“‘I hope this never happens again,’ the headmaster said ominously, as he held the cane in his right hand and slowly flexed and arched it with the index finger of his left hand. He removed his fingertip, the right hand brought the cane down, whacking me three times. My eyes turned red with restrained tears. I walked away clutching my buttocks.”
That’s the reward a schoolboy named Biddu Appiah received for cutting class one morning in 1959 to head out to the airport to welcome one of the era’s biggest Indian-born pop stars. His tune Cindy Oh Cindy was already a party standard and by the time Tony Brent retired from the music business in the UK to open a curry house in Sydney, he’d have scored seven Top 20 hits. Biddu would grow up to write tunes that topped the charts on three continents, including Kung Fu Fighting for Carl Douglas and Made in India for Alisha Chinai. Despite the caning he received for playing truant, he was overjoyed to have caught a glimpse of Brent. As he recalled in his autobiography, “…The pain, while excruciating, was quite worth it.”
However, the critic of The Times of India, who attended one of Brent’s performances in Bombay, wasn’t quite as impressed. Brent sang several faster tunes, backed by the Ken Mac band. “I wonder why Brent didn’t do one of the slow, evergreen ballads,” the critic grumbled. “It would have suited both his style and his voice. If ‘pop’ singers have hitched themselves to the tempo of the jet age, it seems a mistake.” But younger fans had a different reaction. The Times headline read, “Teenagers in a frenzy.”
More than half a century since that concert, the mention of Tony Brent’s name still elicits wide smiles in certain circles, especially in Bombay. The musician was born Reginald Bretagne and spent his early years in Ebrahim Terrace on Spence Lane in Byculla. Other residents of the cul de sac included the talented classical pianist Joseph de Lima and Shaukat Ali Baig, who would go on to create an act that combined piano playing and comedy sketches. (A typical joke: “A girl comes up to me and says: what do you think of my bikini. And I say, let’s drop the subject.”) Before he died a few years ago, Baig shared his memories of the three Bretagne brothers and sister, Patsy. “When Reggie changed this name to Tony and became famous in England, all of us on Spence Lane were very proud of him,” Baig recalled.
Brent moved to the UK at the age of 25. Two years later, in 1949, he won a talent contest with his performance of Some Enchanted Evening. This led him to the BBC Showband, where he performed under the batons of Ambrose and Cyril Stapleton. His first hit came in 1951 with Walking to Missouri. He’d make 104 records over this career.
In 1961, Brent moved to Australia, where he ran several Indian restaurants, including one called Sabu’s. My friend Mathures Paul of the Statemen invested a lot of effort piecing together the Tony Brent story a few years ago, and you can read all about it on his blog here. Tony Brent died in 1993. Here’s footage of him shot in 1959, the year he performed in India. Click on the image to see a short news clip about his mechanical abilities.