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A White Christmas in Calcutta

This cheery Christmas tune was recorded in sunny Calcutta in September 1942, only weeks after it had been released in the US as part of a set of songs from the film Holiday Inn. That version, sung by Bing Crosby, has since sold more than 50 million copies and is thought to be the highest-selling single of all time.

This version by Teddy Weatherford’s All Star Swing Band includes the African-American saxophonist Roy Butler, who lived in India for more than a decade. He’d made his way to India in the early 1930s, after performing in Europe and South America with an array of outfits.

Live at the Taj, 1953

What Is This Thing Called Love, Part 1, by British Modern Jazz by tajmahalfoxtrot1

“The rostrum was surrounded with people who were content to stand and watch and that semi-circle kept on increasing by the minute till a stage was reached when people had to stand on chairs to see the bandsmen. The crowd liked the music and they communicated their appreciation by yelling their heads off which in turn exhorted the musicians no end…The consensus of opinion had it that Bombay had not heard better music in many moon.”

The excitement that Coover Guzdar described at the Ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel in downtown Bombay on the evening of August 4, 1953, is very audible on the two-part recording of What Is This Thing Called Love above and below. Between trumpet phrases and piano licks, you can hear 500 Bombay fans cheering, clapping and generally being appreciative of the band that had been styled the Swingin’ Britons.

The group had been cobbled together by the editorial board of Blue Rhythm, a magazine that had made its appearance a year earlier. Its editors – Guzdar, Niranjan Jhaveri and Jehangir Dalal – were determined not only to give Bombay the opportunity to read about the music they loved, they also organised concerts to allow the city learn about the latest directions in which jazz was headed.


The French Connection

Not much is know about Georges Leonardi, the trombone player on this track by Teddy Weatherford and his Band titled I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With You, except that he was French.

He seems to have come to Bombay in 1933 with the Jos Ghisleri band to perform at the Taj Mahal Hotel and stayed on after Ghisleri returned to Paris. That year, The Times of India described him as a “first-prize winner of the Conservatoire de Paris”.

In his excellent memoir Trumpet Story, Bill Coleman, who came to Bombay as part of Leon Abbey’s band in the mid-1930s, described Leonardi as a “straight man” who could play what was written, but couldn’t improvise. Coleman adds that Leonardi also played the violin, “which was nice for some of the acts we accompanied”.


Amru Sani’s Hot Sauce

Amru Sani with the Mickey Correa band at Green's Hotel, Bombay, 1948-'49

Was Amru Sani the first Indian to make it in the exalted world of American show biz?  In the 1950s, Sani had a brief streak of fame in the US, appearing in a Broadway revue and cutting a bunch of popular records. In 1953, when Sani was booked for an assignment in Hollywood nightclub called Ciro’s, the New Journal and Guide described her as “India’s Lena Horne”. It was clear that she’d made quite an impression her audience. “The Hollywood nightclub male habitués responded to this Indian love call – Bombay, India, that is – in such large numbers that Amru is assured of success on her American tour,” the paper gushed. It added her name meant “goddess of love”.

 A few months earlier, Variety magazine was all praise for her stint at Statler’s Embassy Room in Washington. “She has a regal bearing and generally carries herself almost ramrod stiff with her arms at her sides and slightly bent backwards. Occasionally, she lifts her hands in clawlike motions for emphasis,” Variety wrote. “She is a sultry stylist, holding herself somewhat aloof from her audience and with a theatrical sophistication which should do well in class rooms like this. Voice is husky, often sinking to a low softness, sometimes rising to a shout.”


Gymkhana Jive

Like many colonial towns, pre-war Rangoon had its share of clubs at which the upper classes sought diversion. The Pegu was the town’s most prestigious establishment, but the Rangoon Gymkhana Club,  on Halpin Road, built in 1877, also had its share of A-Listers.

William Gordon Burn-Murdoch, a painter and explore who visited Burma in the early 1920s, seemed rather amused by the balls at the Gymkhana Club. “I danced with ladies in ladies in Gainsborough hats, their feathers tickling my eye, in pork pie hats and Watteaus, and picture hats like sparrows’ nests,” he wrote in his book From Edinburgh to India and Burmah, published in 1924. “There were dumpy little ladies and tall stately Junos ie compared with Eastern women. It was so funny to see men in men in suits of blue serge, tweeds or tussore silk, whirling around with ladies in muslins of every lovely colour…It is hot now, they say, but look at the fun they have, especially the ladies.”

I haven’t been able to find much information about the bands that played at the Rangoon Gymkhana Club, except for this small snippet in Reuben Solomon’s story about his early life. “Gigs in Rangoon included playing with Wally Fagin’s band at the Rangoon Gymkhana Club and wherever a live band was needed,” he wrote. ” In spite of my tender years, I managed to get quite a lot of work. ”

These recordings by the Rangoon Gymkhana Club Orchestra feature Fagin as leader and orchestra, but the labels don’t give much information about anything else. It isn’t clear when they were recorded and though they’re stamped “Made in India”, it isn’t apparent in which city these sides were cut.

They’re from the Marco Pacci collection.

Melancholy baby by RANGOON GYMKHANA CLUB by tajmahalfoxtrot1

Trade winds by RANGOON GYMKHANA CLUB by tajmahalfoxtrot1

Category: Audio, India jazz, Jazz  Tags:

Rangoon Rhapsody

The glamorous woman in this photo turned 90 a few weeks ago. Peggy Gilbert now lives in Canada but like Reuben Solomon and his family, who I wrote about recently (here and here), she spent her formative years in Burma. In fact, she actually sang with Solomon’s band, the Jive Boys, for a little while in Rangoon.

This photograph of her was taken before a Red Cross Benefit in Rangoon, in 1940 or 1941. It was sent to me by Susan McPhedran, who left me this message recently: “Greetings from Canada. My mother-in-law, Peggy Gilbert, sang with the Jive Boys in Rangoon before the war. Not only could she sing and was very pretty, she said that she could keep up with them – an important skill for a jazz singer.  She was asked to tour with the band, but her aunt refused to let her go as it was not the thing to do for a respectable young lady.”

McPhedran said her family was in the process of creating a DVD for Peggy Gilbert’s 90th birthday party. “My husband was thrilled to find your site as we do not have any recordings of her or the Jive Boys. (He does remember hearing her on the radio after the war when he was very young),” she wrote.

Reuben Solomon’s Hot Jam (Part 2)

This is the second part of the Reuben Solomon story, as he told it to his wife, Charmaine Solomon, the famous cookbook writer. The first part was published last week. You can access it here.

Shoo shoo baby by REUBEN SOLOMON AND HIS JIVE BOYS by tajmahalfoxtrot1



The contract with Sacha and his Melodists was a plum job.  My contract included accommodation and full board.  Linen was changed every day and fresh cakes of soap provided, just as for the hotel guests.  White-clad servant boys came running if we wanted so much as a glass of water.  We had a nanny to look after our daughter Mozelle, and life was good. The orchestra was made up of excellent musicians of many nationalities and, in addition to the dance music, offered the challenge and stimulation of playing classical music at the regular and well attended Promenade Concerts.  The working hours gave me enough free time to play chamber music with the Ceylon Music Society and the Ceylon Symphony Orchestra.

On Radio Ceylon, I presented a popular music programme every three weeks, alternating these with classical broadcasts. I started a small advertising agency, writing and performing jingles for various firms. One of the jingles I wrote and recorded for Volkswagen cars, won an award in Germany and continued to be broadcast for many years.  My six-month contract with the hotel kept on being renewed, and I stayed in Ceylon for a total of nine years.

During this time, despite the comfort of life in a luxury hotel, my marriage with Bonnie was on the rocks.  She left to go back to Calcutta and divorce was the only solution. Not long after, Charmaine (whom I had met before, briefly,) returned from an extended study trip to England. Since in a small town like Colombo everybody know what everybody else is doing, I heard she was back.  I phoned and asked her to go to a concert with me.  Like the well-brought-up young lady she was, she refused.  When I said that Bonnie and I were being divorced, she tried to talk me out of it, saying that this was not the best option, since she knew the trauma of being the child of divorced parents.  Mozelle was just about the same age she was when her parents split.  I did not tell her our problems, but convinced her that it was better for Mozelle if Bonnie and I didn’t try to stay together  and the divorce went ahead.

Eventually Charmaine decided she liked me enough to accept my invitations.  Though she gently turned me down the first time I proposed marriage, I persisted and as you can see she changed her mind. We have had 42 wonderful years together, four beautiful children and two adorable grand daughters and two grandsons. [Update from Charmaine: We eventually had 53 beautiful, love-filled years and now have a fifth grandchild, named Ruben (the spelling is different, because his mother is German and if spelled Reuben would be pronounced ‘Royben’)].


Reuben Solomon’s Hot Jam (Part 1)

Constantly by REUBEN SOLOMON AND HIS JIVE BOY by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

A few months ago, I wrote this piece about Reuben Solomon and his Jive Boys, the band headed by a Baghdadi Jewish clarinet player from Burma who trekked to Calcutta during the Second World War and recorded prolifically in India. Two guitarists from the Rangoon outfit, Cedric West and Solomon’s cousin, Ike Issacs, went on to significant jazz careers in the UK and beyond.

A few weeks ago, thanks to Lana Whitney, the Rudy Cotton fan who left a message on this site, I’ve been in touch with Solomon’s wife, Charmaine Solomon – a best-selling cookbook writer who is credited with teaching Australians how to make Asian food. She’s authored 31 cookbooks, among them the very influential The Complete Asian Cookbook, which sold more than a million copies and has been translated in five languages. She also sells a range of spice blends and marinades – the intriguing Reuben Solomon’s Roasted Chilli Jam, among them.

Reuben Solomon was born in 1921 and died three years ago in Australia. But a few years before his passing, he told his wife the story of his life. Over the last week, she’s patiently transcribed it for me. Here’s Reuben Solomon’s amazing story, in his own words:

“I remember the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.  Shortly after that we returned to Rangoon as, with Dad’s deteriorating health and circumstances, they could not afford boarding school fees.  We no longer lived in the elegant three-storey house in Godwin Road, but in a much more modest home in Keighley Street.  I finished my schooling in Diocesan Boys School in Rangoon. That was the year I started learning clarinet – and old, battered, metal instrument (ex-Army issue) which was, to say the least, not easy to learn on. But once I had blown my first note, I was hooked.  This sound became more important to me than anything else.  I would practice for hours each day, until sometimes my lips would bleed.

At that time we would get together with nephew Ike Isaacs and brother Saul and a few professional musicians and try to emulate the sounds of the Hot Club of France, sans violin.  We had a group called the Jive Boys, comprising my nephew Ike Isaacs, my brother Saul and Cedric West on guitars, Paul Ferraz on bass and myself on clarinet and sax.  We used to broadcast on All India Radio in Rangoon, as in those days Burma, India and Ceylon were considered one entity – India.  I finished school in 1937 with a pass which meant I could attend University.  I did one year of a science degree, but decided it was more to my liking to play music. I remember Ike saying that I was supposed to be studying science but the call of B-flat was too strong. My first job was deputising for a musician in a night club, starting at 10pm and playing until morning – the sun was up when I left.  How to stay awake at lectures after such a night?


Ken Mac’s Moonlight Becomes You

This week from the Marco Pacci collection, a recording from 1942 by the Anglo-Indian bandleader Ken Mac.  The vocalist is Poona-born Beryl Templeman.  Two years before this track was cut, the critic for the Times of India went into raptures about the crooner. “She has a good, versatile voice and personality enough to tackle anything,” the paper wrote. “Had she been out in France, I’ve a hunch she could have deputised for Gracie Fields without a tremor.”

The tune was written for the film Road to Morocco. It’s been recorded by several vocalists, but perhaps the best-known version is by Bing Crosby.

Moonlight Becomes You by Ken Mac by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Rudy Rides Again

This photo, featuring Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn shaking hands with the great tenor saxophone player Rudy Cotton in Delhi in 1963, was sent to me recently by Percy Khatow, the Indian musician’s son. As regular readers of this site know, Rudy Cotton was born Cawas Khatau and descended from a long line of producers of Parsi drama. I had the pleasure of speaking to Percy Khatow briefly when I visited the UK last fortnight. Though he has a condition that makes it difficult for him to conduct long conversations, Percy called to ask if I’d received the photos and brochures he’d taken the trouble to email me.

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