60s: Then and now

Veronica Young: The schoolgirl who became a star

As a professional singer in the 1960s (above), Ms Veronica Young was dubbed the Connie Francis of Singapore. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, COURTESY OF VERONICA YOUNG
As a professional singer in the 1960s (above), Ms Veronica Young was dubbed the Connie Francis of Singapore. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, COURTESY OF VERONICA YOUNG
As a professional singer in the 1960s, Ms Veronica Young (above) was dubbed the Connie Francis of Singapore. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, COURTESY OF VERONICA YOUNG

One of the biggest stars of the Singapore pop scene in the 1960s was a spunky 16-year-old girl who did not even finish her O levels.

Veronica Soon made her singing debut with popular 1960s bands The Silver Strings and the Cyclones at a tea dance in 1964. She became a star the following year when she won the Millie Small of Singapore contest in 1965 covering the Jamaica- born singer's hit, My Boy Lollipop. She became so popular that she persuaded her parents to let her quit school and turn professional. She sang at clubs, cut records and went on the road, giving sell-out concerts in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Today, music fans of a certain vintage grow misty-eyed when they recall the cute schoolgirl with the golden voice who was dubbed the Connie Francis of Singapore. Ms Young, 67, jokes that she is now old. Her once sylph-like figure has become rounder, but she can still belt out the tunes.

At the peak of her career, she was earning $600 a month, the equivalent of about $2,400 in today's terms, and received sackfuls of marriage proposals in the mail. And to think it all started at a tea dance at South East Asia Hotel in Waterloo Street.

The CHIJ St Theresa's Convent schoolgirl had gone there with a classmate when Siva Choy - musician, humorist and writer - who was then with singing duo the Cyclones, spotted her.

Ms Young recounts their conversation: "'Can you sing?' he asked me. 'I don't know,' I said. He told me to sing something I knew. So I sang That's All I Want From You by Diane Ray with him on the guitar and he said, 'Next Sunday, you come and sing with the band.'"

And that was that. After getting her parents' nod, she became a fixture at tea dances, becoming the first female vocalist with The Silver Strings and taking on Veronica Young as a stage name.

She was paid $10 for every weekend gig, she recalls. The money helped support her family of 10 children (she is sixth in the family). Her father was a fitter plumber with the British Royal Army Service Corps and her mother a housewife.

When she won the Millie Small of Singapore contest, the prize was a 10-inch black-and-white television set. "It was the most beautiful thing," she recalls with pride in her voice.

The decision to drop out of school came after her performance schedule started eating into her study time. She sang every weekend at clubs such as Golden Venus and Dragon Room, gave concerts at Singapore Badminton Hall and the Naval Base and at special morning shows at Odeon, Roxy and Capitol cinemas.

"I was a moderately okay student. I figured that if I were to go into singing professionally, I wouldn't need an O-level certificate," she says.

She left The Silver Strings and embarked on a solo career, singing at hotel bars almost every day from 3 to 7pm and going on tour.

Her audience might have comprised of adults twice her age, but she "felt protected by the hotel bosses. People were kind to me. I was a real sweetheart". She was only 18.

In 1968 and 1969, the plucky teenager packed her bags for South Vietnam where she entertained the American troops at army bases.

What did her parents have to say about their daughter going off to sing in a war-torn country?

"The money was good. I was paid US$400 to US$500 a month and I suppose my mother was quite naive about the situation. I took a risk."

When she returned from Vietnam, she continued singing at nightclubs and hotels, including at Paya Lebar International Airport, where the nightclub was the only one in Singapore that opened till 4am. She also picked up bowling and became so good at it that she represented Singapore three times at the South-east Asian Games.

She met her husband when he heard her sing at the lounge of Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1976. Mr Andre Bourinet, six years older than her, was an engineer with a French water company. They married less than a year after they met.

For the past 26 years, the couple and their two children have lived in Rancogne in south-western France.

She will sing at a concert on Oct 31 to raise funds for Ang Mo Kio Secondary School.

"I'm lucky to still have my voice. I hope I won't be judged by my looks, but by my voice," she says with a chuckle, gesturing at her matronly figure.

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