My days in Singapore, working at RTS in the orchestra.
By Leslie Weddell.
I do not think of myself as an ‘expat’ worker, although it may appear so as I was not Singapore born, because all the British expats had long gone by the time I joined the RTS orchestra.
For the ten years I worked in the Radio & television Orchestra in the period 1964 to 1974 or thereabouts, and as a young lad, I loved every minute of it.
Singapore was going through a period of rebuild after WW2 and it was going to be a long haul because there was little or no money for the Government to finance a vast rebuild of the republic for the nation, to give future generations a real chance to work with pride and enjoy better health and remove the poverty of those desperate years.
Because of the shortage of local trombone players at that time of a standard good enough for broadcasting, staff orchestra positions were offered to anyone that wished to audition for the vacant post.
I was serving in the British Royal Marines Band in ‘HMS Terror’ in the (then) Royal Navy base at Sembawang, and we all used to listen to the radio on the wall of our barrack room, the very same blocks that the Japanese Forces occupied when Singapore fell to them from the British Forces.
There was no television in those days, and the radio was king, along with the person putting on the records at request times. Today we would call the presenter a ‘D.J’.
Being a trombone player, I was always interested in the RTS Big Band playing every week, and one day I bucked up enough courage to write in to the ‘Director of Music at RTS, Caldecott Hill’ !
I was flabbergasted to actually get a reply, and a well written letter in lovely handwriting from Gus Stein, the then Orchestra Leader. He invited me to come to one of the recordings and to say ‘hello’ to the boys in the band.
The first thing I found out was that the studio in which the band made their recordings was FREEZING! All the personnel were sitting there with coats or woolly jumpers on to keep warm, so besides the music they were recording I most certainly enjoyed getting back in the heat of the day on the tea break in the canteen.
Gus asked how long I had been playing the trombone and as he had only three trombones in his section at most on the recordings, would I like to make up the full compliment of four trombones that big bands use, and could I bring my trombone in the following week for a sit-in with the band.
It was a try-out of course, and I must have passed it, for he asked if I would have any problems getting out of the Band duties I had with the Marines in the Naval Base, and I had none, for when I told my Band officer about my wonderful experience at RTS he was delighted, and urged me to ‘go for it.’
So I played with the RTS big band for a few weeks until the resident trombonist left.
It was really all a lucky break for me, since at that very time the British Government decided to cut the size of the armed forces and I, along with anyone else that wanted to, could buy our discharge from the Service.
It all went through the channels and within a few weeks I found myself a civilian and driving through the gates of ‘HMS Terror’ in a taxi for the very last time.
For ten long and happy years I played with the RTS Orchestra, and I recall the jobs we played for; everything from radio and Television band programmes, song contests, street galas, official functions for heads of State and visiting foreign dignitaries to parties next to Chinese opera performances. We always had a laugh when we had to play in a street carnival for sure as little green apples, as soon as we started playing a piece of music with a young lady singing her heart out - the Chinese opera band would start up too!
Ahmad Jaafar would simply grin at us and say ‘ Alamat!’ and we would all roar with laughter for there was no way we could compete with that lot.
Before I came to the end of my stay in Singapore I met, and fell in love with, a lovely lady named Zarah, and we have been married now for 38 years and have three grown up children; Zarinah, Stephen and Richard, and we have now got a granddaughter named Kateejah.
Life after Singapore
My return to the UK was in the month of May in 1974, and so the transition from the lovely tropic heat of Singapore was not too bad, and I soon acclimatized.
It was a rude shock though to witness at first hand a completely different culture in Britain from Singapore. I could not believe my eyes at the drab, black clothing of the young; the long hair and massive boots they wore, looking as if they were all going to a funeral.
Walking through the streets of London I was window shopping and my eyes found something called a Sex Shop. I was totally astounded at what I saw in that window! It was disgusting to me, for I had left a good society of folks with clean minds in Singapore, and was wondering what I had let myself in for coming back to the UK.
A job working as a musican was not hard to find, and via a Band booking Agent, I secured a summer season theatre post in the pit orchestra of the ‘Pavilion’ theatre in Torquay for four months. Torquay is a pleasant seaside resort in the county of Devon in South East England and is very popular with holiday makers.
By this time my wife had joined me from Singapore and it was time to think about setting up a home and finding a secure job, so at the end of the summer run on the theatre I headed with my wife for my Mother’s house in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, Scotland.
I soon found out that it was not going to be easy finding work as a trombone player in Scotland, so I worked for a short time as a labourer on a building site and that was tough. I have immense respect for anyone that is a builder or works as a brick layer on those jobs, and then I decided to move back to London to look for work as a musician.
Some theatre work came along deputising for other established trombone players, and eventually I attended an audition in a London studio for another summer season job with a band in a holiday camp in Southport, a small seaside town near Liverpool.
I stayed with that band for two years, going on cruise ships in the Caribbean during the winter months and returning to the holiday camp for the summer seasons.
In my time living in Southport I decided that it was not fair to my wife to be away from home so long on those cruise ships for five months at a time, and decided to take a teaching job with the local education authority. I was teaching music to children in Primary schools in the area and working casual gigs (engagements) in bands in Liverpool and Manchester on the weekends, and one thing leading to another, I found myself moving to Blackpool in Lancashire, for I had found a really good job as staff trombonist with the (then) Blackpool Tower Company.
I played in the Opera House theatre for all the big stars of the era such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Tony Christie, Matt Munro, and many more. As my job required, I also played as a member of the Empress Ballroom orchestra, and had the pleasure of performing with them for 29 years on all the World Ballroom Dancing Championships before I took retirement in November of 1999.
There were other good jobs too, for I eventually played trombone with the Northern Dance Orchestra (not really known in Singapore, but very famous in Britain in the seventies and eighties) and other jobs I had short spells with, such as the New Geraldo orchestra, UK Glenn Miller Orchestra, Eric Delaney big band, BBC Big band, and numerous studio sessions in Leeds, Manchester and London.
Finally moving to my present home in Preston, Lancashire, twenty two years ago I concentrated on teaching children to play music and have been with the Lancashire Music service for over twenty years.
Although I no longer play professionally in bands I do a little part time teaching with children in Preston Primary schools.
One of my interests or hobbies is writing books, and I love photography too.
I have a website at www.James1-Stirling.webs.com and besides my publications on it there is a more extensive bio of my travels as a trombonist.
You are welcome to visit the website and use anything you wish from my light hearted book ‘Have trombone will travel’
Les Weddell email is email@example.com He is planning a trip to Singapore and if there are any Caldecott Hill Old timers who would like to meet him to chit-chat and recall old memories please contact.
Please keep me informed if you guys are getting together. Cheers.