Cells Unlimited were in the new wave of bands that professed to play British R & B that drew inspiration from British rather American sources. The name itself was revolutionary. Guitarist Ivor Lesslar said, "The theory was the cells in the body was unlimited." The band formed in the latter part of 1966. The line-up was Jeffrey Jalleh (vocals), Ivor Lesslar (guitar, organ), Roy Oh (bass) and Vincent Leong (drums). The line-up suggested something unusual. A band without a rhythm guitar. Ivor said, "When we first formed we had a guy called Roger playing bass. I was playing rhythm and Roy Oh was playing lead guitar. After some time Roger left, Roy moved over to bass and I began to cover both lead and rhythm. We remained as a four piece."
The band acquired instruments and stored them at a friend's house in St George's Road. Ivor said, "Vincent's brother who was managing us got us our instruments. He started out with a home made amplifier. Vocals, guitar and bass all went into that one amplifier." According to Ivor the amplifier was made by a musician from the Tornados of Oh Malaysia fame who was living in Haig Road. He made clones of Vox amplifiers. Ivor said, "The box looked like a Vox but you could tell it was not an original. Then Vincent's brother bought us instruments. He bought a guitar, three amplifiers and a Teisco organ."
Now that they had instruments the band began to rehearse and build up a repertoire. According to the fashion of the day they began to play mid Sixties British beat. Ivor said, "We did Rolling Stones, Mannfred Mann, Beatles, The Who and Pretty Things amongst other bands. We could not do a lot of songs because of our instrumentation but we made do with what we had."
Once they had a decent enough repertoire to play gigs Fernando Young started booking them for gigs. The band played on the RAF circuit in Singapore at places like Tengah Air Base, Seletar Air Base and McGregor Club. Ivor said, "We had about one gig a week in one of the RAF bases. We gathered out equipment in a Datsun pick-up, go to the gig, set up and play the gig." In the early days they played a lot of functions at places like the khalsa Club and house parties where they would be paid fifty dollars for the whole band.
An after gig actitivity was stopping at the food centre opposite the Polytechnic Campus On Prince Edward Road. Ivor said, "You could see all the vans carrying instruments. They had their names painted on the side. Checkmates, Trailers, Silver Strings. They would all gather there after their gigs to have food and talk."
Apart from the RAF gigs and house parties, Cells also played the tea dance circuit. Ivor said, "We played everywhere. We played at Princes, Celestial Room, at the Katong Palace supporting Trailers and at Golden Venus where they supported Straydogs." One of their very early gigs was supporting Silver Strings, Mike and Herb and Shirley Nair at the Victoria Memorial Hall on January 25, 1967. When the Straydogs held their first anniversary celebration with a dance at the Chinese Swimming Club, Cells supported them along with Ray and the Deltons.
The band also played the CHIJ Town Convent Saturday afternoon matinee shows. Ivor said, "The nuns would be seated in the first row. Bands like Silver Strings, Checkmates, Echo Jets, Antartics, Pests Infested and Straydogs would play there. There would be a curtain which will close as one band finished and then the next band would set up. When the curtains parted you would look out and you see all these nuns sitting right up front. There was no way to make eye contact at the school girls not without those nuns sitting right in front." He said it was innocent fun and after the show the schoolgirls who were still in their school uniforms would come around to ask for autographs.
The constant gigging brought them to Philips attention. They were offered a recording contract and released a single in late 1967 with Mornings and Evenings and Where Am I To Go on the B side. The songs were both originals composed by Jeffrey Jalleh and Roy Oh. The A side was a fast paced number with lots of jangling guitar while on the B side which was a ballad, Ivor overdubbed an acoustic guitar to the song which spoke of alienation felt by the young. The song went up to the number one spot on the Rediffusion charts. The single was their only recording on Philips. Ivor said, "I wrote one but the recording company did not think it was suitable. The song was titled "Big Bad Wolf". It had lyrics which they found objectionable. They did not go with the times. We had a few songs written out and ready to record." The release of the single brought them wider attention and they appeared on television. Ivor remembered one show where they performed the Small Faces Sha La La Lee.
The scene was changing in 1968 and Cells Unlimited adapted to the changes taking place. Ivor said, "The Starlights who were a Filipino band began to play in Singapore in 1967 and they changed the mind set of local musicians. After they came along, local musicians started to use saxaphones, have blowing, arrangements and choreography." Cells also came under the influence of Starlights. Ivor added, "We got quite close to them. They thought us a lot of things. We became influenced by them and we began to play more American music. Soul that is. Songs like Sam and Dave's Soul Man. When w rehearsed they would come along and teach us harmony and voicing. They helped us decide the instrumentation for songs."
It was at this point that Cells Unlimited felt their line up of guitar, bass and drums was limited and they added a keyboard player in the person of Victor Olsen. Ivor said, "We started doing songs from Moody Blues because he was good at the piano. He was more a pianist than organist. It made the band sound better."
The band then got involved in a quite unusual project. A lawyer by the name of John Tan hired the band to back him on two EPS which he financed and released on the Life label. He recorded Mandarin language versions of the pop hits of the day. The records were released as John Tan with music by the Cells. Among the songs recorded were Unchained Melody, Massachussetts and San Francisco. John had a melancholic voice but in their interpretation of San Francisco the band sounds rather upbeat and poignant at one point when they were harmonised in English the line "Where are the people" behind John.
The band turned professional in late 1968 and played their first professional gig at the Sea Dragon, a barge docked near Clifford Pier where they alternated with Quests who were back from their stint in Hongkong. The end for the band came after this gig when they decided to break up with Ivor going to Bangkok to play his next gig while Jeffery Jalleh and Roy Oh joined the Bee Jays. Vincent Leong gave up music.
The Esquires performed as a guest artiste at the Housing and Development Board's talentime in August 1965 at the National Theatre. The line up was Steve Bala (lead), Eddie Ebenezer (rhythm), Douglas Tan (bass) and Francis Joseph (drums). A month later they performed as guest artistes at the Great World Park during the Big Beat Contest held in conjunction with the closing of the Singapore Trade Exhibition. Francis Joseph had left the band and replaced by Daniel Wee. Johnny Aroozoo appeared with them on vocals.Tea Dances.
Siglap Five formed in 1963 from five young boys who were students in Siglap Secondary School. Bassist Nick said, "There was an end of year concert. I went round to the classes announcing my intention to form a band and asked students if they could play an instrument and asked if they would join a band." Nick said he found organist Hamidon and
guitarist Karim that way. He continued, "There was a Chinese guy called Kiang who played rhythm. There was an Arab guy who was a good singer but then his family object3ed to him having anything to with pop music. He was out. Kiang was
good on rhythm too but his father objected so he was out. Karim came in and he was good. So he was in the band."
The initial line-up consisted of Hamid (vocals), Karim (guitar), Nick (bass), Hamidon (bass) and Ariff (drums). Nick said, "There was another drummer called Rahmat who was supposed to be the Siglap Five drummer. Somehow we found Ariff who was a much better drummer so he became our drummer." The band was playing pop and r & b music of the day. The band rehearsed at the studio of The Rhythm Boys. Nick said, "Ariff's brothers were in The Rhythm Boys. They had a full set of equipment. We were playing second fiddle to them. Everytime they rehearsed we would be there and when
they rested we would take over and rehearse our songs." The band did not have their own equipment then. Equipment came later. They got their first gig however. Nick remembers, "The first gig we did was a wedding somewhere in Geylang. We were all very young then. We rented instruments and came in a taxi which was full of instruments. The
gig was quite a disaster for us." Disaster because they were playing R & B at a Malay wedding. Nick said, "Of course at a Malay wedding you cannot play r & b so it was not accepted.
After we finished the performance and packed our instruments we passed some houses and people inside the houses remarked, "No wonder it sounded bad. They are so young." After a while we got better."
At the end of 1963, Siglap Five was spotted by an A & R manager of Philips who offered them a recording contract. Jeffrey Din who was originally from the Rhythm Boys became their singer. Nick recalled, "When we went for the Philips audition he appeared. He knew all the songs. It was decided to let him sing. So he became part of the
band. The band then was called Jeffrey Din and The Siglap Five. We had no intention of calling the band Jeffrey
Din and The Siglap Five. We were four, that is Karim, Hamidon, Ariff and myself and with Jeffrey Din it was five. He insisted that it must be Jeffrey Din and The Siglap Five. It was quite weird calling ourselves Siglap Five when there were only four members. That was when we got in Kamsin."
Guitarist Kamsin who was from another school was roped in and he became their rhythm guitarist. Now Siglap Five was really five. "We did not want it to be a singer and a band. We wanted it to be a band. Somehow because of other considerations it became Jeffrey Din and The Siglap Five."
Their initial record on Philips which was EP was titled Jeffrey Din and The Siglap Five which Nick said was weird because the band had only four. This was corrected in time for the second EP. Being recording artistes brought its own rewards as they were able to acquire equipment. Nick said, "We did our recording and got paid a couple of thousand dollars. That was big money then. We used the money to buy equipment. We bought two Fender guitars, a Ludwig drum set, a Fender amplifier and a bass amplifier which was not a very good one."
Although they recorded in Malay for the Philips EPs at their gigs they were doing more English songs than Malay songs. Nick said, "We did Malay songs but we were doing more English songs then. We played at tea dances then. We played at a lot of Malay weddings and Malay functions. Places like Golden Venus and Katong Palace. We had another singer then called Hamid. He sang the English songs, Jeffrey Din the Malay songs.
Hamid was not keen to sing Malay songs. You have to remember that in the Sixties Malay songs were very different from the R & B that we were doing." They appeared at a Malay wedding playing Tired Of Waiting and You Really Got Me. To local ears who wanted to hear melodic Malay songs it must have been indeed revolutionary to see a young band, bedecked in the latest r & b uniform, dark shades own pounding heart stopping r & b at loud volumes.
Siglap Five were influenced by British r & b happening then like Rolling Stones, Who and The Kinks. Nick remembered Rolling Stones and Kinks appearing in Singapore in 1965.
He said, "When the Kinks came to Singapore with the Rolling Stones, we skipped school to go and see the concert. the next day all of us were in trouble with the school authorities. We were caned in public. All the Siglap Five members. The
night of the concert was Chap Goh Meh night which is the 14th day after the Chinese Lunar New Year. We were in the afternoon session and we wanted to see them rehearse. We skipped school that day. The next day all five were called up."
Apart from British R & B, Siglap Five were also influenced by Singaporean bands who were playing R & B like The Antartics. Nick said, "A few bands were playing R & B. There was a band called The Hooks. The mixed commercial music and Shadows. Heavy R & B would be The Antartics. The Swallows too although they were not fully R
& B." They also played at youth clubs in the British army bases. Nick said, "Before we did the record we played a lot in the RAF. We played at their tea dances. Every Saturday at 4.00 pm we would play there. The teenagers there liked rhythm and blues. I guess that's where our influences in a way came from. They did not go for the Shadows music
which for one thing was not danceable. They liked the Kinks and Rolling Stones, that sort of thing."
After the first EP with Jeffrey Din the band started to tour. Nick said, "Every week we would do three or four shows. We would do a show in Batu Pahat (Johore state), then come back, leave again for another show in Kuantan (Pahang state) come back and then go elsewhere again. We went up to Sabah and Kota Kinabalu. In Trengganu we played in a football field which was filled with people. We found it difficult to get to the stage."
Siglap Five was significant because they were the first band to feature an organ in their line up. Up to that point groups had the typical line up of two guitars, bass and drums plus a singer. Keyboards were rare and if they were found they were playing jazz or playing as solo entertainers. With the utilisation of organ by the Siglap Five, bands now could feature an extra instrument in their line-up and take away of chording chores from the guitar players in the band. Further the sustaining qualities of the organ meant that chords could be made to ring and would not decay instantly. Nick said, "We did Mannfred Mann songs which had organ. We introduced the organ because of that. Hamidon used a Farfisa organ which the normal band organ then. Later we upgraded to a Vox organ which was a sponsorship deal."
Besides recording with Jeffrey Din, Siglap Five also released an EP in their own name. Apart from that they backed Evey Lyn on her single I Cried For You backed with Tell Me If It's True. Nick said, "She was under contract to Philips and since were under contract to them also, we were asked to back her. She was not a singer. I had to put
the vocal chart in front of her and coach her for the A side which was harder to sing. She was very beautiful and had a good body. You know why she was signed. The B side Tell Me If It's True with the handclaps was easier for her because it was a faster number."
They also backed Edison Eddie on his Philips EP. Nick said he was a very good looking Kadazan who was from either Sabah or Sarawak and he was known as the Elvis of East Malaysia.
To celebrate Hari Raya in 1967, Radio Malaysia held a special show called Pestarama in March 1967, that featured Siglap Five and their three singers, Jeffridin, Fatimah M Amin and Hussein Ismail.
Siglap Five and Jeffridin appeared at the Malam Vespa weekly performances sponsored by the East Asiatic Company which was held once a week at the Orchard Road showroom of Vespa scooters. East Asiatic Company which sponsored the shows to promote the scooters for which they were agents for Singapore also featured other groups like Heather
and The Thunderbirds and Zam Zam and The Twilights.
In October 1967 they backed Jeffrey Din on his Malay EP released by Philips. The songs were Puja'an Terhina composed by himself, Menari composed by lead guitarist Karim, Nad Suchi Untuk Mu composed by drummer A Karim and Adek Mu composed by organist Hamidon.
A change in the line-up came when drummer Ariffin departed and was replaced by Jaffar Kupe. Nick said, "The music changed too, because Kupe had very advanced ideas. Siglap Five as a band was unique because we had new ideas and no idea was turned away. Once on a recording, something was wrong with the echo tape. It gave a very funny sound. So
we called the song, "Peritiwa Di Awangan'. The beginning of the song was very echoish because of the spoilt echo tape. We kept the echo tape rolling and the song became a hit because of the intro and was in the charts for something like 26 weeks.
The band by this time began to play in clubs and was the substitute band on certain nights at the Golden Venus in the Orchard Hotel. Another contract they played was at the Wisma alternating with the Rollies from Indonesia. Siglap Five split up in 1968 as the band members were called up to do National Service. During their time however they made an impact being one of the early bands in the R & B field, arguably the first band in Singapore to use organ and the first band to record R & B in the Malay language field. They recorded three EPS with Jeffrey Din, one in their own right and two singles backing Evey Lyn and Edison Eddie. Not a bad way to sign off.
Singaporean Bands #1
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