80s: Then and now

Monteiro the jingle man and jazz maestro

World-renowned jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro wrote about 500 advertising jingles in the 1980s. -- PHOTOS: TIFFANY GOH, ST FILE
World-renowned jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro wrote about 500 advertising jingles in the 1980s. -- PHOTOS: TIFFANY GOH, ST FILE
World-renowned jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro (above) wrote about 500 advertising jingles in the 1980s. -- PHOTOS: TIFFANY GOH, ST FILE
World-renowned jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro (above) wrote about 500 advertising jingles in the 1980s. -- PHOTOS: TIFFANY GOH, ST FILE

People know Jeremy Monteiro as the local king of swing and a Cultural Medallion recipient in Singapore, but few know he was the go-to jingle man in the 1980s.

While he held residency gigs at various iconic venues - he played at Tiara Supper Club in Shangri-La Hotel in 1981; Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, run by the late Dr Goh Poh Seng, a Singaporean dramatist, novelist and poet,  in 1983 and 1984; and the Saxophone Bar for three years from 1985 - it was his advertising jingles that brought him financial success. In that decade, his company, JJ Jingles, chalked up $7 million in revenue.

It all started with a brand of pimple cream in 1981. Veteran ad man Allein Moore, who was with Compton Advertising at the time, approached him to write a jingle for Innoxa 41. Monteiro's jingle impressed two more pimple cream companies, which came knocking on his door. He was 21 then.

The 1980s, recalls Monteiro, now 54, were an interesting time when he did things outside of jazz music - such as playing on pop records (he has backed singers on about 300 pop albums in the 1970s and 1980s, including Frances Yip, Anita Sarawak and Tracy Huang) and yes, writing commercial jingles.

He got married in 1982 and his son was born two years later. Varian, 30, is a counsellor and part- time model.

After the pimple cream jingles, a big client - Coca-Cola - came his way. At the time, Monteiro says, the authorities banned superlatives in commercials, so expressions such as "the biggest" and "the greatest" had to be reworked.

Coca-Cola's jingle for its "Coke Is It!" campaign had to be completely re-recorded because a line in the lyrics went "Coke is it/The biggest taste you've ever found". Monteiro was hired to produce the new jingle.

"We changed 'the biggest' to 'the big big taste'. We re-recorded the entire song and I think I did such a good job that it opened the floodgates to other big brand names," he says.

From 1981 to 1991, he wrote about 500 jingles for companies such as McDonald's, KFC, Toyota, Shell, Nescafe, Tiger Beer and Cadbury. He also composed jingles for the national productivity and national courtesy campaigns.

He reminisces with a chuckle: "The irony was, I wrote the national productivity song lying on a beach chair in Desaru."

But writing jingles was not all fun and games, he adds. "A jingle is not just about writing a pretty piece of music. It's a piece of marketing and about using music as a vehicle to reach your audience. The composer has to try to evoke emotions in the beholder, the tune has to resonate on a heart level and create a pathway to the listener," he explains.

He would ruminate on a jingle for days or weeks, even if the actual writing of the music took mere minutes or a few hours.

He was also involved in producing some of Singapore's iconic national songs. One of the most difficult songs he worked on was We Are Singapore (1987), which contains the exact words of the National Pledge in the bridge. It was written by Canadian Hugh Harrison, who also penned Stand Up For Singapore (1984) and Count On Me, Singapore (1986). Other than Mr Moore, Monteiro says ad-man Mr Harrison also contributed to his success in jingle writing.

"Hugh wanted the words of the pledge inside the song and he wanted them to be sung. It was hard because the pledge is written in prose and not poetry. But we managed to make it work," says Monteiro, who was in charge of orchestration.

In 1990, he wrote his own national song - One People, One Nation, One Singapore, which he most recently performed with local jazz singer Rani Singam at Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew's lying in state at the Parliament House on March 27.

By 1990, Monteiro had already been bitten hard by the jazz bug. In 1988, he played at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland with his band, Monteiro, Young (late jazz double bass player Eldee Young) & Holt (jazz drummer Redd Holt), who were two original members of the Grammy Award-winning Ramsey Lewis Trio. Their 55-minute performance received a three-minute standing ovation in a concert that was televised in many countries.

It put Monteiro on the world map. "I didn't become famous overnight, but I was not so unknown anymore. I was finally seen and heard," he says.

He was the first South-east Asian to perform at the annual jazz festival and was invited by Montreux founder Claude Nobbs, after being introduced by the late Fabrice de Barsy, who owned Saxophone Bar. Mr Nobbs later called the 1988 performance "one of the great concerts of the first 22 years of Montreux".

This was to be the harbinger of Monteiro's rise as Asia's foremost jazz musician. Today, he has more than 30 jazz albums under his belt and a packed performing schedule in Asia and Europe. When he is not performing, he spends his time composing and practising on the piano.

Last year, he released his music book, Jeremy Monteiro Compositions - A Selected Anthology Of Works. He also released two new albums, one of them notably being Jazz-Blues Brothers with Italian ace organist Alberto Marsico.

Monteiro also toured China as a featured guest soloist of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and premiered a new composition titled Lion City for the EFG London Jazz Festival. Most recently, he produced and released the debut solo album, Falling In Love Again, by home-grown jazz singer Melissa Tham.

On Aug 7, he will perform at the Sing50 concert at National Stadium, celebrating 50 years of Singapore music.

He wants people to know that the curtains are not coming down on his career yet. "My journey in music is far from being over and things are getting very exciting for me on a global scale these few years. I don't want to be remembered as a relic from the 1980s," he says.

stlife@sph.com.sg