The Fabulous Usha Iyer & The Flintstones
Blues Train – His Master’s Voice – NE 1006 India 1969
I’ve decided to feature two 7’s this time around, as this some what lost and elusive coupling from Usha Iyer, who these days is more commonly known as Usha Uthup, should not be separated. Obviously I’m still hanging on to that recent India experience, that happily refuses to leave from beneath my skin.
Usha Iyer was born on November 8th, 1947, into a Tamil brahmin family that hailed from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in Madras (now Chennai). She has three sisters, all of whom are singers, and two brothers, herself being the the fifth of six children. As a child, she lived in the police quarters at Lovelane in Byculla in Bombay and attended a local school (her father Sami Iyer, later became the police commissioner of Bombay). When she was in music classes at school, she was a bit of a musical misfit, because “she didn’t fit in” with a voice like hers. But thankfully her music teacher did see something, and recognised her passion and determination, and would encourage her with simple instruments like clappers and the triangle.
Even though she was not formally trained in music, she grew up in an atmosphere of music. Her parents used to listen to a wide range from Western classical to Hindustani and Carnatic. “Along with Beethoven and Mozart, we listened to Bade Ghulam Ali, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, K.C. De, Pankaj Mullick, Manna De, Shyamal Mitra M. S. Subbulakshmi, and a host of other great classical and modern masters,” reminisces Usha to The Tribune India. Her next door neighbour was S.M.A. Pathan, who was then the deputy commissioner of police. His daughter, Jamila, inspired Usha to learn Hindi, wear salwar kameez and take up Indian classical music. This fusion approach helped her to pioneer her unique brand of Indian pop in the 70s. Her first public singing occurred when she was nine. Her sisters who were already exploring a music career, took her to a musician called Hamir Sayani who gave her an opportunity to sing on the Ovaltine Music Hour in Radio Ceylon. She sang a number called Mockingbird Hill, and several more appearances followed through in her teenage years. A 20 year old Usha started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gem, which was in the basement of the Safire Theater complex . Her performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked her to stay on for a week. She also began singing in Calcutta at night clubs such as Talk of the Town, now known as Not Just Jazz By The Bay, and the infamous Trincas.
Trincas – In 1969, when performing at nightclubs and restaurants was considered taboo, Usha became the highest-paid crooner in Chennai, Kolkata and New Delhi. But in the beginning it was nervous times for Usha. Trincas, originally a Tea Room owned by the eponymous Mr Trincas, was converted into a nightclub in 1959, an run by Om Prakash Puri and Ellis Joshua. It went on to become the launch pad for many acts of the Indian live music scene. The hip club was more in trend with Anglo-Indians, fair-skinned and blonde haired glamours, so when Usha asked if she was allowed to perform in her sari, she was relieved to get managements full support. On 1 October 1969, some of the stereotypes surrounding female nightclub singers in India were shattered. That is when a young Usha Iyer took the spotlight at the crowded restaurant, wearing her sari and her hair lit up in flowers, and singing Little Willie John’s Fever. The first reaction of the crowd was one of disbelief, but they quickly fell in love with her and the club and patrons accepted her whole-heartedly! Also in those days, female singers in bars had to get a permit from Lalbazar, the police headquarters, with strict guidelines forbidding interaction with guests or soliciting. It basically meant that she wasn’t allowed to socailise with guests or sit at their tables. However Usha did break the rule once, and that was the moment she found her husband Jani.
This early recording period of Usha Iyer is very difficult to track, with even her official website failing to mention anything about these “Flintstones” recordings. I can tell you that in 1968, Usha recorded what was supposedly her first 45, released on the His Master’s Voice label (45-N.79858), where she was labelled as just Usha. Hecke Kingdom, who cut a distinctive figure on the Bombay jazz stage in the 1950s and ’60s with his enormous baritone saxophone, recorded the sessions with his Jazz Quartet. The two compositions were covers, the first was Hank Williams Jambalaya and then flipped with The Kingston Trio’s Green Back Dollar, and are apparently the only tracks he recorded on vinyl during his whole career.
Now it seems there was a popular “house” band at Trincas that went by the name of The Flintstones, and by the sounds of it, they were very impressionable and were a group that really left quite a heavy stamp on the face of the late 60’s-early 70’s Indian rock music scene. As this is also the time that Usha was playing at Trincas, I have to assume that this is the same band that appears on these two featured 7″ records. Apparently this cult band were the big deal, could consistently pack out the venue and could get some pretty wild dancers in action. There must have been some pretty crazy nights there on Park Street, with other psychedelic rock acts also appearing such The Combustibles, The Savages, The Fentones, The Playboys and other bands with names like Black Cactus, The Urge and The Hurricanes.
From what I can work out, band members of The Flintstones were Eddy Ranger (lead vocals), Noel Martin (bass), Claton Saunders, Rhett May, and possibly Gautam Chatterjee, who was also playing at Trincas with another band, The Urge. It was the seventeen year old Clayton Saunders, who it seems was a musical genius from a young age, formed this band that took India by storm. Not long after this lively Indian rock spell, he would move over to my home country of Australia, and became successful with the country bands Hotspurs and Stoney Creek. At the tender age of 11, Saunders became the youngest talent to perform regularly on All India Radio’s renowned program The Children’s Hour. Rhett May also left the band and headed for Australia, and was in a band called Lucifer in the 1970s, and he is still quite active in the music scene releasing records today. Noel Martin still to this day, plays at Trincas, with his band Sweet Agitation, which was formed in 1984. I did track down evidence of another Flintstones 45 which was released in 1968, again on the HMV label (45 POPV 8085), with the tracks titled Be Mine and Happy By My Side, a mover credited to Clayton Saunders, that one could believe to have come from a Beatles track list, from their more raw early days.
The Caluatta Telegraph reported in 2008,”After 1972, the band’s popularity and also that of other live bands waned because of two reasons: anglo-Indians were leaving Calcutta and the popularity of the first discotheque in Calcutta, In & Out in Park Hotel. For a cover charge of merely Rs 10, patrons could hear DJs play the celestial music of Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes and Grateful Dead. These records were hardly heard in Calcutta then. No one would any longer pay to hear the cover versions”.
Thankfully someone back then did have the sense to bring Usha and The Flintstones into the studio, to lay down a handful of tracks. Today we can gratefully be transported back and experience if but a taste of those exciting vibrant times of that particular period of Indian psychedelia. On the first single, the A sided The Trip is absolute killer material from both Usha and the band. With it’s psychedelic brilliance, hard hitting break beats, snappy mod blues guitar work, and Usha’s beautiful acidic jazz vocals, it’s raw, dirty and dope, and for me, it feels like bathing in the richest soil of the Indian earth! As the only credit on the label is to Usha, again I have to assume the lyrics are hers. She sing’s of a faraway trip, leaving someone that was obviously close to her, behind, and whether it’s spiritual or literal, we don’t really have to know. For me this has to be her biggest tune, and to finally find it on a lost record that is about journey, is quite a trip. The flip to this big track is a cover of Tommy Roe’s 1960 number 1 hit song Dizzy, which for me is a bit too pop and doesn’t really suit the band’s dangerous edge. On the other hand, Blues Train, the second single featured here, we’re back on track, enjoying another dark journey with the brilliant combo. Like very many blues songs, this song is about loss, and this time it’s a tale of a dear soul to the story teller, that has taken their life. Usha sings of her desire to do what needs to be done, so they can be together again…”Every time I hear a train, I’ll be on the railway line, hang myself on a telegraph pole, then I’ll be with you body and soul. I know what to do, I’ve got to be with you tonight”. This moment of brilliance is tastefully complemented with the A-sided Summertime, which can be proudly added to the many amazing interpretations that exist, of Gershwin’s 1934 masterpiece.
In around 1974, Usha was invited by the legendary Goan composer Chris Perry to record an album of Konkani songs. Perry had just had a professional bust up with the ever so popular “Goan nightingale” Lorna Cordeiro, and was looking for a female vocalist who could fill that prodigious void. With compositions already to go, Perry approached her one day when Uthup was singing with the trumpet player at the Ritz near Eros cinema. The outcome was a successful record release comprising five Konkani songs performed by Usha including Meu Amor, Beautiful and the desirable Paka Paka!
If we want to talk about some of Usha’s LP releases, an interesting record that needs to be mentioned here, is the album she recorded with producer Nabil Sansool while touring in Nairobi, Kenya in 1978. Titled Usha In Nairobi, this album is infamous and sort because of one particular killer version of Fever that Usha lays down! It a crazy good, spacey trip hop-drum n’ bass version way ahead of it’s time, and perhaps one of the best versions I have ever heard of that fine tune. The band involved is said to have gone by the name of The Fellini Five, with the line up including Fausto La Venia on drums, Pino Solitro on guitar, Massimo Sperduti on keyboards and on percussion was Fausto La Venia. The songs Malaika and Kirie Kirio, were released as a Kenya 7″ from this recording on EMI. Earlier in 1969, Usha also released an alternate version of Fever, on her jazzy Scotch And Soda LP (Odeon SMOCE 2006) along with other versions fine standards including Sunny and A Taste Of Honey. Bombay’s finest beat band, The Savages provide accompaniment on Midnight Hour and also on a cracking version of California Dreaming, while on all other tracks, The Ronnie Menezes Quartet are her support. Now don’t get confused with the other Fever track she recorded with Bappi Lahiri for the film Love In Goa a few years later in ’83.
Segwaying into some of her film scores, Usha was quite big within the Bollywood circuit, which I’m only going to briefly touch on here. This particular road started back in the early 70’s in Dehli when she sang at the Oberoi hotels. By chance, a film crew that included actor-director Shashi Kapoor, visited the nightclub, and obviously liked what they saw, because she was offered a chance to sing for an upcoming film score. As a result, her Bollywood career started with singing along side Asha Bhosle on Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, she was supposed to sing Dum Maro Dum along with Lata Mangeshkar, however it seems there was some internal politics going on with others singers that didn’t allow that to happen, and as we all know the role went to Asha Bhosle (who deservedly won the 1971 Filmfare Best Female Playback Award). As mentioned on the previous R D Burman post, Usha’s incredible Listen To The Pouring Rain from the 1972 Bollywood adventure-comedy film Bombay to Goa, is classic Usha mastery!
Another big and dynamic film track from Usha is the title song for Dard Ka Rishta, named Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Released in 1982, and produced and directed by Sunil Dutt (and starring Smita Patil, Reena Roy and Ashok Kumar), the track is said to have been inspired by the 1955 Henry King directed film of the same title. Yet another Burman masterpiece, with killer breaks, rapid space funk keyboards and Usha leading it all with her best Shirley Bassey sass! A must have LP for all Indian soundtrack collectors!
Usha also had a platform into the disco dance scene which was sweeping the whole world at that time, although truth be told, India was a little behind by a few years. Her best for me is Auva Auva Koi Yahan Nache from Bappi Lahiri Disco Dancer masterpiece. And in true Bappi “borrowing”tradition, this time he channels The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, so wickedly! In 82, Bappi and Usha were at it again with another disco rework, this time bravely mashing up Gibson Brothers’ Que Sera Mi Vida, with dare I say it, Donna Summer’s classic, I Feel Love on the Aarman soundtrack, titled as Ramba Ho-Ho-Ho Shamba Ho-Ho-Ho. There’s a far hotter and somewhat psychedelic version of “Love” on Usha’s earlier ’78 album You Set My Heart On Fire, which you’ll get far more respect from in the dance halls. I can’t leave this disco convention without mentioning Chhupke Kaun Aya, a pretty great hair flick towards to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.
Usha has performed for so many young and old adoring fans, and has sung in 13 Indian languages as well as 8 foreign languages. Her name and her distinctive big voice is attached to many famous Bollywood productions, and has also made a quite a few on screen performances. This iconic Indian star has also received numerous awards not just for her musical talents, but also for her devotion to charities and for mainly just trying to make the world a fair and better place.
Usha has continued singing unlike many of her contemporaries who have long stopped as they felt out of sync with the new age style. “I don’t like to live in the past. Nostalgia is fine”. She recently to told The Indian Express. She has given people in far flung cultures an unexpected image of an lndian woman: strong,independent, humorous, intelligent and loaded with talent. Jani and Usha who today reside in Kolkata, West Bengal, enjoy life with their daughter Anjali and son Sunny, and today Usha will occasionally appear on stage singing alongside with both her daughter and her granddaughter.
References and recommendations…