The Quests... performing at the Singapore Badminton Hall in the '60s. From left: Jap Chong, Reggie Verghese, Henry Chua (partly hidden) and Wee Guan.

In the mid-’60s, The Quests were among the biggest pop groups in Singapore and the region. They had the chart-topping singles and records. They had built up a fan base at home. Next was the TOUR. In his book, "Call It Shanty!" — The Story Of The Quests, bassist HENRY CHUA talks about the excitement of the young band going abroad; their surprise at the fervour of their fans in both East and West Malaysia and the ruckus that followed when they went on the road in 1966. The following article is excerpted from the book.
Click here to order the book.

The Quests with Jap, Henry and Reggie at the Helen Shapiro show at the Singapore Badminton Hall in 1964.

EAST MALAYSIA: This is one of my most memorable tours. It was organised by Cathay Organisation, the cinema chain. The tour was scheduled for East Malaysia during August 1966. There were a total of 42 shows covering eight towns, beginning from Kuching in Sarawak on Aug 2 to Jesselton (now known as Kota Kinabalu) in Sabah on Aug 26.

The other towns visited were Sibu, Brunei, Seria, Miri, Labuan and Sandakan. Another town, Tawau, which was in the original itinerary, was cancelled as it was close to the Indonesian-Kalimantan border. Indonesia had started a confrontation towards the newly-formed Malaysia and there was a spate of bombings targeted at crowded places. We were glad the Tawau shows were cancelled. I could imagine the great risks involved in playing to a packed house so close to the Indonesian border.

The night before we left, on Aug 1, we stayed in the studio to finish the recording of our first album. By about 6 pm we had put down on tape In A World Of Our Own and My Favourite Things, the latter from the film, The Sound Of Music.

We went for a quick dinner at the corner coffee shop next to McDonald House (where the EMI studio was), and then got back to the studio to rehearse for the tour till midnight. The air-condition system was shut off and we had no choice but to rehearse in the sweltering heat. I remember guitarist Jap Chong was perspiring so much that he stripped right down to his briefs while we choreographed our steps. It was a comical sight watching him with his red Jazzmaster hung on his shoulders and doing the "Shadows walk" half-naked. Today, it would have been a scream if we had incorporated it in our act. In those days to appear half-naked would be unthinkable! Jap could have been the original inspiration to Madonna, had he not been too early.

Performing at the Fraser & Neave Hall in River Valley Road in the '60s. From left: Jap, Henry and Reggie.

We were the first big act to arrive in East Malaysia and therefore received the biggest billing this part of the country had ever seen. I remember stepping out of the plane at Kuching airport and being welcome by an entourage of reporters and radio announcers. Each of us was garlanded with a ring of flowers by some good looking girls. The reporters were all hovering around us as we walked out of the airport to the waiting limousines. They started throwing random questions, hoping to receive some answers. After a quick photo session we were whisked straight from the airport to the Radio Sarawak broadcasting station. We did an interview, which was recorded and broadcast on the same afternoon.

After the interview, we performed some of our hit songs and tunes in the studio, which were recorded and broadcast as well. We were then rushed off to our hotel for a short break before going to the venue to set up our equipment and balance the sound for the evening’s shows.

It took us two hours before we completed our stage setup and the sound test. I noticed at one side of the stage there was a banner advertisement for Fender musical instruments, which were what we had brought along for the tour. During the sound test, we learnt that all the tickets for the shows were completely sold out and touts were selling tickets at three times the normal price.

We went back to the hotel for dinner, a quick shower and a change of clothes and rushed back to the venue for the first show. It was a hectic schedule.

As our vehicle neared the cinema where the shows were held, we noticed a large gathering of people, hundreds of them, milling around the compound of the cinema complex. Policemen were busy trying to control the crowd. We thought an accident had happened, or perhaps a riot had occurred.

Our driver tried to pull up close to the rear entrance, but the crowd gathered around our vehicle, tapping the windows and waving excitedly at us. It then dawned on us that these were our fans. The crowd surrounded us as we got out of the car to get into the rear entrance. They were happy to see us and tried to touch us and shake our hands as we squeezed past them to get into the theatre.

Just when we thought we were safe in our dressing room, a reporter came in and requested an interview. He had somehow sneaked in the back door to meet us. We were ready to oblige but the Cathay management led him out as they were afraid the show would not begin on time if we did the interview.

Wilson David with The Quests at the Goodwood Park Hotel Arundel Room. The band had to maintain their volume at a respectable level so as not to compete with the sound made by the cutlery of the diners.

We started the show with a rousing curtain riser. The tune we chose was Rhythm And Greens from the Shadows movie of the same name. It was an easy 12-bar boogie, which we pieced together very quickly during the previous night’s rehearsal in the EMI studio. There was a lot of "ooohs" and "ahhhs" in the tune, which served to put the audience in the right mood for what was to come next.

We had never played to such an appreciative crowd before. During most parts of the show we could hardly hear ourselves because of the screams from the audience. People got up and danced in the aisle to the music. The police on duty did not stop them, they simply smiled and enjoyed the show too.

We were originally scheduled for three evenings in Kuching doing two shows each evening. But due to the overwhelming response and success we had to extend another night. And as there was no dedicated concert hall at that time the shows were always held at movie halls.

We had to do two shows every evening in almost every town. One was at 7 pm and the other at 9.30 pm. Each show lasted about two hours. By the first 30 minutes, our shirts were soaking from our perspiration. In between shows we were rushed to our hotel for a quick change of clothes.

Some of the other songs we did were Silly Girl, I’ll Be Your Man, Shanty, Tea Break, The Sound Of Music, My Prayer — a Platters’ favourite and some Supremes numbers like Baby Love, which guitarist Reggie Verghese sang in falsetto with the rest of us backing in thirds.

On one of the evenings when we got back to change in between shows, we discovered that our rooms were broken into. It was the work of some fans. But they did not take much except some shirts, hankies and underwear. We guessed they wanted them to keep as souvenirs. I thought these things only happened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones!

The daily newspapers were filled with articles about The Quests and rave reviews of the previous evening’s shows. We were all instantly recognised and mobbed when we went out to Kuching town for lunch and a little shopping. The fans were everywhere. We had to sign our autographs on almost anything. On their hands, arms, magazines, diaries, on the backs of T-shirts and so on. Some gave us flowers and chocolates. We received lots of hugs and kisses.

We left Kuching reluctantly after our concerts. There were tearful fans at the backstage door and at the hotel on the night of our last show. They had come with flowers and little souvenirs. Many brought along our records for us to autograph. We also had to oblige many by posing for photographs with them. It was at least past midnight by the time we returned to our rooms.

Our mode of transportation between the towns was mostly by van or jeep. However, we arrived in Brunei from Sibu by air. It was a Dakota twin propeller aircraft, which landed on the grass runway.

That evening we performed at the Cathay Cinema. We were informed that the Crown Prince of Brunei was in the audience in the front row. As the show started, I began to feel rather queasy, not because of the presence of his Royal Highness, but because I was coming down with a flu due to the stress and the travelling. Halfway into the act I felt I simply could not continue playing. Instinctively I handed my bass guitar over to vocalist Vernon Cornelius, as he was the only other person on the stage with his hands unoccupied. I then struggled off backstage to flop on an armchair. Poor Vernon! He was absolutely dumbfounded. He could play some chords on a six-string guitar, but had never played bass before. In that split second, I actually left him no choice but to hang the bass over his neck and he pretended to play. He faked it for the next half dozen songs while I tried to recover backstage.

I must say he actually did a very good job, as even in my weak state, I could still listen to his notes. Of course, there were some little odd excusable mistakes but they were not glaring enough except to the very discerning ear. I managed to get back on stage in the later part of the show after a couple of Aspirins to finish the gig.

With Mr Dynamite Keith Locke... the group could have arrived before The Who but they did not have the heart to smash their guitars. From left: Wee, Jap, Henry, Keith and Reggie.

The next day, we proceeded to Seria by road. I arrived dead sick with the flu and immediately got to my room to sleep. While trying to do so I heard knocking on the door, but was too ill to answer. An hour or so later the knocking resumed. I managed to crawl to the door to open it, expecting to be greeted by some autograph-hunting fan.

Instead I found the cinema manager standing in front of me. He had come to fetch me to the doctor. He was a really kind man. I felt sorry that he had reddened his knuckles from all the knocking on my door. We arrived at the clinic and the doctor confirmed I had the flu. He asked me if I was allergic to penicillin. I was not sure, so he injected a test dose and asked me to wait for a while. As I did not go into convulsion or anything of that sort from the test, he gave me the whole dose. We thanked him. There was no bill. Public clinics in Brunei are free even until today. I recovered very quickly during that afternoon and was prancing happily again on the stage that evening.

As our vehicle neared the cinema where the shows were held, we noticed a large gathering of people, hundreds of them, milling around the compound of the cinema complex. We thought an accident had occured. It then dawned on us that these were our fans. The crowd surrounded us as we got out of the car to get into the rear entrance. They were happy to see us and tried to touch us and shake our hands as we squeezed past them to get into the theatre.

PENINSULAR MALAYSIA: Based on the success of the East Malaysian tour, Cathay organised another one the following month.

It lasted from Sept 15 to 30 and took us to Johor Bahru, Kluang, Batu Pahat, Tampin, Port Dickson, Klang, Bentong, Raub, Kuantan, Kota Bahru, Kuala Trengganu, Seremban, Malacca and Muar.

Something happened during this tour that we would never forget. We were on the Raub cinema stage in Pahang, and a quarter way into our act. Reggie was trying to adjust the height of his microphone stand when there was a sudden spark of electric current from the stand. He stumbled back and fell right on to my bass amplifier, toppling the equipment. He lay down still for a few seconds. There was no reaction from the audience. They must have thought it was part of the act as The Quests acts were full of surprises. I was frozen stiff for a while as I thought he was gone.

Someone quickly got the curtains to close. We huddled around Reg. Thankfully, he was not harmed. He took a sip of water and very soon recovered from the shock. He regained his composure and we resumed the show. We had to take care that we did not come into contact with the microphone stand so as to prevent the leakage current from playing havoc again.

Thank goodness Reg recovered from the accident. If anything adverse were to happen that evening it could have meant the end of the tour, and the group. There would never be tunes like Roller Coaster Man or some of our later hits.

The next morning while we were having breakfast at our hotel, Reg received a concerned telephone call from his father who had read in the Singapore Straits Times about the incident. Reg assured him that everything was all right and we were proceeding with the rest of the shows.

The rest of the tour proved to be equally exciting and educational for us. We ran into all kinds of problems along the way.

We were on our way to Kuala Trengganu from Kuantan, when the engine overheated. As we did not carry any spare water, someone got the great idea of using some plastic bags to fill up water from the rice fields. It worked until the leaking radiator drained all the water again. So it was a matter of stopping every five kilometres or so to top up the radiator. We were grateful the farmers did not mind us taking the water from their fields. We finally arrived in the town very late in the evening. Luckily for us, there were no shows scheduled for the evening.

It was also on this tour that I had my first experience of migrating birds. We were at a small town called Bentong in the central highlands of the mainland peninsular of Malaysia. There were thousands of swallows flocking in the sky. We were told they had flown all the way from China. The sheer number blocked out the setting sun, hastening the dusk. In the evening as we took an after-dinner stroll on the main street, we could still see them perched on the electrical overhead lines running along the stretch of the town. Directly beneath the lines their droppings could be seen. We were careful not to become their innocent targets.

The last stop of the tour was the town of Muar. I was beginning to feel the strain of the tour and ended up getting sick on our way back. I could not eat anything the whole day and was feeling nauseous during the return journey to Singapore. I was puking all along the whole route with my head out of the window and leaving a trail of my digestive juices on the road. It seemed like an endless journey to me. We arrived home in the afternoon with me as sick as a dog. I quickly got home and flopped onto bed, completely bushed!

* * * * *

A live concert appearance was the easiest job. We commanded from $1,500 to $2,000 for a 20-minute appearance. It was easy and big money then. We were the crowd puller and the show organisers could not do without us. We could also demand special treatment, like top billing, appearing in the slot just after the interval, our own dressing room, refreshments, paid transportation, special microphones and so on. All the time our requests were met. In retrospect, I still believe our requests were quite mild and basic. I am sure today, our local TV stars are better treated.

We considered every show very seriously and always had a plan for each of them. Each of us was aware that the Quests needed to be very different from the average neighbourhood band who was happy just to be playing the right chords and to be singing in tune. We had set ourselves a standard which we did not want to compromise and were therefore meticulous in the planning of our act, right down to how deep we should bow to the audience.

The repertoire had to be selected first. We always tried to have a good mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers for our set.

Once the repertoire was agreed upon, only then did we begin our rehearsals. Most of the rehearsals were done at Jap’s place in Tiong Bahru. Sometimes we were lucky to be able to use the EMI studios in the evenings. I will try to paint you as detailed as possible what went on during a typical rehearsal.

My phone would ring and Jap would be on the other end.

"Hey Henry, band practice this Friday, two o’clock, my place," he said.

"Have you called Reg yet?" I would sometimes ask. I did not refer to Wee as he stayed only four apartments away from Jap in the same block on the ground floor and I always assumed he would have done so.

"Yeah, I already did. Can you find the chords for Bus Stop? he replied, referring to a popular Herman’s Hermit’s song, which he might like to sing for the show.

Being the official "Chord Finder" of the group, I got down to work.

Come Friday, Wee (drummer Lim Wee Guan) and I would be at Jap’s place just before two. Both of us were usually the early ones. Jap would sometimes be home when we went over. Sometimes he would still be at the movies with his girlfriend.

At slightly over two, Reg would appear in a taxi. He would want to grab something for lunch first, as he had not eaten. We would accompany him to have his noodles at the coffee shop opposite. In between noodles, we would discuss the suggested repertoire.

We would then cross the Moh Guan Terrace road to Jap’s place. The first thing we did was to get our guitars in tune. As a guitar was being tuned, the rest of the boys tried to keep as quiet as possible as everything was done by ear. I noticed sometimes with a less-experienced group, everyone would be tuning at the same time. The result was sure to be catastrophic.

Once the guitars were tuned, I would show them the chord charts for the songs I had prepared. I only needed to prepare those new numbers. For the more familiar tunes that we could play by heart, we just had to run through them quickly.

We would also memorise the new tunes by playing them over and over again until we could play them instinctively. As far as we could, we would also try to add some stage choreography in our act. We would rehearse this part in the more spacious living room.

As Jap lived on the ground floor of the block, we would usually shut all the windows when we rehearsed for some privacy. However, this did not prevent our fans from climbing and perching on the window ledge to peep in at the free show. They were all very appreciative though. We would sometimes let some of our close friends in and even asked their opinions on our act.

We were also very fastidious about our overall appearance in front of the audience. We had to decide on the suits to wear, right down to the similar shoes and socks. We even had to agree what Vernon or Jap was to say to the audience over the microphone.

We sometimes stuck little cue notes on the back of our guitars. These had the repertoire written on them. They were also used to mark some personal cues too. For example, Wee might want to remind himself which songs he needed to cue us in, or perhaps a change of key in the song for us to note.

We usually arrived in the afternoon at the venue of the show to conduct our sound check, spending at least an hour or so. The equipment was thoroughly checked and rechecked during the sound tests.

We were particularly careful with the guitar leads. The leads we used were at least 20 feet in length. We needed these so as to enable us to fan out and take up positions right at the front of the stage, instead of being shackled to our amplifiers by short leads. Wireless transmitters were not available then. We also made sure we carried some spare leads on the stage. The only things we did not have as spares were the guitars. We simply could not afford another spare set of guitars. In fact, in those days no other local groups did, for the same reason. If a string broke it was plain hard luck, although sometimes another group might quickly loan you another guitar from the side of the stage. But as we all knew, playing on someone else’s axe would never be the same. Luckily for the group, Reg and myself had never broken a string on the stage. Jap however, was not so fortunate. He constantly broke his strings.

The way we positioned ourselves on stage was pre-determined. From the audience’s perspective, Jap was always on the left, Reggie on the right, and myself in the centre. As the three of us were about the same height, visually we looked better than most groups. Wee would normally be perched high up on the drum rostrum if there was one.

It seemed to be a great line up even till today whenever we get together for a reunion concert. Over and above all, alertness to each other is a priority during live concerts. We simply deplore false starts and un-coordinated endings to a song. We figured that if we could begin and end a song together, then everything in the middle would fall in place easily.

Every guitarist knows that it is one of the most sickening moments when you break a string during a performance.

Well, The Quests had our fair share of such experiences. Reggie and myself had burst some strings before, but the champion title must surely go to Jap. Somehow it seemed his habit to burst a string while strumming his guitar, and during a performance too!

Luckily for us, the Jazzmaster he normally used came with a tremolo-arm lock. That is to say the action of the tremolo, or vibrato arm, as some may prefer to call it, is defeated when the lock is in operation. A broken string would hence not affect the guitar tuning when the lock is in the "on" position. But we would still lose the full tone of the chord. Imagine a note missing from a triad! Unless it was a stage concert, we would take a break while he put on a new string and retune, whenever it happened.

We were glad that he was not using a Stratocaster then, as this model does not feature a tremolo lock.

He usually bursts the high-E or the B string. But there was a time when even the low-E became a victim of his aggressive rhythm.

Reggie was a great guitarist widely admired and followed. He still is. He was Singapore’s first guitar hero. Many other groups tried to emulate his playing style and his sound but mostly without much success. He had never learnt music formally although his sister, Clara, was a piano teacher. He amazed us by playing the piano too. I wished I had half of his talent. He could simply ad-lib a phrase without any pre-arrangement. Most of the guitar lines in our records were done in the studio. Before the takes, all he had to do was to fiddle around with the chords and suddenly produce those famous phrases. It was amazing.

In spite of all his ingenuity, he had never mastered the knack of setting up his equipment. I suppose good musicians do not make good technicians. All the while before any gig or stage show, either Jap or myself had to plug in his amp and effects for him. He only had to plug his guitar into the echo effect like a star. We were simply his unpaid roadies.

One day, during a sound test, he called out to me from the stage. "Henry, help lah, there’s no sound from my guitar."

Of course, he tried to play his guitar without even plugging it in! Sometimes he panicked because he forgot to switch on the standby switch of the amp. Well, we have a lot of other stories on Reg too. Often he could be a little baby being the youngest in the group. But luckily all of us understood him well and therefore tolerated him well too.

We performed at many of the RAF (Royal Air Force) Camps. There were three RAF bases where we performed regularly — Changi, Tengah and Seletar. The Quests Combo usually did these contracts, although at the beginning only the four-member group appeared.

Some enlisted servicemen who had seen us at a tea dance told their camp’s social committee to invite us. The first contract we received was from Changi camp. The members of the mess were mostly young servicemen. We did a lot of Beatles and Shadows numbers. I remember doing Please Please Me, She Loves You, I Should Have Known Better, I Want To Hold Your Hand and other hits. Another Beatles number we did was If I Fell, which was a three-part harmony with Reg, Jap and myself. Vernon was not with us yet. This was in early 1964.

We initially played as a guest band on the dance floor with the audience around us. The sessions usually lasted about an hour. Everyone stood around us to watch and listen. Sometimes they would break into a rock ‘n’ roll dance with their partners.

We drank a lot. We drank a lot of free beer. Correction, Jap and Reggie drank a lot of free beer.

In the beginning, we performed mostly as a four-piece group with Reg, Jap, Wee and myself. We were doing a lot of Shadows, Jumping Jewels pieces. Jap starred in the Cliff Richard songs, and all of us chipped in to harmonise the Beatles numbers. Sometimes we performed on the dance floor as a guest artist group, other times we were the resident band on the stage for the whole evening. For the second type of contract we needed to prepare at least 70 to 80 tunes in our repertoire to last us for a four-hour evening.

The money was good. The group was receiving about $500 for each gig. We did not split this immediately. The money was banked into an account managed by Mrs Devan for us. I must give credit to this extraordinary lady. Being the A&R manager of EMI she not only managed our professional well-being, but also our personal matters. She took it upon herself, without any payment from us, to try and run our monthly accounts.

From this account we drew our fixed monthly pay. We were lucky to get about six to eight contracts a month to keep us going. Together with the radio and TV shows and the live concerts we were quite happy with what we were earning. For sure, we were the highest paid band in town then. Imagine just some three years ago we were paid the paltry sum of $20 for a whole evening’s work! We had arrived, or so we thought.

There was a period when we were two bands. We had the usual lineup with the four of us and Keith Locke. At the same time we also played as The Quests Combo. The Combo did not perform as a stage act, only as a dance band. Reggie’s elder brother, Alan, and another friend, Rajan, enjoyed following the group to the RAF gigs. Besides the free beers (as they passed off as our roadies), there were the opportunities with the girls too. The band was too busy on stage almost the whole evening and did not have much opportunity to strike up any close relationship with our fans and groupies. Alan and Rajan were on the floor and had all the opportunities.

Soon after we thought why not add some Latin percussion to the band. Thus was born the Quests Combo.

Alan chose to play conga drums, while Rajan played the timbales. Another of Reggie’s friend, Eugene Seow, joined the combo on tenor saxophone. On and off, we had another friend, named Moody, playing piano. Otherwise Reggie would play the piano and the vibraphone. The combo taught me a lot musically. We were into Latin and jazz standards as we played very frequently at the Officers’ Mess at the RAF camps.

The officers and their wives were great dancers and they wanted more variety of music to dance to besides rock ‘n’ roll. We had to work hard on our repertoire to ensure a steady stream of contracts. I remember we hired a piano for a few months, at Wee’s place for the combo rehearsals. Imagine a cramped living room with seven musicians and their equipment. There were cables and percussive instruments everywhere. To excuse oneself to the toilet, one needed to be very careful not to trip over Eugene’s saxophone or Reggie’s Strat, otherwise hell would break loose.

We practised and played a lot of Latin numbers, or at least evergreen melodies rendered in rhumba or cha cha rhythm. Occasionally, we threw in a couple of tangos like La Paloma or La Cumpasita. We tried to emulate famous Latin bands like the Edmundo Ross, Prez Prado or the Xavier Cugat orchestra. My father’s tango records came in handy instantly.

We enjoyed the gigs the combo had at the camps. It was always a fun social evening. Imagine a hired van piled with musical equipment travelling from Jap’s home in Tiong Bahru with the three of us to pick up the other four along the way to the evening’s venue. We would usually pick up Reg and Alan at Bukit Timah, then to Serangoon for Rajan and then to Sennett Estate to pick Eugene. Unfortunately after the gig the four of them also dropped off after supper, leaving Jap, Wee, the van driver and myself to lug the instruments back to Jap’s home.

The gigs were very enjoyable for us and there were also some interesting and amusing episodes on some evenings.

I can never forget this one. Eugene’s favourite tune was Stranger On The Shore, a tune made very popular by Acker Bilk, a British clarinet player whom, I was informed, learnt to play while serving as a POW during World War II. I must say he, I mean Eugene, did the tune fairly well if he managed the correct lipping and the reed in the mouthpiece did not misbehave. If you could tolerate the occasional squeak it was quite listenable. He performed the tune at almost every gig. It was his signature act.

One evening while we were playing at RAF Tengah Officers’ Mess, an officer came up to the bandstand and requested to jam with us. He had brought along his instrument, an alto saxophone. Of course we could not refuse his request and he happily got up on stage and began blowing his horn so expertly that we all could not help noticing Eugene trying to melt into the corner. You bet we did not hear Eugene’s saxophone very much that evening, let alone Stranger On The Shore. It remained in its carrying case for the rest of the evening. The next time when we had another gig at the same place Eugene made sure that our horn blowing friend was not around before he attempted his signature tune. Eugene was a very friendly chap. Years later, he went abroad to study advertising and, ultimately, became the big boss of Ogilvy & Mather in Singapore. He later left to start Ball Associates. We met again in later years at a friend’s place.

Another episode happened at the McGregor’s Club at the Tengah base. McGregor’s was an NCO’s club and therefore much rowdier.

That evening the men were treated to a topless revue. There were six showgirls who paraded around and danced to taped music. We were on the stage when the act came on. As the music sped up there was some vigorous dancing and, as one of the girls jumped and landed on a scissors-split position, her G-string came undone. The fighting men roared in wild excitement.

There were deafening catcalls and table thumpings while the poor lass fumbled to arrange her flimsy costume back in place. We never knew what they saw, but it must have surely made their day! The next time when there was another such act, you could be certain we would not be so silly as to be on the wrong side of the stage.

Note: The above is an excerpt from Henry Chua's 'Call It Shanty!' - The Story Of The Quests.
CLICK HERE: To order the book.

For more... email with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."