Play it again, for Pam!
Jazz aficianados who grew up in India's metros, especially Kolkata and Mumbai, will remember the late Pam Crain's contribution to not just this genre but Indian English music
Those were the swinging 60s, when Kolkata was called Calcutta, and its Park Street was the hub of live entertainment in India. Mocambo, Trinca’s, Blue Fox and Moulin Rouge were the hot night spots, and the crowd loved Jazz. Pure and unadulterated.
Anglo-Indian singer Pam Crain had arrived at Mocambo as a 17-year-old. With a six-piece band led by Anton Menezes, she took the venue by storm. Later, in the early 70s, she joined keyboardist Louiz Banks and saxophonist Braz Gonsalves at Blue Fox, each time getting a huge round of applause.
Crain, who passed away on Wednesday morning, was one of the most admired personalities of Indian Jazz. Before her, another Anglo-Indian, the polio-inflicted Pamela McCarthy, was a popular figure on the Mumbai scene, but she migrated to Australia in the early 60s.
Introduced to the piano at the age of 13, Crain heard singers Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone, and decided to be a Jazz vocalist herself. Her gregarious personality, and her passion for her music, made her popular at Mocambo. British designer Kitty Bryanan made her mermaid-like flared dresses, and her distinct stage presence added to her charm.
Those days, there were many talented musicians in Kolkata. Louiz Banks spearheaded the Jazz movement. Sari-clad singer Usha Uthup was a rage at Trinca’s, guitarist Carlton Kitto would play at Moulin Rouge, and well-known saxophonist ‘Jazzy’ Joe Pereira earlier played at Blue Fox. Bassist Lew Hilt, singer Donald Saigal, the bands Skinny Alley and Fentones (featuring Shillong vocalist Lou Majaw) and Australian singer Marie Samson played at various Park Street venues.
Braz Gonsalves was already a big name, and Bangalore boy Biddu often visited the city to play at Trinca’s, before he got into the Disco and Pop scene abroad. Though jazz was the flavour, musicians played Rock, Pop and evergreens too, depending on the mood. On the recording front, Pam appeared with Braz on a brilliant version of ‘No Amount of Loving’, a song popularised by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Banks, Gonsalves and she recorded the six-track album, Explorations.
Banks kept expanding his band, the Louiz Banks Brotherhood, getting Kitto and Donald Saigal too. In the mid-1970s, he moved to Mumbai and soon began playing with RD Burman, who was a regular visitor at Blue Fox. Pam did many shows in Mumbai, at the Taj, Oberoi and Rang Bhavan. She married Donald Saigal, and they appeared in concerts together. Later, she also developed a passion for Carnatic music.
Pam’s death marks a huge loss to English singing in India. With saxophonist ‘Jazzy’ Joe Pereira passing away in June, it comes as a double blow to the country’s Jazz scene, which over the years, has seen some phenomenal talent. Ask anybody who’s frequented the Park Street joints in Kolkata in the 1960s and Rs 70s, and they will have loads of melodious tales to tell.