SING50: 70S THEN AND NOW

Black Dog Bone with enduring bite

Black Dog Bone in the 1970s – (above from left) Masron Ali, Tahir Ali, Michael Heng, Izzar Masrom, Hamid Ahmad and James Chai.
Black Dog Bone in the 1970s – (above from left) Masron Ali, Tahir Ali, Michael Heng, Izzar Masrom, Hamid Ahmad and James Chai.
Black Dog Bone in the 1970s – The band now (from left) – Hamid, Chai, Tahir, Izzar and Heng. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, COURTESY OF BLACK DOG BONE
Black Dog Bone in the 1970s – The band now (from left) – Hamid, Chai, Tahir, Izzar and Heng. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, COURTESY OF BLACK DOG BONE

SINGAPORE - In the 1970s, few Singapore bands could fill a stadium in Kuala Lumpur. Black Dog Bone was one of them who could.  The rock outfit was the hottest act in the local music scene in that decade, putting out best-selling albums, performing in the coolest discos and playing to sold-out crowds in Singapore and Malaysia.

Today, these rockers have more than 10 grandchildren among them, but old- time fans still love them. All three nights of their reunion concert at the 1,421-seat Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur in 2009 were sold out. 

Black Dog Bone was formed in 1973 by four  boys from Geylang who started out playing at Malay weddings and backing getai singers at nightclubs. They sported flowing locks at a time when the authorities banned men from having long hair. Only for TV appearances did they tie their locks up with bandanas. 

The band's line-up was multi-racial, consisting of frontman Tahir Ali, now 59, guitarist Izzar Masrom, 67, bassist Hamid Ahmad, 65, keyboardist Michael Heng and flautist James Chai, both 62, and trumpeter Masron Ali, who died of pneumonia in March at the age of 71. 

Izzar, better known as Razzi M, is the band leader. His top criterion for the selection of his bandmates was that they had to get along.  They also had to sing and play more than one instrument. Izzar, for one, can play the alto saxophone, piccolo, guitar and pianica. 

Their name was inspired by British heavy blues band Black Cat Bones. Hamid proposed that they changed "cat" to "dog". He also designed their signature black-and-white suits which they wore at concerts. 

In the beginning, they did Malay covers of songs by American bands Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago, and British singer-songwriter Leo Sayer. They also backed popular local performers such as Anita Sarawak, Rita Chao and Sakura Teng, and Hong Kong singer Teresa Carpio.

Their repertoire expanded to include originals by late Singaporean lyricist Haron Abdul Majid and composer Hashim Said (better known as S. Atan), as well as one or two of their own compositions. In 1976, they recorded their first album Sindir-Sindir Sayang (Love Quips) with local label Tony Tony after being snubbed by EMI. It was a hit, with 40,000 albums sold. EMI signed them the following year and their follow-up album Si Gadis Ayu (The Girl Ayu) sold 45,000 to 50,000 copies. They cut seven more albums with EMI and collected 12 per cent of royalties. 

Their hit songs include Dulu Dan Sekarang (Past And Present), Kisah Kisah Lama (Old Stories) and Jangan Lukakan Hatiku (Don't Break My Heart). While they performed every genre from bubblegum pop to Motown to R&B, their love ballads struck a chord most deeply in fans.

Hot nightspots such as the nowdefunct Barbarella and Lost Horizon were their regular stomping grounds, but the most lucrative gig they landed was a six-month contract in 1979 at a strip club called Moulin Rouge in Amsterdam. In the first month, they were backing the nightly striptease acts, but by the second month, the boss realised their talent and got them to play as a showband. They were each paid $2,000 a month, with lodging and transport provided.

Izzar recalls: "They let us drive a Mercedes sedan and a Volkswagen van. In Singapore, we took the bus." 

There must have been plenty of girlfriends. "Mostly hit and run," Izzar says with a laugh. He married Rohaya Taib, now 56, who was then a singer also signed to EMI. They have four children and six grandchildren.

In Amsterdam, Black Dog Bone were tempted by offers from talent scouts to perform in Belgium and Switzerland, but were compelled to return to Singapore to promote their second album. 

The former National Theatre in Fort Canning Park, where they held their homecoming concert in the same year, was filled to the rafters.  

Did they get into trouble with the law for their long hair? Hamid, who, like Tahir and Chai, still sports long tresses, says: "The policemen and immigration officers recognised us and let us off." 

As album sales dwindled and age caught up with them in the 1980s, the members pursued their own careers. Izzar became a freelance music producer and the rest were sessionists performing at clubs. Tahir, or Jatt Ali as he is known to fans, released two solo albums. 

But the group do not consider themselves disbanded as they get together once in a while to jam. And they are still loved by long-time fans such as married couple Khamsani Rahmat and Hafizah Yusoff, both 54. They hired the band to play at their son's wedding this month.

One wedding guest, teacher Azizah Abdul Rahim, 60, got on her feet to dance when the band played Hati Jujor (Dance With Your Heart). "Their songs are catchy and danceable and their performances are energetic," she says.

Tahir says proudly of his three grandchildren: "They watch my performances on YouTube. The youngest is two and can't even speak yet, but she wants to sing my songs."