Written by Joseph C. Pereira.
Edited by Norman Westberg and Larry Webber.
Legend has it that at one performance in the Sixties, a female fan became so besotted with Benny Koh’s singing that she climbed on stage and with her red lip stick scribbled “Benny, I Love You” onto his trousers. That says it all. The hysteria a front man like Benny Koh was capable of inspiring. In the pantheon of Singapore Sixties bands, The Trailers rank up there with the best.
In the early Sixties, Singapore was an exciting place to be in terms of music. Cliff Richard and The Shadows had done a groundbreaking concert in late 1961 which provided a blueprint for bands that formed after this concert. One of the many musicians who became obsessed with electric music was guitarist Victor Woo. Together with his buddy guitarist Eric Tan, they had formed a duo that played Everly Brothers type material. After seeing Cliff Richard and The Shadows their fate was sealed. They had to go electric with the intent to form a band with a Shadows sound. They found another guitar player, Tony Zee, who came in on rhythm, added a drummer, Suppiah, and they were on their way.
The Trailers played some early gigs but the band felt that something was lacking. The fact that their drummer could not remember songs was proving to be a handicap. The band’s fortunes took a turn for the better when Edmund Tan, a lead guitarist playing Ventures music came into their lives.
The Trailers invited Edmund to audition for the band. The group booted Suppiah and Tony Zee moved to drums. Tony had been taking drum lessons while holding the rhythm guitar spot in the band. Edmund Tan joined The Trailers as the new rhythm guitar player. Victor said that with Edmund in the band the group began to really gel and shape up into a tight musical unit.
They came across singer Vernon Cornelius at a St. John's Ambulance dance held in late 1963 at a venue in Beach Road. Vernon was then singing in a trio with the Oliveiro sisters and had a real stage presence with a voice to match. The Trailers invited him to join the band and Vernon accepted. With Vernon on lead vocals the band began to take a more serious approach to their music. They appeared as guests at nightclubs and service clubs, as well as, radio and TV appearances. Their manager, Tommy Low, encouraged them to take these small bookings and use their earnings to buy equipment and instruments.
Their first big break came when they were offered a Wednesday night residency at the New Penangway situated in Upper East Coast Road. This gig gave them much needed experience and helped to become a more structured band able to handle dance and background music. Another break came their way when they were offered a residency at the Palace Sunday Tea Dance. The Quests, another top act at the time, had in fact done thirteen sessions at the Palace from mid March to mid June before The Trailers replaced them.
The idea of attending a tea dance to watch a band play was revolutionary and also hip. Katong in mid 1964 was a happening place as it was considered one of the trendy suburbs in Singapore. The Trailers began to fashion their sound and style with Vernon Cornelius as front man. They had the ingredients to shape themselves into a top-ranking band. With their frequent performances, The Trailers and Vernon Cornelius were going from strength to strength.
Come 1965 Vernon joined the Checkmates, a local R&B act. His departure from the band was mutual and Vernon officially left May 31,1965. The Trailers were lucky to find Benny Koh, who in fact had supported them in Katong Palace with his earlier band at the end of 1964. He was younger than the first lot of singers who had appeared on the pop scene in the early Sixties in Singapore. Benny was a new breed of singer whose influences came from the wilder spectrum of British pop. He looked to the Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds and bands of that ilk to draw inspiration from. However, with The Trailers, Benny still had to sing Cliff Richard numbers in keeping with the sound the band had built a reputation on.
While they had started out as a instrumental guitar band and had beefed up their set with Vernon and Benny’s vocals, Victor and the band realized that the music arena was changing. They had been strong as a guitar band but it had limited their range. The feasible solution was to get a keyboard player so that they had the option of piano and organ. They looked around for a keyboard player and luck was with them when they came across organist Michael Teo. With the organ added, they sounded more contemporary.
Not long after, they secured a recording contract on the Cosdel label. Their manager, Tommy Low, was an employee of Cosdel and had recommended his charges to the company. Cosdel’s talent scout went to see them and was impressed enough to offer them a recording contract. They released their first single in May 1966 (CSP 1007), which paired the original composition “Do It Right” with “Thunderball” on the B side (arranged by pianist Jimmy Chan who was then performing with the Flamingos). The single did well enough to top the Singapore charts.
The band was encouraged by the reaction to their first single and they worked hard on their second single (CSP 1008), which paired “Don't Laugh (You'll Cry)”, another original, with Little Richard's “Lucille” as the B side. This single went up the charts and eventually reached number one in Singapore. They had two number ones in a row. The band was clearly on a roll.
The Trailers released a Chinese New Year EP in February 1967 (CEP 3001) with “Phoenix Theme”, “Lara's Theme”, “Ding Dong Song” and “Alisan”. This was a strictly instrumental EP and introduced new organist Jimmy Chan. Jimmy quit another gigging band, the Flamingos, to replace Micheal Teo.
In April 1967, The Trailers shocked the local music scene when they announced they were parting company with their singer Benny Koh. Benny had been with them for over two years and appeared on their first two singles. Fortunately, they ironed out their differences and Benny stayed with the group.
The Summer of 1967 sees The Trailers take residency at the Early Bird Show, which was held at the Odeon Theatre along North Bridge Road. The Cathay Organisation owned this theatre and they were looking to pep up their Sunday morning movie screening. They came up with the idea of having a pop show at 9.00 am to precede the first show, which was screened at 11.00 am. Cathay Organisation looked around for a band to headline this show supported by a revolving pool of supporting acts both local and foreign. They did not have to look long enough because The Trailers were available and immediately began playing there.
Later in August 1967, they released their next record on Cosdel (CEP 3003), which was an EP with two original compositions penned by bassist Eric Tan. They were “Quiver” and “Run Away Hide.” Quiver was in the “Don’t Laugh (You'll Cry)” mould with its climbing riffs and engaging singing from Benny Koh while “Run Away Hide” was a dramatic number full of pathos in his singing. The other songs were “Irene Goodnight” and “Mohair Sam.” Irene was full of irrepressible spirit from Benny while Jimmy Chan added a nice organ interlude at the conclusion while “Mohair Sam” showed that they could get down when they wanted.
At the end of 1967, The Trailers released their next record on Cosdel (CEP 3007). It was an EP with “Girl Of My Dreams”, “You Only Live Twice”, “Come Back My Love”, and “Be Faithful Be True”. On “You Only Live Twice” Victor featured his volume pedal prominently on the melody and solo. Jimmy Chan's sound enhanced the group’s texture as he was full of ideas and his piano and organ work gave the group depth. His piano and organ playing on “You Only Live Twice” made it stand out of the ordinary. “Girl Of My Dreams” was faster paced, with Jimmy Chan stating the main melody on organ, followed by a chorus from Victor. Victor then offers up a precise and economical solo with a distorted tone. Jimmy then comes back to state the melody and lead the song to its conclusion. “Come Back My Love” and “Be Faithful Be True” were closer to Chinese instrumental music that The Trailers were adept at. It showed their versatility in playing both Western and Oriental music. “You Only Live Twice” and “Girl Of My Dreams” were released in Australia by Festival Records concurrently with Cosdel’s blessings.
Jimmy Chan had by this time decided to leave the band. He had been approached by The Quests to join their band. The offer looked attractive. He would be playing with the acknowledged top band of the country. Yet his work with The Trailers had been pioneering because they had in their own way popularised organ and piano in their recordings and stage work. He left The Trailers in October 1967 to join The Quests and immediately began recording with them. The band replaced him with Patrick Foo.
Victor had gone to the Phillipines in late 1967 to sit for his computer science exams and had been exposed to the music scene there, which was years ahead of Singapore. There he saw bands utilising horn sections and heard the fullness they gave the sound. He returned to Singapore and told the boys that they had to have brass in the band. They objected, saying it would be difficult to find horn players. Victor told them that they would do it themselves. Victor and Eric bought saxophones and they went to look for a Malay musician who had a food stall next to the old Rendezvous restaurant. They told him that they wanted to learn to play saxophones. He was reluctant initially but told them to come to his house to learn. They turned up for their lesson and after teaching them the rudiments and fingering positions he told them to blow a Bb, which was a very low note. Victor gave it his best and hit the note. They wanted to pay their instructor at the end of the lesson but he would not take their money saying Victor’s ability to blow that low note after one lesson was payment indeed.
The Trailers signed to RCA, which was being distributed by Cosdel in Singapore. Their first appearance on a disc was backing the trio The Tit Bits. The Tit Bits had won Talentime contest of 1967 and had been signed to RCA.
1968 also saw opportunities opening up as clubs and discotheques opened in hotels and bands were needed to provide the entertainment. It was also timely for bands, such as The Trailers, who now found new venues to play. These club gigs were one-month contracts (three month contracts being the norm) with opportunities for extensions. The Trailers played their first contract gigs at the Goodwood Park Hotel in 1967. This was followed by stints at the Flamingo and at the Tropicana. Victor said that they were responsible for opening the Tropicana. Following that, they took a short break where they again resorted to playing one-night appearances. Their next contract was at Hotel Malaysia's London Scene where they alternated with Pests Infested and Pietro And The Warlocks.
In October 1968, The Trailers released their first EP on the RCA label. Dubbed their ”soul” EP, it marked a change of sound for them. The first song, "I'm Ready Now", an original composition, incorporated Eastern elements in the instrumental break which added a rather attractive quality to this track. Victor said, "The idea for the instrumental break came from organist Patrick Foo. He played the sustained melody. The tabla and drum part came from our drummer Tony Zee.” This track went top ten in Malaysia. The other three tracks were The Trailers doing Soul. Their version of “Peter Gunn” had the entire band playing with Eric Tan on tenor sax and Victor playing alto while Edmund played bass. Geno Washington’s tune “Raise Your Hand”, is given the full brass treatment while Brook Benton's ”Gimme A Little Sign” showed that Trailers who had started as a Shadows type instrumental band, could get down convincingly.
For all intents and purposes that was the end of The Trailers recording life. Victor Woo left the band December 31, 1970.They added a horn section and carried on a few more years before calling it quits. Although they only recorded twenty songs in their lifetime, they have left behind a body of recordings that stand the test of time. They had it all. They could do garage as in “Don’t Laugh You’ll Cry”, full blown rock as in “Quiver” and even hint at psychedelia in “I’m Ready Now.” They held their own.
Joseph has released a comprehensive collection of the Trailers music, The Trailers: Singapore Pop 60’s, on Golden Venus Records. The CD includes 20 tracks, liners notes and photos. To get a copy, send $20 to: Joseph C. Pereira, 13-78, Blk 226, Pasir Ris Street 21, Singapore or purchase online: Wolfgang Volkel mailoder at http://www.w-voelkel.de/
If you want to learn more about the Singapore scene get Joseph’s book, Legends of the Golden Venus, at http://www.selectbooks.com.sg or check Ugly Things Issues 19, 21 & the newest one for other articles on the swingin' 60's Singapore scene by Joseph.
Special thanks to Toshi for images: Pretty Flamingo