Monday, January 09, 2012

Sundowners: Twisting 'Bengawan Solo' In English

                                Sundowners - Bengawan Solo - Video: Vernon Cheong

 Reflections from 1963:

It was a lucky break for two brothers and a cousin when a popular Indonesian folk song Bengawan Solo (a 1940 Gesang Martohartono composition), was released with original English lyrics on world label Warner Brothers by the three lads. Covered by so many artistes that it's hard to list, this evergreen Asian favourite was given a new twist.

The flip side of the single was Cotton Fields, a 1940 composition by Huddie Ledbetter. It had been covered earlier by Harry Belafonte and singers like The Seekers, The Highwaymen, New Christie Minstrels, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, CCR, Elton John, Johnny Cash and even in French by Petula Clark.

Tony Seow (image 1, left) and brother Lawrence (right) at 18 and 16 with cousin and group guitarist George Lim at 17 (centre), singing schoolboys from St. Andrew's, pressed the 7 inch single with their parents' blessing.

The single (image 3) was released officially for sale in July 1963 for both Singapore and the international market. When the trio, who called themselves The Sundowners, first heard their own recording at their home in Serangoon Road, they beamed with joy and excitement and felt they owed their success to a supportive family and encouraging friends.

Don't forget that it was the early sixties and, according to the news report, was the second singing group in Singapore to cut a record for world-wide distribution. You must surely know who the first local group was?

The English lyrics for Bengawan Solo was composed by the brothers' father Thomas Seow and the arrangements for both the songs were their own. They had an All Stars Quintet to accompany them. They explained that the public would not pay for a carbon copy of a popular song when they could buy the original, so after working with the songs for about three months the father decided on the keroncong backing with a twist tempo to keep the music current.

During a newspaper interview after the release, The Sundowners had ideas of including a girl since they were hoping of expanding into Malaya and making it big. But, according to the group, if the plan did not work out they had to think of other ideas.

The Sundowners had also released a second single in 1964, Malaysia Wonderful and That's The One For Me accompanied by The Tornados (image 2) comprising, Derek McCully, Freddie Koh, Stanley Lee, Lennie Lee.

You may think it strange today that three Singapore boys would want to praise Malaysia in song? But the situation was different because our island was still with the federated Malay states in 1963 when the vinyls were recorded. Singapore's short-lived merger with Malaysia ended when it left the federation in 1965.

Just wondering how these recordings would go down in history? Any comment?

Images: Andy Lim Collection.


FL said...

I was impressed with the Sundowners' hit song "Malaysia Wonderful" during my sec. school days. The year was 1964 and we were Malaysian citizens in a state of Singapore, and the Sundowners'song made us proud as Malaysians back then !! We sang "Negara ku" in school,too. I wish all members of the Sundowners well. They are parts of our rich sixties musical heritage.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Again thank you FL. I love your positive statement about being proud Malaysians and being impressed with the Sundowners' hit.

The songs the Sundowners composed fared well with pop music listeners back then.

It was truly the beginning of the recording mania in Singapore where each singer or group was hopeful to make a recording for an international label.

The draw was the fame and fortune they might have achieved. For others it was merely for fun.

MIM: said...

There was a spate of records during that period promoting Malaysia, like Anneke Gronloh's 'Oh Malaysia,' (Heisser Sand), Boy and His Rollin Kids with 'Midnight In Malaya' (Jansen) and The Stylers or BAHRK with 'Sunrise In Malaysia'. They sound the same.

These songs, some instrumentals, by bands and singers outside the country sold well, to encourage a national spirit and pride amongst the youths.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Yes, there was even one called, A Tribute to Malaysia by the Stylers with many Malay folk songs.

Thimbuktu said...

The Sundowners' "Bengawan Solo" popular hit in 1963 is my favorite.

This song, original in Indonesian is now remembered as the "Bengawan Solo" brand name of a wide range of delectable kueh kueh (eg kueh lapis, kueh bangkit) which started its business at Marine Terrace, Singapore in 1979 and now with several outlets here.

James Seah: said...

Hi Andy,

"Gong Xi Fa Cai" wishing you and FOYers everyone a "Happy &
Prosperous Lunar New Year of the Dragon".


Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,

Thanks for your compliment and a Happy Lunar New Year of the Dragon to you and your family.


(Philip Chew is the great grandson of Chew Joo Chiat, the famous road in the Eastern wing of Singapore).

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Hi Thim,
It's a pity that my blog does not accept advertisements or else Anastasia (the owner of the nyonya cake shop) will surely send me lots of kueh2 for the Chinese New Year celebration.

Thank you for the information. said...

Jan 12,2012.
'The Sundowners: Bengawan Solo in English' Posted by 'noelbynature' under Lifestyle

In 1963, this trio of boys from St Andrew’s School made it big when their English version of the popular Indonesian folk song 'Bengawan Solo' was released worldwide under the Warner Brothers label.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Andy's mail to a popular DJ:

How much do you remember about this group?

Were they popular requesters' choice after their vinyl release?

Anonymous said...

DJ's reply:

Not much, I'm afraid. I knew them of course, but not so well.

Wonderful Malaysia: said...

A Contribution

Malaysia Wonderful

I found me a paradise
I’ll stay there
The rest of my life
It’s called Malaysia
Wonderful Malaysia
Skies have never been so blue.
Beautiful country side
Ocean all around so wide
I’ll stay there
Yes, I’m gonna stay there
The rest of my life
Yes, I’m gonna stay
Right there.
Malaysia, wonderful Malaysia
People you love right away
Not enough hours in the day
The nights seem to slip away
In Malaysia
Yes, I’m gonna stay there
The rest of my life
Oh yes, I’m gonna stay
Right there.

By: The Sundowners (1964)

BengawanSoloInEnglish: said...

The English recording of 'Bengawan Solo' is called, 'By the River of Lov'e from an early 60s Hong Kong record sung by Rebecca Pan.

Sakura Teng and Mona Fong (image) sing it both in Chinese and English. While Teng heats it up, Fong gives it a cha-cha-cha beat!

Gesang Martohartono: said...

GESANG MARTOHARTONO (image) has passed on at 92.

One of the more familiar Indonesian composers, the song Bengawan Solo (inspired by the River Solo in Java) was penned by this gentleman in the 1940s.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that The Sundowners learnt some basics from The Three Bambinos, a very established 50s vocal group that frequented the radio waves and TV screen?

Jingo Baby:)