Time taken : ~10mins
One half of Mel & Joe and a former member of ’80s band Gypsy, the guitarist attributes these stages in his life to his versatility as a musician and the upbringing he had being born into a musically-inclined family.
As the fifth child of six, all his siblings learnt multiple instruments as the entire family spent time together singing along to songs on the radio or to the vinyl records of country western, pop and disco music that his father would play. They were like the Von Trapp family of Singapore. Mel himself plays the guitar, piano and ukulele, and is currently learning to play the bagpipes.
There was music in his blood, and he always knew that he was going to be a musician. Along with his younger brother Joe, the duo entered talent competitions in school and on national television, making a name for themselves as their two-part harmonies were compared to the Everly Brothers. Following his national service in 1979, he joined Gypsy, a band his two elder brothers Dixie and Don formed with their friends Bianco and Janis. Joe would join them later after his turn serving the country.
At the time, disco had staked its claim at numerous clubs with the success of Saturday Night Fever, and the group fashioned themselves after ’70s disco groups, wearing matching costumes as the Bee Gees did. It wasn’t long before they started to develop their own personas. Clad in an array of boots, western shirts, oversized jackets, shiny tights and studded belts, their styles were shaped by early ’80s aesthetics with a hint of country. Later in 1982, their stint at the Royal Holiday Inn’s Treetop Bar would inspire another change in their style, this time to country.
We developed our own signature characters and each of us had our own fans and following, and that added to the total sum of things.
Live music venues were in abundance in the ’70s and ’80s, and the group found themselves not for want of a place to perform. “Gypsy was very fortunate because we all sang, and we covered all styles of music,” he says. They had engagements at hotels and clubs all over Singapore that stretched from months to years. Playing full-time six days a week had allowed them to build their audience.
With an arsenal of mostly cover songs in their repertoire that ranged from country to rock, the band pushed their technical skills by learning how to play them right. “We learnt to read the audience,” he notes, adding that they had to be versatile in playing what their listeners wanted to hear. But they would also sneak in an original song or two every chance they had to test the audience’s reactions. As time went by and more people started requesting for their songs, they knew that they had done it right.
But the scene is not the same anymore, according to Mel. There aren’t as many venues, not like before. To him, it’s becoming harder for musicians to engage with their audience through live performances, not when they don’t have residencies at venues. “There is [also] a certain bias to a certain extent that if it’s from Singapore, it can’t be as good as somewhere else,” he adds.
These days, Mel has a role in television drama series KIN and teaches bass guitar, vocals and ukulele at a music studio along Circular Road. He is also preparing for a new album.
Mel Ferdinands is featured in Generation M: The Music Made Us, an exhibition at library@esplanade from 15 Apr to 6 Jun 2021.
Lim Liting is a worker bee, house elf, freelance content producer and curator of Generation M: The Music Made Us.
Cover image by Melvin Wong.
Lonely Angel; You Left Me For Another; Just Tell Me You Love Me; Crimson and Clover (cover of Tommy Jane’s song) and Yo Te Amo Maria (cover of Roy Orbison’s song) from Lonely Angel (1991)
By Mel Ferdinands
Six music personalities from Singapore share the highs and lows of music-making.