Memories are made of this - A tribute to the Colombo Music Scene of the 60’s
Compiled by; Prins James Alagaratnam- Toronto
The recent passing of Stanley Arnold, member of “The Four Chords” singing group of the sixties, prompted reminiscent memories, imbibed over quite a bit of red with friends from the same period of time. We travelled back, remembering the Colombo Music Scene of the 60’s and the artists, and promoters responsible for bringing great entertainment to Colombo and the suburbs, at a time devoid of Television in Sri Lanka, where the only entertainment available were live shows, events or the radio. Stanley of course never stopped singing. Colombo audiences will recollect the renditions of “Little Eyes I love you” and “Cha Boom” delivered at their many appearances. Even though the Four Chords disbanded Victor Gamalathge continued performing duets with his wife as “Christine and Victor” and subsequently emigrating to Australia. Stanley immigrated to Toronto, Canada and continued singing in his church choir and for a little while sang with my brother Steve, myself and friends, starting off the Monks “R “Us singing group.
The early sixties to my memory had an array of bandsmen, singing groups, singers and musicians who entertained us in Colombo and its outskirts. Ishan Bahar has recently compiled “A Heritage of Song” with contributions from many artists of that era and more. Ishan propelled to popularity with the Jetliners and was an instant hit from his first appearance with the Jets at St.Peter’s College hall in 1962’s “Showboat”. The original four of the Jetliners were Lucien, Felix, Anton and Harris. The Jetliners went on to become Sri Lanka’s first super group under the wing of Tony Fernando as their manager. Tony added more talent to the Jets with Mignonne Rutnam, Loretta Koch, and Mignonne’s own sister – late Antoinette, as well as an array of male vocalists and musicians. More super beat groups would follow in the Colombo music scene. To name the forerunners there was Marci Perera’s “Spitfires” from Colombo north and Earl Arnolda’s “The Fireflies”, all heavily booked for the sundown dances in the Colombo nightspots.
Mascarilla, Coconut Grove, Little Hut, Rainbow room, Spotted Deer, Blue Leopard, Akase Kade, Flame Room, were some of the popular venues that featured sundown dances. One remembers and pays tribute to the DJ, announcers, comperes who helped foster the music scene of that era. There was Chris Greet, the Coreas, Vernon and Vijay, Steve Alagaratnam, Clive Rodrigo, Mallory Walles, Derrick Maloney, Bob Harvey, Barry Wittington (nicknamed Witty Barrington) appearing live on stage.
Household names such as Jimmy Barucha, Shirley Perera, Livy Wijemanne, Leon Belleth, Nihal Barethi on Radio also promoted songs of the artists of the time.
In the early Sixties, veteran singer Des Kelley with The Semitones were already much sought after, and Des was one of the pioneering artists migrating to Australia. Among his many hits, “Dream World” and “Cha Cha Baby” had the number one spot on the local hit parade, and enjoyed regular airing on Radio Ceylon’s commercial waves. Cliff Foenander did not perform much in Colombo, but together with Bill Forbes are two famous Ceylonese artists who made good outside of our Island. Bill an old Peterite appeared on the British talent show “Oh Boy”, and made such hits as “God’s Little Acre”, “Too Young” which topped the British charts and local hit parade. Bill recorded many more popular songs, including “Oh! To be in England” and “Achcha England” recorded under his other pseudonym of Kal Khan. Cliff gained international fame singing with “The Fabulous Echoes” in the Las Vegas circuit. His rendition of “Little bit of soap” topped the local hit parade. Cliff together with the “Echoes” toured the Far East and went on to Vegas, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. Cliff succumbed to health problems and passed away in 2000.
Others of Lankan heritage who gained international recognition are Keith Podger with the Seekers, jazz vocalist and actress, Yolande Bhavan of Lambert, Hendriks, Bhavan fame and Kamahl who migrated to Australia from Malaysia and is still heard over the airwaves, and continues to be active in the music scene Down Under.
One of the early promoters of these shows was, Donovan Andree, who had many performers booked at “The Orchid Room”. Donovan’s showmanship brought down “Holiday on Ice”, The Big Circus and The Fantastic Fillipinos among many others to Colombo audiences. It is interesting to note, that of the last troupe, Frankie Ferrer (Juggler) partnered with Rosemary Ferdinands (sister of Bandsman Adrian), continuing onwards to Las Vegas. Eileen Martin, The Mambo Queen settled down in Colombo and together with Tony Fernando helped run “Tony’s Record Bar” at the top of Bullers Road. Donovan’s sons and family Elmo, Malcolm, Eryn de Selfa- Ramona Carr continued his legacy after his demise into the 60’s. Lots of artists credit their step into the pop world to Malcolm Andree who was the entertainment manager at the Stadium. The Stadium, at Station Road, Bambalapitiya featured such names as Jimmy Weerasinghe (Red sails) and Platters repetoire, Loretta Olhmus, “An Evening in Roma”, Doreen Stewart “Secret Love”, Larraine Hoffman. The Jay Bros- late Perin and his brother Dr.Geri Jayesekera (now retired in Colombo) with their hit record “Cherry Blossom Tree” and other popular duets of the day. Even your’s truly performed as “Steve & James”- singing the hit of that time “Massachusets”. Malcolm whenever spotting one of us on Galle Road Bamabalpitiya, would always jovially hum the tune.
Of special mention, the very talented Menezes Family Combo with “Papa Menezes on Sax at the helm, supported by his kids, Mickey on piano, with Tom and daughter Helen were popularly booked for weddings and special occasions. Helen continued performing as the Helen Lucas combo. Ralph entered medical college and formed a beat group, “The Heartbeats” comprising undergrad contemporaries.
Roger Menezes a grandson and talented musician played with the Jets and Spitfires.
Other families of musicians included the Manickavasagar brothers, the Hofmann siblings, and the Pompeus family. Mifwany Lewis and son Joey doing their inimitable renditions of popular jazz and pop were often featured on Radio and in the nightclub scene. Desmond, Frank, and Eden Pompeus, well known as a trumpeter together with the late Malcolm de Zylwa, Dallas Achilles, Edgar Haber appeared with many bands at popular night spots.
A popular singing group of that time, The Italiares comprised reputed singers in their own right.
There were Reggie Perumal, Bede deZylwa, Basil Joseph and Rajah Christopher all singing with the Choral Society and the Italiares, rendering Neapolitan airs and popular four part ballads. One of their signature tunes was “Granada” sung with typical classical gusto, that would have given quite a run to the current recording artists such as “El Divo”. Each one was a sought after musician in his own right. Bede’s solos at St.Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya were in demand for all weddings solemnized there. Likewise Reggie was the resident tenor at St.Lucia’s Cathedral. Rajah’s bass was always heard at St.Philip Neri in Fort.
Basil was a violinist in the symphony orchestra of Colombo, and took semi lead roles in many a musical at the Lionel Wendt theatre. Basil continues to play and sing, now domiciled in California. The Italiares were backed by the Joy Ferdinando quintet. Joy’s daughters, “The Ferdinando sisters” were as well, regular performers at concerts especially at Good Shepherd Convent, their alma mater.
Kotahena and Colombo North gave us the Gerry Crake Combo and his daughter vocalist Heather, and Peter Prins Combo. Another singing duo of the era was “Denzil and Bosco”, both Benedictines, singing the same repertoire as the Jay Bros. Denzil and Bosco being products of their Kotahena Alma Mater were featured performers at many concerts in Colombo North. Bosco’s niece Shyami Fonseka and later the Fonseka sisters were coming into the scene.
As a promoter one cannot forget Mubarak Thaha as well who brought down a lot of international performers. The “Continental Follies” performed at the Tropicana and concurrently Thaha ran a talent contest in which Steve, Brian Fernando and I sang as “The Nightinghales”- singing standard pop
harmonies. The contest was won by Kumar Molligoda with “The Flamingoes”. Kumar’s rendition of
“One night with you” clinched the win. The Nightinghales were runners up. Thaha had an entertainment
club “The Atlanta”, in Colpetty. It was here that the Cuban dance sensation Arsenio Alexander and his wife performed nightly. Arsenio stayed on and co-produced “Maname” with our very own Chitrasena”.
There were other notable entertainers, Derryck Cramer, Jimmy Peck, Authur Speldewilde and the
Cadets, from whence Claude Selvaratnam and the Esquire Set emerged.
The 60’s saw the beginnings of teenager Dalreen de Kretzer singing with her mother Decima’s travelling tour “Decima presents”. Dalrene subsequently would be the super singer with the ‘Fireflies” and is still very much alive (as Dalreen Suby) in the current music scene. Her daughter Debbie Arnolda has inherited the musical talents of her mum, and was an up and coming artist of the time. I had the pleasure of impromptu accompaniment by Debbie when requested to sing “O Holy Night” at a corporate function in Colombo many years later.
One of the finest entertainers of the era, still going strong, is Desmond deSilva- crowned “Baila King”, who 2 years ago celebrated his “Golden Jubilee” in Show business. Desmond sang with the Fireflies, Spitfires, Jetliners, and his own group “The Clan”. Desmond lives in Sydney with wife Phyllis, and is heavily sought after, all year around. Desmond is undisputedly the finest entertainer from Sri Lanka.
Nimal Mendis and Winston Jayewardene worked with a lot of the artists in composing original tunes
and recordings. Nimal’s composition of “Kisses in the Dark” sung by British songstress Mary Marshall was one of an array of popular compositions both western and local. Noeline Mendis ((later Honter) sang a popular tribute to “The City of Colombo”. Indra Raj, Rajah Jalaldeen, Lucien Perera, Claude and Nilu Fernando, Milroy Passe deSilva were exceptional musicians who as well contributed to the richness of the music of the times.
During this time we enjoyed the concerts, dances shows featuring The Fireflies, Spitfires, Jetliners,
Desmond and the Clan, Gabo and the Breakaways with Maurice Balasingham, Harold Seneviratne with Malcolm de Kauwe , Arden Nelson, Raddy Ferreira, Jeffrey Labrooy, Adrian Ferdinands, Sam the Man and the Gaylords, Hezonites, Savage, Amazing Grace, Saybhan and Tempo, with Sherwin Jaya, “Talk of the Town”, Cass Ziard, Gazali Amit Combo,with Ahmed Miskin. Ahmed, a fine Jim Reeves exponent, tragically died in a road accident on Galle Road, Colpetty. Other popular vocalists of the era include, Reggie Koch, Andy Bavan and Prins Rutnam.
The lead singers of many beat groups included Sohan Weerasinghe, Maxi Rozairo, Sohan Peiris, Conrad and Angelo de Silva, Budrin Musafer, and Alston Koch. Alston continued singing in Australia and recently in collaboration with producer, Chandran Rutnam. has ventured onto the silver screen. Noeline Honter (Mendis), Priyanthi Manamperi, Shyami Fonseka, Maya Sittamapalam were the pick of other female singers during the period of the 60’s..
There were the classical singers who as well entertained on our stages. Douglas and Estelle de Niese,
Lorraine Abeyeskera, Lylie Godrirdge, Nihal Fonseka, come to mind. There were Gerald Cooray,
Inspector Gerry Paul, Fr.Ignatius Perera, Fr.Claver Perera, Arthur Van Langenberg who trained and
conducted many choirs and singers who performed regularly. Many talented young musicians, the likes of Dwight Van Gramberg and Thaku Chugani who made up the Junior Rythmiers, and more of a later era emerged in the form of Joey Lewis, Nihal Basnayke, Roger Menezies, Joe Tambimuttu, Basil and Alfo Paiva. All versatile musicians who lent their multi talents to many a leading group.
It would be remiss of me not to include the name of Neville Fernando of “Los Caballeros” fame, and others like Annesley Malewana, Indranee Perera and her sisters, Clarence Wijewardene, C. T. Fernando, La Bambas, Eranga and Priyanga and many others who enriched the music of this era. The names would never end, but lest we forget, we owe them gratitude for the talent they shared, and continue to entertain us.
Priyanthi and Rajah married and live in Toronto. So does Nihal Fonseka with his wife soprano Carol-Eve, Maurice Balasingham enjoys life with his family and grandkids, making a collection of artists continuing the traditions of yesteryear even today. Stephen Alagaratnam recently retired from his academic life and is quite busy in Winnipeg, Canada. Bill Forbes is domiciled in UK. Dalrene is settled in Colombo but travels a lot for engagements. Desmond Kelly and Desmond de Silva, Christine and Victor, together with most others artists of the era migrated and live in Australia. They are still active musically, and will be seen on and off appearing at functions of the community.
Many of those mentioned have gone to the Great Beyond and sing with the heavenly choirs, while we remember the distant drums that call us to set sails in the sunset, to make music as we did before somewhere beyond the sea, when for our last farewell, we will meet once more somewhere beyond that far away shore.