Crazy Elephant stands strong 21 years on

The nightlife stalwart in Clarke Quay, which celebrates its 21st anniversary next weekend, has no plans to reinvent itself

Over the past two decades, Clarke Quay has seen many bars and clubs come and go, but one joint, rock 'n' roll blues bar Crazy Elephant, has remained a stalwart in the nightlife hub.

Well-worn and unglamorous, it has hardly changed through the years.

From the wooden tables which have accumulated graffiti scribbles left by patrons since day one of operations in October 1994, to the naughty jokes that flash on the screens around the open-concept bar, the fittings and decor have remained the same.

Even the music blaring through the sound system is what it was 21 years ago - classic blues and rock 'n' roll by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

Like those classic acts, Crazy Elephant is familiar and it is not fussed about changing its formula, choosing to follow the mantra of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

The bar celebrates its 21st anniversary on Oct 25. Mr John Chee, who is one of the three owners, says they have no plans to reinvent it.

"We basically stick to the same formula. The form of music that we're playing will always be around. It's timeless, it's artistic and played with a lot of feeling," he explains.

Clarke Quay has seen the likes of mega nightspots, including big names such as Ministry of Sound and Zirca, fold after no more than four years.

"The company is lucky to have a good team of people. We've worked together for so long, we work perfectly well together," says Mr Chee, 55.

The longest-serving staff - business development manager Anita Lydia - has been with the bar for 16 years, while Mr Chee has been in the house band, Blues Machine, with bassist Kamal Osman, from day one.

Mr Chee, who plays the lead guitar, spends five days a week at the bar, which is open seven days a week.

"I used to spend every day at the bar, but I have kids now," says the father of two girls aged 11 and 13.

He co-owns the bar with two other founders, Mr Samuel Seong Koon, 57, and Mr Keef Ong, 59.

The newest thing in the bar, which has about 3,150 sq ft of indoor and outdoor space, is the wireless mobile ordering system using tablets, introduced in 2013. Prior to that, the all-female staff relied on their memories.

"Our customers never leave - like us. The same faces always come back," Ms Lydia chimes in. The 35-year-old had worked the floor part-time when she was 19.

When Life visited on a Tuesday evening, the bar was half-filled with a mix of locals and expatriates, as well as tourists who took the opportunity to leave their mark on the place.

One even climbed on a table to scribble a note on the air conditioning vent in the middle of the bar.

Ms Lydia says their patrons are aged 20 to 60. 

Mr Chee recalls what Clarke Quay was like in 1994, when it had just started: "It was different from now. It was pro-family."

There were ice cream and hot dog stalls, warehouses and barber shops - a far cry from the tourist- filled nightlife hub filled with food establishments, dance clubs and cafes it has since become.

The bar was one of the first few tenants in the area following a large scale conservation project of the Singapore River which was officially unveiled on Dec 10, 1993.

Mr Chee adds: "In the 1990s, Boat Quay and Mohammed Sultan Road were the hot spots for bars and nightlife.

"Back in the day, there were maybe only one or two bars in Clarke Quay that had live music - we were one of them."

The area underwent a second revamp in the mid-2000s to attract young professionals and tourists.

Still, Crazy Elephant stood strong even as its bigger rivals fell victim to increasing competition in the nightlife industry, rising rentals and the fickle tastes of clubgoers.

That is not to say Crazy Elephant has not weathered its fair share of storms.

Mr Chee says the rent has gone up by "a significant amount" compared with 21 years ago - Clarke Quay is now managed and owned by CapitaLand Mall Asia - although issues such as the manpower crunch, faced by most in the service industry, have been more pressing for the bar.

Ms Lydia says: "It's been hard to find the right people. We're not your typical bar or restaurant.

Crazy Elephant was worst hit during the Sars period in 2003.

"Nobody wanted to leave the house and barely anyone came here," Mr Chee recalls.

However, famous guests, such as the late American saxophonist, Bobby Keys, who had played with The Rolling Stones and The Who, popped in to play.

The Stones' road and stage crew also jammed on stage with Blues Machine in March 2003, when the British rockers were in town for a two-night gig.

Rick Derringer of The McCoys, Animals vocalist Eric Burdon, as well as Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan and drummer Ian Paice, have also jammed on the same stage - which Mr Chee considers Crazy Elephant's milestones.

The floorboards of the stage are noticeably well-worn, with twirled cables neatly circling the raised platform.

A seasoned drum kit sits in the back and a cherry red bass guitar, which was bought a month after the bar opened, hangs on the stage wall.

The same stage also accommodates a newer generation of musicians who come in for weekly jam sessions, when anyone can go up and join the house band.

It is not uncommon to see bands from other clubs show up to play as well, long after closing time.

Age is not a restriction, either. Blues Machine drummer Tan Boon Gee, 40, recalls how a few weeks ago, a six-year-old boy joined them on stage to jam on the drums, wowing everyone present.

Mr Chee is encouraged that "these young ones are into the music we're playing", adding that the jam session has been in place since day one.

The frontwoman, who goes by the stage name of Mean Jeanne and who has played with the house band for the past 15 years, explains that people take their children to Crazy Elephant because "they know that these guys are welcoming".

"If a child gets up there, everybody is encouraging."

The 64-year-old American, who travels the world to play with other bands, adds: "It's nice to see the young musicians come in and come up to play.

"They always learn something from the older musicians and get to hone their craft. It's something you don't get much of anymore."

Regulars such as Mr Rodney De'rosario, a marine company director, has been frequenting the bar - he is there almost every weekend - for the past 20 years.

He was also there when Life visited.

The 62-year-old is drawn to the musicianship of the house band. "The music has always been as good as it is. It's pure, it hasn't changed."

Although he has visited other establishments that tout live bands, he does not get the same vibe .

"At this other place, when the lead guitarist was playing solo, it felt like he was just doing his job. There was no feeling.

"But if you watch John or any of the other band members play, you know it comes from the heart."

He has also come to develop a camaraderie with the band, who drink and play at the same time.

He even knows what each of them likes to drink, as he placed beers and shots on stage while they were jamming on stage on Tuesday.

"How well the band plays depends on the audience. Of course, pumping them with drinks helps a lot," he quips.

With Crazy Elephant's traditions and familial vibe, Mr Chee has no plans to retire any time soon.

"There's plenty of time to think about that," he says. "No matter what, I will still show up at the Sunday jam sessions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2015, with the headline 'Crazy Elephant stands strong 21 years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe