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Singapore musicians remember an unsung hero

The Quests circa 1964: Jap Chong (bottom right) is holding a Fender Stratocaster supplied by TMA. That guitar would be used to record some of The Quests' biggest hits, including Shanty and Teabreak, among others.
The Silver Strings were another band that benefited from Tan Peck Soo's generosity.
Tan Peck Soo sponsored the wah wah pedal for The Silver Strings to use when they recorded I'll Remember Today with Shirley Nair.

Singapore musicians remember an unsung hero

Music shop owner Tan Peck Soo was a key supporter of local musicians in the 1960s

SINGAPORE — Last week, Singapore lost an unsung hero of local music. His name may not ring a bell with the general populace, but for the fledgling bands in the early days of the country’s golden age of music, Tan Peck Soo was The Man.

Over the weekend Andy Young, the first singer to front local band The Silver Strings, posted the news announcing the death of Tan – who was the owner of TMA Pte Ltd at High Street, a music shop in the 1960s – on his blog (http://singapore60smusic.blogspot.sg), after hearing from fellow veteran Henri Gann, one of the members of another band, The Trekkers.

Musicians had dubbed Tan “the Godfather of local 1960s pop”, and almost every one described him as a generous man and a keen supporter of the young bands in the then-burgeoning music scene.

That included The Swallows’ Yusoff, who posted online: “He was a good man ... we used to (buy) musical instruments from his shop”; while Ronnie See (of Ronnie And The Burns) wrote: “Mr Tan was a kind man, in fact he was an encouragement to young aspiring musicians then. He brought in better stuff than his peers.”

Merlin Lim, guitarist for The Silver Strings, called him “a trustworthy man with a heart of gold” adding that he was “pure in speech, mild-mannered with a beautiful character”; while his bandmate, drummer Oliver Balasingam, recalled how he had bought his first drum set from Tan’s shop.

“He was very well-known and loved by everybody,” said Young.

Back in the 1960s, TMA at High Street was one of two of the most popular places where musicians could get their musical instruments. (The other was Swee Lee Music.)

“Initially they sold an assorted range of household products,” said Vernon Cornelius, who used to sing with bands such as The Checkmates and The Quests. “(TMA) began selling music instruments from mid-1950s — guitars, amplifiers, ukuleles — and they were the agent for Hohner accordions and harmonicas, drums brands such as Ludwig (like the one Ringo Starr of The Beatles used); Ajax, which was used by Lim Wee Guan of The Quests; and Trixon, as used by Amir Samsuddin of The Checkmates.”

TMA was also the Singapore distributor for the Fender brand. Fender’s Stratocaster was the guitar to have. Its popularity in Singapore was due in part to the fact that The Shadows’ Hank Marvin played a Fender Stratocaster on a lot of the Shadows’ hits of the early 1960s, such as Apache, Kon Tiki and Wonderful Land. The Shadows performed here with Cliff Richard in 1961 and were a huge influence on the music scene.

That being the case, many young musicians would flock to TMA and as Henry Chua of The Quests said, would “drool at the guitars in the showcase”.

Chua would often walk from Raffles Institution, where he was studying, to North Canal Road, where he would take the bus home, to save his meagre pocket money (he was only given 20 cents a day). But along the way was TMA. “I remember the layout of the shop. As you went in there was a circular display and there was a glass case where they displayed the guitars,” Chua remembered. “On the left side, Mr Tan sold records. There was also a sound room where you could ask him to play the records and you could put on a pair of headphones and listen to the music.”

ALWAYS GIVING

But it wasn’t only about the quality TMA stocked. According to Chua, Tan loaned The Quests a set of Fender instruments for their performances. “There was no contract, no collateral, nothing. We just took them home. He’s such a kind man. I had a brand new Fender Precision Bass and a Bassman amp. Reggie had a Stratocaster and a Fender Twin Reverb amp. And Jap, I think, had a Fender Telecaster and a Fender Tremolux amp.”

He added: “We would go to his house — he lived in a big bungalow on Mountbatten Road with a huge garage where he kept all his things — and pick it up. It was brand new, still in the box … you could smell the newness.

“As a teenager, that was like … guitar heaven, you know?”

And they were not the only band to enjoy Tan’s generosity. “The Quests had Fender guitars, so we also wanted them,” said Zainal Abidin of The Dukes. “And (we) got them from TMA.

“I don’t actually remember us paying for them. Although, all the time we were playing, we weren’t paid — I didn’t get a single cent. I think the money from our shows were used to pay for the instruments. But we weren’t thinking about the money, we were students and we were just happy to play. We had Fender guitars!”

Tan’s involvement with local bands actually started earlier with the band The Trekkers, when he saw how they had only one amplifier to plug their three guitars into, and sought to help them out by building amplifiers for them.

“He said that he could build us one and he had a very sharp electrician who could do just that,” wrote Henri Gann in an online post. “He knew his speakers well, which was key to designing a good sounding amplifier and Geylang had great custom cabinet maker. The Trekkers built the first look alike Fender tube amplifiers in Singapore.”

Gann also said Tan offered him one of his first Stratocasters in Singapore on credit. “Buying things on credit was almost unheard of at that time, least of all to a kid with no credit,” Gann wrote. “The man knew relationship was key to business success.”

He also offered “painless payment plans” to enable young musicians to afford expensive and high-quality instruments. “He would give out instruments on hire-purchase, but very cheaply,” said Young. “You just went up to him and he’d let you have the best guitars. He was helping all the bands that way.”

“There wasn’t any real contract — if you could pay, you pay,” said Chua.

Cornelius concurred, adding how teh “soft-spoken” Tan “assisted and encouraged bands, especially with acquiring equipment on easy instalments”. “Many bands and musicians claim he made their first special gadgets,” he added.

Audie Ng, bassist with The Silver Strings, said Tan sponsored the fuzzbox the band used when they backed sibling duo Mike & Herb on their hit single I’ve Been A Fool.

“I was wondering how the The Rolling Stones got the sound for their song Satisfaction,” said Ng, who wanted to emulate that sound for I’ve Been A Fool. “Mr Tan of TMA then sponsored the fuzzbox for my recording at Kinetex Studio at Sennett Estate. The owner, Mr Simone, (initially) refused to record (us) because he claimed the speaker was cracking.”

Ng let him listen to the Rolling Stones record, but he still refused. It took to the boss of the band’s record label Polygram to convince him to let them record there. (Incidentally, The Silver Strings was one of the bands who opened for The Rolling Stones when the British rockers performed here 1965 at the Singapore Badminton Hall at Guillemard Road.)

“(He) also a provided us with a wah-wah pedal for the Shirley Nair song, I’ll Remember Today,” added Ng.

GOOD FOR BUSINESS

Not only did Tan know his products, he also had an ear for quality sound. In fact, he was instrumental in helping The Quests get their distinct guitar sound, by tweaking guitarist Reggie Verghese’s Stratocaster. “You know how the Strat has three pickups — neck, middle and bridge pickups — and normally on a standard Stratocaster, you can change the sound of your guitar by combining the neck and middle, or middle and bridge. But Mr Tan wired it for us to get the neck and the bridge. At the time, nobody knew how to do that ... we had the most unique tone in Singapore,” said Chua.

He also provided The Quests the now-famous delay effect that they used it in all their early recordings. “He tried to get us to use the Fender Tape Echo, but we were not happy with it,” said Chua. “Then he imported something called the Swiss Echo — although it was made in Germany — and that’s what we used in most, if not all, our recordings. We even borrowed a Hofner bass when we recorded the backing for Rita Chao and Sakura’s recordings.”

An astute businessman, Tan had bands such as The Trekkers use his showcase amplifiers on stage, especially at the British serviceman’s club on Beach Road. “The store would be filled with British servicemen asking for the Fender products the next morning,” wrote Gann.

“Mr Tan saw the advantage of such marketing,” said Chua. “Although, in those days, we didn’t think, or we were not aware, that we were marketing for him. We just thought, ‘Wow, this man is so kind to lend us guitars’. But he was very nice because he didn’t even chase us to return the instruments; although after using them for a month, we felt paiseh.”

Still, many musicians credit Tan for being someone without whom the music scene might not have flourished. “He gave every band personal attention and he single-handedly played a great part in nurturing and developing Singapore’s earliest pop/rock bands,” said Cornelius.