. Xavier’s Institution. He took an active part in athletics, coaching students in both track and field events. In his spare time, Jimmy continued composing, arranging, playing and painting.

Radio and Television

As a soloist and with his band, Jimmy did a great deal of radio work (and later, on national television) from the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, bringing music to local audiences on a regular basis through programmes such as Jimmy Boyle and the Runnymede Swingtette, Jimmy Boyle at the Piano, The Jimmy Boyle Band, Organ and Piano Capers and Music Makers.  

Jimmy and his band would occasionally provide musical backing for singers on radio programmes. The singers his band played for included Ahmad Daud, Nita Devoss, Sunny Dol, Brothers Samad and Abdullah Haroun, Bing Slamet, Colleen Read and Saloma. 

Malaysian Music

Jimmy had a high regard for Malay/Malayan music and was a major advocate of all of its various traditions and tempos.

These musical forms included Asli which he described as the classical tempo, slow in 4/4 with a distinctive counter beat by the rebana or kompang; Zapin of Arabic origins which has a pronounced kompang beat and is usually accompanied by vocals; Inang which is similar to the guaracha of Cuban music with differing accents; and Langgam, a popular style similar to foxtrot, beguine or waltz.

Together with these complicated rhythms, there was a melodic line. The rise and fall of tones and colourations completely differ, but Jimmy believed that “we can always use better harmonic progressions to enhance our Malay music."[3]

Jimmy, who was awarded an Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN) for his exceptional contribution to music in 1968, was reported as never being content to stay at home just writing melodies. He was an explorer of music and travelled deep into the jungle to discover what he considered the “soul” of Malaysian music. He lived with the orang asli, learning to play their instruments, all while capturing, understanding and documenting the pure ethnic music of the Malaysian indigenous people.

Jimmy Boyle, Pappu and Bobby Law.

Jimmy’s musical styles crossed many boundaries and his compositions reflected his passion for both modern and traditional styles. Jazz was his great love but he also had a love for the beauty of Malay music. He wrote songs and carved melodies that incorporate Malay rhythms and influences. He called this “Malayan music”, in which indigenous rhythms and scales from keroncong and Asli, for example, were integrated into more Western styles.

His passion for composing Malayan tunes drove him to research. He would spend many hours in a day at a certain location trying to capture the atmosphere and essence of a song. One prime example would be when he was composing the state anthem for Penang in 1958. He spent a week sitting outside a mosque just to get inspiration and the right feel for the tune. He composed two state anthems for Penang in 1958 and 1970. However, both songs were never adopted for use.

He also wrote a number of songs for institutions and specific events: The Malayan Teacher’s Song, The 1st Malaysian Jamboree in Penang, St. Nicholas Home for the Blind, Technical Institute, The RAAF School, Sukan Sekolah Malaysia, Road Safety campaign and Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Jimmy’s Legacy

One of the most memorable highlights of his musical career for him was when seven of his compositions were included in the Irama Tanah Melayu album in 1961. Penang Gazette reported, “Seven compositions by a leading Penang composer will be played at the second Malayan Concert of Malay Orchestral Music (Malam Irama Melayu Yang Kedua) at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall, Kuala Lumpur.” The article also states that he “is the only composer from Penang whose works have been selected as a contribution to the development of a national culture by The Malayan Arts Council."[4]

After his success with his much-celebrated song, "Putera Puteri", it was re-arranged as a “tone poem” in two movements and played by a 65-piece orchestra for a Royal Command Performance at Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman on 31 May 1965.

His music went beyond the country’s borders to the world. It was on BBC and the Voice of America. They were also commented upon by top jazz critics – Billy Strayhorn, Mercer Ellington and Gerry Mulligan.

One of his compositions, Legak Penari, was arranged and performed by famed jazz trombonist, Jack Teagarden, in Penang in 1958, with Teagarden citing it as “a fine piece [of music], easily the best of several that he had collected during his Malayan tour."[5]

When renowned jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet toured 22 Asian countries in 1968, Jimmy had the distinction of being the first Asian musician to be accepted by the quartet to sit in for their recording jazz workshop session at Radio Malaysia.[6]

Compositions of Jimmy’s which have been recorded outside of Malaysia by various artistes include "Chendering" by Bing Slamet, "Rayuan Mesra" by Peggy Tann, "Gema Rembulan" by Anneke Gronloh, as well as "Putera Puteri" and "Pantun Melayu" by Sandra Reemer.

Jimmy’s Passing

James William Boyle passed away on 8 May 1971 at the age of 49. He was buried at the Western Road Cemetery to the sound of his composition "Putera Puteri."

A musician of exceptional foresight, Jimmy composed over 300 songs, with some of his compositions “light-years” ahead of their time. Jauh Jauh, "Gema Rembulan", "Putera Puteri", "Sungai Pahang" and "Chendering" are just a few memorable examples of his songs which have achingly beautiful melodies atop complex, sophisticated, yet alluring chordal structures; melodies so timeless, they could well have been composed today.

Amongst some other treasures found within his collection of musical scores after his passing were submissions he composed for the Nigerian National Anthem and the Rukun Negara.  

As Austin Rajamoney recalled, “When people criticised his jazz, Jimmy would reply: ‘You will understand my type of music only after I am gone.'" His music legacy continues and lives on through his son, James Philip Sheng Boyle, a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and music lecturer.


[1] As told by Alfonso Soliano to Frank Rozells

[2] Sunday Times, published 12 September 1965

[3] “Composer Jimmy Boyle puts the accent on Malayan Music” (The Sunday Gazette, Penang, 19th November 1961).

[4] Penang Gazette 1961 – “Penang Composer’s Works to Be Played in KL”

[5] Sunday Times, 21 December 1958

[6] Straits Times, 16 June 1968

Paul Augustin

is the director of Penang House of Music, and founder and festival director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival.