Thursday, April 09, 2009

Singapore 60s - JAMES CHOA with The Gaylads

Yes, GayLads but they are far from being 'gay' because the word simply means 'happy' in the good old days. And happy were the folks who watched them for the first when they participated in the Singapore Blue Diamonds Competition in the early 60s. They clinched the title with The Antarctics acquiring second place.

Andy Lim interviewed JAMES CHOA (image: front) recently when he related his musical experience and career as a member of the GayLads and The Flamingos Combo.

"I started singing at the age of 17 in 1959 as a singing group called, The Gaylads with classmates, Philip Goi, Charles Koh and Razak Rahman (image: from left). We won a few talentime contests including the title of "The Blue Diamonds of Singapore" when both The Blue Diamonds and Anneke Gronloh were in Singapore. They were part of the panel of judges for the competition.

After winning the title we were featured in the first few RTS (Radio, TV, Singapore) shows called POP INN and DENDANG RIA. We sung for the very first LIVE show in Singapore, produced by well-known ballet dancer, Mr Vernon Martinus.

In the mid-60s the group enlarged from a singing group to a combo band and included in the group was Jimmy Chan, pianist (currently at Marina Mandarin Hotel), Audie Yusoff and Sidek (took turns to play lead guitar), Tommy Tan was at the drums and Robert Song, percussionist/singer. The combo carried on till 1970 but was disbanded because Charles Koh went into the medical profession and became a successful gynaecologist in the U.S.

I became a teacher and subsequently a sales person at an MNC. Since my first love is music, I learnt to play the keyboard and joined another group called, "The Mysterians" but we played only for private functions and at the camps at Sembawang.

As the years passed, I played and sang at the restaurant called, "House Of Peranakan" at the former Hotel Negara when it was first opened in 1998. I am still performing there now but the hotel has a new management and it is called The Claymore. I used to play every night but during the latter part of 2006 I performed only thrice a week.

Jimmy is now a full time pianist at Marina Mandarin. Philip, Razak, Sidek and Tommy as far as I know, are still actively involved in their own business or working with some companies. Audie Yusoff has passed on."

And what is one wish that James has today? "To continue playing on the keyboard and sing. Do come to see me at The Claymore Hotel and enjoy peranakan* food too. Great combination!"

For your information James plays, standards, jazz, country, rock and roll, especially hits from the 50s and 60s. For some musical memories check him out!

Off the cuff: After winning the Singapore Blue Diamonds contest, James Choa and the rest of The Gaylads (popular 60s group with The Flamingos) were given a singing contract and arrived in style at the Merlin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, to be resident vocal group at the Harlequin Room with a full band to accompany them.

They were driven all the way, by car from Singapore to KualaLumpur, Malaya, by Tan Swee Leong at the helm of his Ford Anglia. Mr Tan, a Rediffusion Cable radio celebrity himself, was also the MC for their shows and James remembered they had a fascinating 3 weeks at the hotel.

Since it was the 'they had time to see the sights in KL during the day and had comfortable accommodation at the hotel itself. Besides a full allowance, The Gaylads were also provided with whatever creature comfort they needed during their stint at the Merlin.

*Peranakan food is Chinese/Malay cuisine which originated from Malaka (Malaysia) and Indonesia.

SLIP NOTE: (4 years have passed.)

"I met James again the few years before he passed away.  It was a long absence. He was living up North and I had to drive quite a distance to meet him.  As usual James was warm and kind, always insisting that I go into his room where he would play with his new Yamaha keyboard which he had bought not too long ago. He had his music books ready, his song sheets and the new shiny microphone on a stand close to his keyboard.

He made sure I knew my chords before we started on a song and when everything was ready and he was satisfied he would ask me to sing my favourites.  He would always provide an appropriate introduction especially if he knew the song. The standard pieces were never a problem since James played nearly every night at lounges, nightclubs and stages all over Singapore when he was active with the Flamingos and his own group The Gaylads from the 50's to the 80's or 90's.

At his home, I would sing my usual songs and James never tried to check me or advise me in any way, except only when I asked him.  So it was like, "Yes, that's a great song, so try to give it more depth by putting in more feel to this part..."  Or, "Why don't you try a higher key?" Otherwise we would just relax and try out as many songs as we could.

He looked relaxed with his new keyboard but I knew he was suffering within, what with his ailment and his inability to move about too much.  Deep down was a man so engrossed in his love for the music that it must have helped him along day by day.  James suffered much when he was still alive but he never showed signs of despair or frustration.  He was always happy, positive and ever ready to play for his next gig or private party.

James had to travel a long way to the place he played which was at Orchard Road. He also had to pay a lot of money for his taxi fares.  But the journeys and time he took was worthwhile since it distracted him from his own ailment. I have always thought that the amount he received as payment was far from what he should be getting. From my observation (I may be wrong), it only covered his cab fare with a few dollars left for him. And his fare from the North to Orchard Road was exorbitant.

When he called me on the phone it was always with his peranakan greeting.  It would always be, *"Apa macam baba? Bila lu mau datang sini? Come over now."

There were many times when I could not oblige him because I was busy with home and the grandchildren but there were occasions when I drove to his work place to see him play but honestly, it was few and far between. I should have visited him more often.

On the day he passed away, he was going to play at a party somewhere and I remembered he told me about it. But he never made it. The party he was going to was a bigger one with the Lord to care and look after. Rest in peace James; we love you very much when you were around and love you just as much now you're not."

*How are you brother. When are you coming here? (Translated from Malay.)

An Original Article (Copyrights Reserved).


Anonymous said...

Standards from the late fifties and cowboy songs are his best. James Chua can teach the younger generation a thing or two about performing. Met him and his organ and lounge music at the hotel during a dinner hosted by a company.

Andy Young* said...

He is a dedicated performer and has the ability to accompany a singer in the correct pitch and key immediately without hesitation.
I have had occasions to work with James whom I find to be one of the best keyboardist.

John Cher said...

James was a great friend. His birthday was on 3rd March. Each year I would call him and have some makan together. He passed away on 27th MARCH and we had a wedding gig on that day (It was a sunday). I called him on his mobile but he did not reply. I found out later that he had died after his last gig at the Peranakan Restaurant. Rest in peace brother James. John Cher

Andy Lim* said...

Thank you John for the comment about James Choa. He was truly a great friend and musician, so dedicated to his art that he played on his keyboard whenever he could. We will never forget James.

If you could, please provide me your email address by writing again on this Comment page. I shall not publish your letter.

Shaiful DaBonz said...

I stumbled across this. Nice write up. I'm Razak Rahman's son.

Andy Lim* said...

I would love to do a write-up of your dad if you have the time. If you are keen, please leave me your email address (I won't publish it)so I could write to you.

Thanks for visiting.

milopeng said...

Been away so I missed James' passing. I was a class mate of James, together with Charles Koh, back in the late 1950's. Used to sing-a-long the old favorites with another alumni, Philip Ghoi. James was a gentleman's gentleman. Rest In Peace Old Friend!!
Andy Ong

Andy Lim* said...

Hi Andy,
It was one of the saddest moments of my life when James passed away having gone out with him those months before. Went with him to help select a Yamaha organ which he wanted so dearly, one which could use a USB port for voice recording. He was so delighted when he got one and we spent a session singing together in his room. Later he wanted a better microphone but it was too late.

He was always so happy when we could go out together in my car for a spin...

Thanks for sharing. Do write again if you can.

Raymond Tan said...

I was a medical student during the mid-sixties and Charles Koh was a few years my senior. Charles was a bright student who won the State Scholarship (equivalent to today's President's Scholarship). I was always amazed at how Charles could spend his evenings playing music in a hightclub (Rose D'or) and still keep up with his medical studies. Charles was a colleague and senior when I worked in the Gynae and Surgery departments. He left in 1971 for UK where he obtained his specialist degree in Gynaecology. He later on moved to US and became a successful gynaecologist.
The Flamingoes music was sometimes broadcast live over radio and they played beautiful music with Charles (a self taught musician) playing on the vibraphone. Charles was quite versatile and could sing and play a few other instruments.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thank you Raymond for writing and sharing about Charles Koh. I remember that whenever he comes down from the the States (?) the local newspapers would pick up his visit which became a news event.

Do visit this blog again whenever you are free.

JOHN CHER said...

More about CHARLES KOH; Charles Koh indeed loves music and despite his status as a doctor of eminence in the USA, he was unassuming and soft spoken. His two sons are into music as well. I remember having lots of fun jamming with all of them at a church music room many years ago. He used to return to Singapore about once a year and his good friend, James Choa, another member of The Flamingos would arranged for jamming sessions. The very last time we jammed was at The Peranakan Restaurant in the basement of Hotel Negara. The boss of the restaurant Bob plays the piano and sings as well. Jimmy Chan, who was also with The Flamingos at one point, used to drop by after he finished work at The Mandarin Hotel. After the last customer has left, Bob would locked up and we will jam till the wee hours! Always remember Jimmy's joke that dying and going to the toilet is the same. If you have to go, you have to go! Lost touch with Charles completely after the passing of James about 3 years ago. Always nice to recall about the old days! Merry Christmas everyone! Cheers!

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

The two comments about Charles Koh above, by John Cher and Dr Raymond Tan will appear as one posting soon on this blog.

This post has been updated on 3rd March, 2016 - James' birthday - which includes a new photo that belongs to John Cher and an article about how the group won the BLUE DIAMONDS singing contest.