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When I met Irene at a dinner recently, I asked if she could write an article about her experience singing at Singapore's nightclubs in the 70's. Her reply came:
"My pleasure. Though I must say, once I started writing, the memories started coming back and it was a joy for me to recollect them."
And Irene's detailed description of her surroundings in the place that she sings can only be written by a lady author. And the musicians that sing with her? Top pop local stars! Thank you very much Irene.
Check her out:
”Ladies and gentlemen, you've been listening to the sounds of The Pebbles with yours truly, Irene Yap. We'll be taking a short break, stick around and we'll see you later.”
That’s my typical announcement before we took a break after a 45-minute set
in the Ion Bar at the Apollo Hotel during an engagement in the 1970s.
We performed four 45-minute sets with a 15-minute break in between and an half-an-hour break for dinner in the hotel's coffee house - seven days a week from 8 pm to 12 am.
To this day, I still remember walking down the steps from the stage for my break looking down or straight ahead. I learned very early on that if I happened to look at a particular table of guests, they would wave and invite me to sit with them which meant I would have to walk to the table and explain politely that I was not allowed to do so.
That was the government's regulation in those days barring singers from socialising with guests at their tables. The rules have since been relaxed.
I am sure many of you will have fond memories of The Pebbles comprising Rahim Hamid [image] on drums and vocal, better known as the Nat King Cole of Singapore and the father of singer Rahimah Rahim, Jimmy Topaz on bass, Yusoff on guitar and bespectacled and quiet Henry on piano. If only I could remember their last names, I was still in my teens and they were all more than a decade or two older than me.
The Ion Bar was originally situated on the right of the hotel after you stepped into the lobby. The low tables, cushioned sofas and chairs were in neutral grayish tones and the pretty waitresses wore long navy blue gowns with high slits.
Apollo Hotel was then the largest of three hotels on Havelock Road, the others being King’s Hotel and Hotel Miramar. It opened in 1971 comprising a curved 19-storey tower block connected to a three-storey circular block. It attracted not only lounge-goers and food-lovers but also shoppers as it housed Isetan, the first Japanese department store in Singapore. The hotel was later renamed Novotel Apollo before acquiring its current name - Furama Riverfront Singapore.
As a professional singer in the 70s, I had to sing by heart as there were no music stands to look at the lyrics. The lounge was usually crowded by 9 o'clock, the patrons being mainly males and if my memory serves me right, a beer cost $6.
One regular I remember was former national footballer S Rajagopal nicknamed "The Camel" whose ” banana kicks“ were a delight in the days of the “Kallang Roar” at the National Stadium.
The moment he walked in with his two buddies and saw me on stage, he would freeze, put his right palm to his cheek and very slowly fold up the palm. I would do the same on stage and both of us would laugh - it was our form of acknowledgement to each other.
As a female singer, I had to be formally dressed in long gowns. The male musicians usually wore black jackets . Back then in most hotels no jeans or casual wear were allowed. If you were dressed inappropriately, you would get a memo from the general manager. Towards the late 70s I was thrilled when I could switch to less formal outfits considered appropriate for stage wear.
Through the years, I returned again and again to Ion Bar performing with not only The Pebbles but also with Excalibur, Sonny Bala and The Moonglows, The Thunderbirds, The Hijacks, a country and western band featuring a male singer who yodelled and a five- piece band who were brilliant jazz musicians but came together to play lounge music. The names of the last two bands escaped my memory. Help – does anyone of you remember who they were?
Sonny Bala was a big man with a gentle soul and played a mean guitar. He was very well -liked by everyone around him. His signature song garnering the most requests from the patrons was I Can’t Stop Loving You.
Despite my teen years, I got along with the older musicians who were all very nice and kind to me. We had a lot of laughter on stage. One much requested song when I was with The Pebbles was Jambalaya. One day after I started the first line, “Goodbye Joe Me Gotta Go, Me Oh My Oh.....”
And Rahim, Yusoff and Jimmy would chime in cheekily, using some Hokkien [Chinese dialect] expletives, just to crack me up in a sometimes tense atmosphere.
They loved to tease me. I started chuckling and soon I was roaring with laughter and trying very hard to sing with them, I mean with the music. At times when I turned around to Rahim to tell him of the requests I had to do, he would give me a wink and a smile. He was always so cheerful.
Jimmy Chan [image], the piano maestro who passed away last year (2022) would often swing by to catch our final set after he finished his performance at the Mandarin Hotel lobby bar at Orchard Road.
When Ion Bar underwent renovations, it was moved temporarily to a function room on the 18th Floor. It was at this spot where I witnessed a wife pulling her husband's ear when she caught him sitting with a young woman.
The matured, bespectacled man and his long-haired companion were so engrossed in their conversation that they did not see the plumpish woman striding angrily to their table.
Pointing a finger at him, she screamed, 'Ha, I got you!' and started pulling his ear and dragging him all the way to the doorway. As he was a good head taller than his wife, he had to bend his head as his wife kept hollering “Is she so pretty? Huh, is she so pretty?'
The long-haired lady continued to sit coolly inside the lounge before walking up to the cashier and said, '”Give me a minute, I will be back to settle the bill”. She walked out to the doorway and had a vociferous exchange with the wife for a few minutes. Then she walked back to the cashier to pick up the tab.
Eventually, sometime in the late 70s, the bar moved to the back of the hotel with a separate entrance and best of all - bigger space and stage. It was a more comfortable place to perform and I remember many regular customers requesting the same songs three or four times a night, the most popular being Summertime and Hello Darling.
It was considered to be a pretty IN-place where celebrities and TV actors from Hong Kong and Taiwan could be spotted among the audience.
As I recall, the most requested numbers were the Indonesian ballad Mimpi Sedeh, Tagalog favorites Anak and Dahil Sa'yo, the Cantonese theme song from the television series, The Man In the Net, Japanese Chotto Matte Kudasai and evergreens such as Help Me Make It Through The Night and It's Too Late.
Another time when I went back, the popular songs were Just The Way You Are, Emotion, Do That To Me One More Time and Sexy Eyes. In my earlier years with The Pebbles, Olivia Newton John's songs Let Me Be There and If You Love Me Let Me Know and songs by The Carpenters were very much in demand.
As the nightly crowd swelled, the management started live music from 2 pm and engaged two female singers Brenda Terona and Jacqi Magno from the Philippines. Both singers did half-an hour -set singing and playing solo with just their guitar in between sets with The Thunderbirds and Sonny Bala and The Moonglows.
The other local singer was Elsie Sim, and we had to sing with both bands. I was lucky to take the prime slot at 9.45 pm so I only worked a couple of hours a night for that engagement.
One memorable moment was when the band Excalibur and I got a tip from a patron on our last night as our contract had ended. When I announced our last song for the evening, an Indonesian male guest came up to squeeze a hundred-dollar bill between the microphone and the microphone stand holder to request for another song.
We obliged. When the song ended, he came up with another hundred-dollar bill for another song and then did the same for the third time. So by the end of the evening, three one-hundred dollar bills on guitarist Ahmad’s microphone stand were flying like three state flags. Very shyly Ahmad took the money which was split equally among the five of us.
Then there was this regular Chinese guest who came with a group of guys. He kept nicking flowers decorating the lounge and bringing them to me on stage after every song raising much laughter all around.
When I turned 21, there was no better place to celebrate the occasion than at The Apollo Hotel ballroom. I approached the Assistant Manager, Mr Ishizuka, who went out of the way to give me the best ballroom and best buffet spread without corkage charges – that’s the perk of being a regular singer at the hotel!
That’s why I always enjoyed going back again and again to Ion Bar because of the great relationship I had with the management namely Mr Fujiyama - General Manager, Mr Ishizuka - Assistant General Manager, Mr Kam - F&B manager (early 70s) and Mr Long - Supervisor Ion Bar (early 70s)
And although I performed in many lounges in my musical career, it was at Ion Bar that I sang in 1981 with The Hijacks for the last time before I formally retired to get married and move to the United States with my husband.
So how did I end up in the music business, you might ask. Well, it all started at a musician’s home somewhere along River Valley Road when I watched my best friend, Doris Ang (Hong Pei Pei), rehearsing with the band, The Sandboys (image), for their upcoming record. After the session, they asked me to sing a song. So I sang a song popularised by Rita Chao, I think, Say Yes, My Boy or Sixteen Candles. Rita and Sakura were the singing sensations of the period.
Mr Heng Ser Piah, the White Cloud Record Company boss, happened to be present. He was impressed and offered me a record deal at the tender age of 12. I was still in school and of course had to obtain my mother’s consent. Mr Heng sent me for vocal training with Ms Leung Pin, a famous singing coach, for several months. She taught me proper Chinese pronunciation and I still remember practising how to say “'por poh moh foh” .
Eventually I recorded 10 albums under The White Cloud label - 7 EPs and 3 LPs with other artistes – all in Mandarin.
Another recollection was when I made an appearance in The Chinese Variety show, a popular programme on Radio Television Singapore (RTS), now known as Mediacorp. I only needed to mime in front of the camera as my recorded song was played in the background.
NB: Irene has a brother who is a leader with LOCOMOTION, one of the best dance bands in Singapore and a brother who was a journalist and writer, Sonny Yap.