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. more…
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’)].
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?
In 1941, as World War Two raged, the Japanese advance on India’s borders had an unforeseen effect on the country’s jazz scene. Among the hundreds of thousands of people who trekked out of Burma for India ahead of the Japanese vanguard were several Burmese jazz musicians. The most prominent were members of one of Rangoon’s hottest bands, the Jive Boys, which featured Reuben Solomon on clarinet, Paul Feraz on bass, and three guitarists: Ike Issacs, Reuben’s brother Solly and Cedric West. They arrived in Calcutta in March 1942 and were immediately offered positions in the city’s most prominent bands. (See Amitav Ghosh’s note on the great trek here.) more...