“Yes to Ray Cordeiro ...
My thanks for playing the songs I sing
In times of change, it’s nice to know
We can depend upon your show
To stay in touch
Thank you guy so much
For sharing your way.”
(To the tune of My Way).
So sang Paul Anka in lyrics he crafted for 'Uncle Ray' as he, on behalf of RTHK, presented the veteran broadcaster with a lifetime achievement award in 1997.
'That's beautiful, isn't it?' says the world's 'most durable radio DJ', an honour the Guinness World Records conferred on him in 2000, for 51 years of airtime.
'That was 12 years ago, and I am breaking the world record every night with my show,' adds the presenter, referring to his time-honoured night programme All the Way with Ray.
To call Uncle Ray a DJ is somewhat of an understatement. His accolades go far beyond medals and awards, which include an MBE presented by Queen Elizabeth in 1987, a Bronze Bauhinia Star in 2008 and, last month, an honorary fellowship at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Besides being a broadcaster, Cordeiro is, or has been, a jazz musician (a drummer in a trio), a singer (with a solo 45 rpm version of Proud Mary), a journalist (freelancing for Billboard), an actor (starring in 1975's The Last Message), a collector (owning more than 30,000 vinyl records, including many autographed copies), an impresario (having discovered Matt Monro and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), a cultural ambassador to the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and, perhaps most of all, a walking encyclopaedia of music in Hong Kong.
Cordeiro, who turns 88 this year, has interviewed a host of pop music and jazz legends at the height of their careers: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and at least 60 others have spoken into his microphone during their tours to Hong Kong. Many of them have returned for more, John having been interviewed by Cordeiro on three occasions, Cliff Richard on four.
And the Beatles, too: 'I was probably the only person who interviewed them three times in one week. That could be another world record for me and for Hong Kong,' says Cordeiro.
There is a tale behind each of these interviews and Cordeiro is good at remembering details and telling a great story.
'One of my interviews with Elton John was in his Peninsula hotel suite, and he was lying on a couch when I walked in. So I asked where we could do the interview, and he said, with his eyes closed, 'Right here.' I was so glad that he didn't ask me to lie down.
'The great jazz diva Sarah Vaughan treated me like her younger brother, and Quincy Jones, too, who called me his brother.'
BORN IN A MODEST home on Wan Chai Road on December 12, 1924, Reinaldo Maria Cordeiro was the fifth child of Luiz and Livia Cordeiro, who were of Portuguese descent and from Hong Kong and Macau, respectively.
The Macanese connection proved invaluable during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. The entire family took refuge in the Portuguese colony.
'The attack on Hong Kong was unexpected. I remember seeing those Japanese bombers and thought they were the Brits until they laid those tiny drops which turned out to be bombs. We were all scared,' he recalls.
'I was then 17 years old, just finished secondary education at St Joseph's College, which was the alma mater for many Portuguese boys, including my father and my brother. They were then working at Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.
'My older brother, Armando, and I were the only boys in the family, and we had four sisters. It was Armando who led me to music with 78 rpm records playing songs by the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin, etc. He played the clarinet so well and he joined bands in Shanghai in the 1940s,' he adds.
Teenage Ray was attracted to the drums, and found plenty of opportunities to practise on the cooking pans and woks in the kitchen at the refugee centre in Macau, where he cooked rice for 140 people with his mother, the head chef.
Of her six children, Mother Cordeiro was closest to Ray. They shared the same birthday. But it was the day his father left the family, when Ray was four, that cemented a special mother-and-son relationship, he says.
'My mother had a very sad life because my dad wasn't a good man. He sent us money every month but it was not enough. So my mum had to work to feed and clothe us.
'Once we took her out to Central, as she rarely left the house. When we walked past Sincere department store, she just stood there, looking at a long fur coat, asking, 'When will I get to wear that?' I said to her, 'Someday, someday.' When I got my first pay cheque from Rediffusion in 1949, I bought it as a gift for her. She was so moved that tears came out. But she never wore it ...' The octogenarian's voice cracks and his eyes moisten.
'At the very end of her life, she spoke to me in Portuguese: 'No matter where I am, I will always look after you.' And I believe she does.'
It was at Radio Rediffusion, a cable service with four channels charging HK$10 per month, that Cordeiro's career in broadcasting was launched. Before that, he had worked at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank for four years, during which time he moonlighted as a drummer with his own jazz trio at the Chantecler Restaurant, near Hillwood Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The contrast between his life at the bank and that with the band grew by the day and a meeting with one Frank Harris changed everything for the 25-year-old.
'Rediffusion had just started business in a nice two-storey building between Hennessy Road and Arsenal Street, and Harris was the boss. 'Why do you want to work for us?' was the only thing the American asked me at the interview. To my answer - 'Because I like music' - he said, 'That's good enough, can you start on Monday?' And I got the job. And it paid me HK$700 a month, which was three times more than the bank salary.'
Cordeiro started as a scriptwriter. Through hard work and a little luck, he made a name for himself in just a few years.
'I knew absolutely nothing about scriptwriting. But as an aggressive young man, I learned fast by reading the US and UK music catalogues and transcriptions. So I began scripting for the Diamond Music Show and the Shiro Hit Parade. Soon, I was given airtime to run my first programme: Progressive Jazz. One day my Canadian producer brought in a guest from Switzerland. When I found out he loved jazz, I invited him to my show. During the interview, I realised he knew everything about jazz and had interviewed all the big names in the United States, such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, etc. So, after the show I took him to Blue Heaven, in Central, for a show by Bing Rodriguez and his quartet. He enjoyed it very much and told my boss afterwards that he should give me, 'the aggressive young man', a break. This gentleman turned out to be the head of Swiss Broadcasting, and his words carried weight. I was allowed to take charge of two popular live shows, Talent Time and Rumpus Time. Overnight I became a popular DJ.'
Both shows featured live performances in front of live audiences. Cordeiro turned them into a platform for hidden musical talent, whether solo or playing in a band. That was more than half a century before America's Got Talent. A few who performed for Uncle Ray became famous.
In Talent Time, a certain Terry Parsons showcased his impeccable voice and won so often that Cordeiro offered him his own one-off show, on the condition that he would not take part in Talent Time again. He accepted the offer and, on June 27, 1953, performed his first concert on air. Two songs from that show are featured in the Matt Monro Special Reserve Collection, recently released in Britain.
'Terry Parsons was Matt's real name, and he was in Hong Kong for two years in the military. With his consecutive wins, I made the offer because, otherwise, nobody would have signed up for the show. Many years later, when I was in London on a training course at the BBC, I looked him up in the studio. But he was in a rehearsal. I asked the man at the gate to tell him Ray from Hong Kong was waiting to see him. Munro stopped the session, running down the aisle, embracing me like a long-lost brother. He loved Hong Kong and remembered his good days here and came to my show whenever he was in town.'
Rumpus Time produced The Fabulous Echoes, a pop group made up of young Filipino men that became a sensation in Hawaii for 25 years under the name Society of Seven, aka SOS. They were the first and, arguably, most successful pop group Hong Kong has exported to the West.
'When they first appeared on my show, these teenage boys were so poor they couldn't afford uniforms. But they played and sang very well. So I introduced them to Ren da Silva, the owner of Diamond Records, who signed them, gave them a new name and recorded the big hit Dancing on the Moon. That's how they got started.'
Cordeiro continued the practice of live studio shows when he joined Radio Hong Kong, in 1960, following the expiration of Radio Rediffusion's 10-year broadcasting franchise. In joining RHK, as the station was then called (before the 'T' for 'television' was added), he missed out on the newly launched Commercial Radio Hong Kong, founded by George Ho Cho-chi.
'I was at a function of Commercial Radio at the Blue Heaven Restaurant. George was sitting at the head table. Out of courtesy I went to congratulate him on the launch. Then he said to me: 'Ray, the only regret of my radio life is that you are not working for me.' I felt very honoured.'
At RHK, Cordeiro was head of light music. But rock 'n' roll was about to sweep the world, and Hong Kong baby boomers were in no way immune. The city's rockers tuned into Cordeiro's Lucky Dip - a talent show that also featured record requests - to keep up with the trend.
'The show was so popular that we had to do it at the new City Hall Theatre, which had 400 seats compared to 60 at the radio studio. We held four series there, each contained 13 shows and all sold out.'
It was there that some iconic musical figures made their debut, such as Joe Junior, Teddy Robin and the Playboys and Roman and The Four Steps.
'One of my audience members was [current Democratic Party vice-chairman] Emily Lau [Wai-hing]. She was just a kid then but was already rather rowdy, like trying to grab the microphone from me, you know,' recalls Cordeiro, with a laugh. 'My show went like this. I had with me a big box, like a barrel, with all the letters of song requests in there. I walked along the aisle and invited the teenage audience to draw a letter and read the request. That was one way for them to learn English, you see? That's where Emily came in as she was very good at English. Many years later, when I saw her in the news, I asked myself, 'Could it be that Emily Lau?'' he adds, still laughing. It was at this time that he earned the nickname Uncle Ray, Anders Nelsson, then a newspaper reporter, figuring it was appropriate, given the many youngsters who flocked to his shows.
Teddy Robin came in one day with an open-wheel recording of the hit Six Days in May, says Cordeiro. But it was home-made and the quality was poor. Cordeiro suggested Robin do a proper recording at the RHK studio, which he took to da Silva. A recording contract followed and Cordeiro produced the song.
'[Joe Junior's] father, Rodrigues Snr, was my friend at St Joseph's. One day he said to me, 'My crazy son wants to be a pop singer, and you as a DJ, can you help?' So I recommended him to Diamond Records, which ended up signing him and producing his first hit, Here's a Heart, a song that was No1 for seven weeks. I must say Joe's popularity was because he was naturally friendly with teenagers. After every show, no matter how late it was, he would stay until the last [fan] had left. That's why he has had a lot of loyal fans over the years.'
Years later, Cordeiro and Joe Junior played assassins in the Michael Hui Koon-man and Samuel Hui Koon-kit comedy The Last Message.
The story of Uncle Ray's extraordinary interviews with The Beatles has been well documented, but few know that the one and only Hong Kong performance of the Fab Four was a commercial flop.
'It was in 1964, and the venue was Princess Theatre in Tsim Sha Tsui, which later became the Miramar Hotel,' says Cordeiro. 'Tickets cost HK$75 apiece, which was a lot of money then. The kids couldn't afford it and their parents didn't know who The Beatles were. So, in the end, British soldiers were called in to fill the seats.'
On one hot summer day in 1967, Cordeiro was given a special assignment from then-broadcast chief Donald Brooks. Instead of airing the Hot 100 from the studio on the sixth floor of Beacon Hill House, behind HSBC headquarters in Central, he was asked to do it on the rooftop.
'When I got up there, I couldn't believe what I saw: four huge horn speakers had been installed. What happened was, there were those box speakers at the old Bank of China, right next to HSBC, that played deafening propaganda music. When I blasted my Hot 100 through ours, it was so loud that it could be heard from the Star Ferry and thus [drowned out] the Bank of China's music. A picture of me and those giant speakers even made it to the front page of a New Zealand newspaper.'
All the Way with Ray has been Cordeiro's longest-running radio programme to date. Its launch owed much to the 1970 Osaka Expo.
'I was selected as the road manager of a local pop group to perform at the Hong Kong pavilion, which was next to the British site. I picked Joe Junior, Irene Ryder, Michael Remedios and other top musicians from Hong Kong, including a twenty-something Sam Hui. We got Tsang Fook Piano to provide us with Fender and other top-of-the-line equipment and free shipment to Japan, too. It so happened that we were the only pop group there, others brought in folk groups performing soft music. So our band music attracted a lot of attention. Every Saturday night, when a pavilion threw a party, we were the band there. But it also drew the jealousy of the host, who complained that we played too loud.'
While Cordeiro was away for the three-month expo, Australian DJ Ashton Farley stood in for his afternoon slot. When Cordeiro returned, instead of going back to his former show, he launched All the Way with Ray.
'I wanted to cater to a wider audience, especially the middle-aged and the elderly. So I took the night hours, running the show from 10pm to two in the morning, and including a segment called Nostalgia, devoted to sentimental and love songs. One day in 1977, for some reason I felt like playing Elvis Presley songs, not his rock 'n' roll, but Love Me Tender, Are You Lonesome Tonight, etc, a total of five, for the first time in Nostalgia, and the next day he died. It was as if I knew he was going to die. I've got that sixth sense in me.'
Also in 1977, Cordeiro was an adjudicator at a singing contest. Through him, another star was born.
'Leslie Cheung was so different from the rest. He sang American Pie wearing a white outfit and red boots. Although he was only the first runner-up, losing to Ding Mercado, I knew he would be a star, but I didn't know he would be that big. What I admired most was his grateful personality. Whenever he saw me, he would get up to greet me and have pictures taken with me.
'When I learned he had jumped to his death in 2003, I went to the spot with tears in my eyes, wondering why he would have done that.'
Cordeiro has outlived many of the superstars he has interviewed, most recently Donna Summer and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. But for him, their music lives on.
'I had love affairs in my life, but nothing [resulted in marriage]. So all I can say now is I'm married to my music. My life has been so happy, meeting all these important people in the music industry, that I wouldn't trade it for anybody else's.'
In 2010, Cordeiro collapsed during lunch at the Kowloon Cricket Club. After surgery for a heart ailment, he was advised to cut down his work from four hours a day to three, ending the programme at one instead of two in the morning. After two years of recuperation, Uncle Ray is ready for a comeback.
Next month, in addition to All the Way with Ray on weekdays, he will begin hosting a Sunday night hour of jazz, the genre that launched his career six decades ago.
'I have never seen the end of my career. I love to share my music with the audience so much that I look forward to my show every night. It will just go on forever and ever, as long as I have life.'