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The English-language pop scene in 1960s Singapore was a vibrant and diverse one, full of talented youths who sang their hearts out, pulled out all the stops to master their instruments of choice, and created beautiful songs of their very own.
But it wasn’t just those onstage who enabled this scene to flourish. Behind the scenes, supportive record label executives like the late Daisy Devan made a huge difference by believing and investing in homegrown talent and original material.
The context of the times was critical to pop’s development too. The heyday of British rock and roll and rhythm and blues happened when British military bases were still in Singapore. Bands that performed in these bases, and in the clubs frequented by British servicemen, absorbed these musical influences, and found an enthusiastic audience for their music.
As the bases vanished, Singapore’s economy pivoted in the 1970s to adapt to new circumstances. Policies related to rock music also changed. Hear Esplanade producer Christopher Rodrigo, who narrates this episode, read from a key 1973 speech by minister Goh Keng Swee that sheds some light on the thinking behind these policy changes.
It is barbarous music of this kind that is mainly responsible for attracting the mindless young of Singapore to the cult of permissiveness of the Western world. It is hardly a coincidence that the problem of drug addiction has become serious where performers and audience foregather.
Goh Keng Swee, 1973
Could things have turned out differently if different choices had been made? Hindsight is always 20/20, and there were several other factors that made a sustainable career in music challenging, such as recording contracts that offered no real financial security.
But what we know for sure is that memories of the vibrant 1960s music scene continued to inspire later music-makers, including singer-songwriter Dick Lee. In fact, his career kicked off with help from a member of The Quests, the most successful local band of that earlier golden age.
Hear Dick tell this story, and get more anecdotes about music icons such as the late Reggie Verghese in this episode, which features The Checkmates’ Lawrence Lee, The Straydogs’ James Tan, The Crescendos’ John Chee and Raymond Ho, Black Dog Bone’s Jatt Ali, veteran broadcaster Brian Richmond, and writer CT Lim.
PopLore: Stories of Singapore Pop, produced by Hong Xinyi and Dorothy Ding, is commissioned by Esplanade as part of PopLore: A Year of Singapore Popular Music in celebration of its 20th anniversary in 2022.
Catch Dick Lee & Omnitones featuring Third Degree live in concert in June 2022.
Have memorabilia from Golden Venus and other ’60s nightclubs? Share it as part of the upcoming Home Grooves exhibition on Singapore’s live music venues.
Artist: The Quests
Composer: Henry Chua
Usage of the song courtesy of Sony Music Publishing (Pte) Ltd and Universal Music Pte Ltd.
Artist: Kiang Lim
Composer: Kiang Lim
Usage of the song courtesy of Kiang Lim
Flower Drum Song
Artist and Composer: Dick Lee
Publisher: Warner Chappell Music Singapore Pte Ltd
Usage of the song courtesy of Warner Chappell Music Singapore Pte Ltd and Dick Lee Asia
Having worked in Esplanade since 2010, Christopher Rodrigo has organised various music programmes, series, concerts and festivals featuring a gamut of artists.
Some of the key festivals that he has programmed for include Mosaic Music Festival, where he has brought in acts such as Aphex Twin, OMD, Os Mutantes, Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds, as well as Baybeats, Singapore’s largest free alternative music festival. He also heads Rocking the Region, a free programme series that run over two weekends and feature the best of Southeast Asia’s indie bands.
Presently, Christopher heads a festival for the young-at-heart aged 55 and above, A Date with Friends. This specially-curated festival for senior citizens has been running for 14 years and includes film screenings, craftmaking, dancing and talks alongside vibrant music performances by local luminaries from Singapore’s rich music heritage.
From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Lawrence Lee played bass guitar with The Checkmates, one of the resident bands of The Golden Venus, the venue remembered as Singapore’s hot bed for rock and roll back in the swinging sixties. After the band dissolved, Lawrence worked in the oil and gas industry for more than 40 years. Resuming music-making from the late 1980s, Lawrence has since been engaged in paid gigs, charity functions, and jamming with other musicians, as well as arranging and providing music backing for open mic singers.
A household name in Singapore, Dick Lee has established himself as a multi-talented performer, composer, director and creative. Dick’s popularity extends overseas to regions such as Hong Kong and Japan, where he has collaborated with and produced music for many well-known artists and guided various projects successfully, including musicals, movies and many more. Dick Lee is a recipient of the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for the arts, and continues to be a great inspiration to many.
In June 1961, three schoolmates of St. Patrick’s School—John Chee, Raymond Ho, and Leslie Chia—participated in the Radio Singapore Talentime at Victoria Theatre, collectively calling themselves The Crescendos. They were placed second in the grand finals, singing the Dean Martin version of Memories Were Made of This. In November of the same year, The Crescendos opened four shows for Cliff Richard & The Shadows at Happy World Stadium.
Just before the 1962 Radio Singapore Talentime started, leader John Chee, discovered 15-year-old Susan Lim, who gave The Crescendos not only a new voice, but also a new look.
In February 1963, PHILIPS Phonographic Industries Holland released The Crescendos’ first vinyl 45rpm single Frankie and Mr. Twister, making The Crescendos the first local singing group on an international label.
The Crescendos stopped singing in 1966 when Susan enrolled in the University of Singapore. On 8 February 1970, Susan, who was then 22, was reported missing swimming with her fiancé and friends at Kemaman Beach in Terengganu, Malaysia. On 7 June 2021, Leslie passed away aged 77 years old. John (now 79) and Raymond (now 77) are still singing duets at friends’ gatherings, charity shows and at occasional public appearances.
Brian has been a voice of a generation since 1971 when he made his bow on national radio. From being the first face on national colour TV, to hosting sports and radio shows, Brian is one who has seen it all and done it all, resulting in a Lifetime Achievement Award by Mediacorp at the Singapore Radio Awards in 2005.
For four years, James played the drums with The Straydogs, Singapore’s seminal blues and psychedelic rock band formed in 1966. The story went that the band got their name from a friend who remarked that they were always loitering in the Katong area like “stray dogs”. Currently a director of a container leasing company providing containers to international shipping lines, James still plays the blues with one of the original Straydogs Lim Kiang on bass and three other musicians in Blues 77.
CT Lim writes about history and popular culture. He used to write for BigO magazine.
Tahir Ali, also known as Jatt, is a musician, singer, and the lead vocalist and drummer of the band Black Dog Bone. The group also comprises guitarist Izzar Masrom, bassist Hamid Ahmad, keyboardist Michael Heng, flautist James Chai, and trumpeter Masron Ali. Besides covers of music from many genres, their repertoire includes originals by late Singaporean lyricist Haron Abdul Majid and composer Hashim Said (better known as S. Atan), as well as their own compositions. Their albums were best-sellers in the 1970s. Now based in Malaysia, Jatt was one of the participants in Astro’s music reality programme, Gegar Vaganza, in 2019.
A seven-episode narrative podcast series about Singapore pop.