Pioneer local radio DJ Mike Ellery, mentor to Larry Lai and Chris Ho, dies aged 82

Former radio DJ Mike Ellery (seen here in a July 18, 2003 file picture), one of Singapore's most prominent radio personalities from the 1950s to 1980s, died on Feb 3, 2015, from lymphoma. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Former radio DJ Mike Ellery (seen here in a July 18, 2003 file picture), one of Singapore's most prominent radio personalities from the 1950s to 1980s, died on Feb 3, 2015, from lymphoma. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Mike Ellery, one of Singapore's most prominent radio personalities from the 1950s to 1980s, died on Feb 3 from lymphoma. He was 82.

His good friend Vernon Cornelius, veteran singer and frontman of 1960s local band The Quests, told The Straits Times he was informed of Ellery's death via e-mail from one of Ellery's two sons.

Cornelius says Ellery was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system, five months ago. He died in his family home in England, where he had been living since 2013. Cornelius, who had kept in touch with him via e-mail and telephone over the years, last spoke to him at the end of last year.

Ellery had suffered a stroke last June, and could no longer get around without a wheelchair at the time. But he never told Cornelius about his cancer. "He spoke like nothing was wrong, and his spirit was so cheerful... I guess there is no business like show business and he was true to his profession: The show must go on," says Cornelius.

Ellery had a long career with Rediffusion, Singapore's first cable-transmitted commercial radio station, where he was English Programmes Manager for many years. He hired and mentored some of the most recognised voices on the air, including radio stalwarts Larry Lai, Paul Cheong, Chris Ho and Tan Swee Leong.

Ellery, who hails from Bristol in England, came to Malaya in 1949, and helped launched Rediffusion Kuala Lumpur in 1950 before coming to Singapore in the mid-1950s, joining Rediffusion here as programmes manager.

In the late 1970s, Ellery took a break from broadcasting in Singapore and moved to England for a few years to work as a roving reporter for companies such as the BBC World Service.

He decided to return in 1979 to start a recording studio with his old friend and colleague from Rediffusion, Larry Lai.

In 1969, the two were also the first to start a mobile disco concept, called Moby Dick, providing entertainment at private functions and British army bases every weekend. Lai, 74, who is now retired, says of Ellery: "We were colleagues and partners for so many years, and we've gone through ups and downs, but they were mostly good times."

Mr Lai, who stayed in touch with Ellery mostly via e-mail over the years, adds: "He has a terrific sense of humour. Some people might think it's a little bit caustic, but he always meant well."

His friends such as Cornelius say Ellery, a divorcee, probably left Singapore in 2012 for Chiang Mai due to difficulties in extending his employment pass in Singapore.

Illness made him move back to England to be with his family in 2013. Former colleagues and friends describe him as a knowledgeable man who was passionate about promoting local music talent.

Veteran DJ Chris Ho describes him as a "very professional broadcaster" who played an instrumental role in Ho's career as a DJ.

"He was the guy who created me. He auditioned me, if I didn't pass that audition I wouldn't have become a DJ (with Rediffusion). He gave me a very difficult page from the National Geographic to read in my audition. I asked him why he made it so difficult, and he said to me: 'That's where you show your true mettle'."

Former Rediffusion DJ Paul Cheong, 65 , says Ellery hired him in 1972 and gave him one of the best gigs ever, hosting a programme called Fab 240, a four-hour music programme playing pop-rock songs. The host and entertainer says: "All those years I was there, he never said a harsh word to me. Whenever I finished my shift, I'd go into office and he would offer me 30-cent coffee from the canteen, and we'd chat until he finished work."

melk@sph.com.sg