A person by the name Kal Kahn murdered the English language, thought the British, when he sang Oh to be in England and Ladies of Calcutta. That 45 rpm brings back loads of memories, especially of those unforgettable music sessions that preceded Sunday brunches, followed by Musical Bandbox on All India Radio. Every week there would be one request for either of these Kal Kahn numbers. Whether he gave birth to the phrase "ladies of Calcutta" remains a mystery but he surely made it famous.
On the seaside bordering Adamaly place, along Galle Road, is a gas station that dispenses, petrol, diesel, cooking gas, vehicle servicing and washing, very popular with local residents.
It was here where the famous Sri Lankan crooner Bill Forbes once worked as an attendant. The pump still stands and serves its citizens valiantly until today.
Bill Forbes was born on 17th December 1938 in Sri Lanka. He came to Britain in 1955 at the age of 17 doing menial clerical work by day and renting a flat in Victoria, Central London. During 1958 Bill lived out his dreams of being a famous singer by appearing regularly at the “Bread Basket” coffee bar in Tottenham Court Road.
It was while he was performing one night in September 1958 that two talent scouts representing Jack Good approached him and asked if he wanted to audition for the “Oh Boy!” show. The series had just blasted onto the nation's television screens a few weeks earlier and Bill was already a big fan of the show.
The show was a groundbreaking British pop music event from 1958-1959, in London with Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Bill Fury and others. He released 12 hits for EMI Columbia among them 'Too Young/It's Not the End of the World,' Sri Lankans still sing his baila hit: 'Aacha England,' recorded under the name of Kal Khan. 'Oh to be in England!' is still a favorite of many vintage Sri Lankans. Bill Forbes also appeared on Donovan Andree's musical shows in Colombo in the early 1960s and he was interviewed over Radio Ceylon by the late Vernon Corea.
“I was one of 30 artists who were invited to perform before Jack Good,” recalls Bill. “I turned up for the audition which was held at the actual venue for the live show itself - the Empire Theatre in Hackney- and I was absolutely petrified.”
On entering the theatre he saw for the first time many of the series regular stars, such as the Lord Rockingham XI, the Dallas Boys, Don Lang and the Vernons Girls.
From the 30 artists who auditioned that autumn morning Jack Good personally picked just two to appear in his “Oh Boy!” series - Emile Ford (who appeared just once on the 29th November 1958 edition) and Bill himself.
“I was over the moon,” Bill said, “but the audition didn't exactly get off to a great start!” Bill chose to sing Marty Wilde's current hit “Endless Sleep” as his audition piece. But at the end of the song Jack Good told him his performance was “OK” but he sounded a bit too much like Marty.
“We don't want two Marty's in the show do we?” said Jack, and he got Bill to sing another song. Bill's second audition piece was the Johnny Ray classic “Just Walking In The Rain” which was enough to convince Jack to put him in the series.
“In those days Jack told YOU what songs you will sing, and nobody answered back. None of the artistes dared argue and being young and a novice I did as I was told.”
Bill continues “Jack gave me an American record of the upbeat spiritual song `God's Little Acre' (from the film of the same name) which he wanted me to learn and perform on the show. To be honest I wasn't too pleased with the choice because I was a BIG rock `n' roll fan and to me it just wasn't right for the time...and it definitely wasn't rock `n' roll! Oh well I thought, I'll just have to put up with it and sing it.”
Bill attended the painstaking rehearsals both at the Empire Theatre and the Four Provinces of Ireland Club in Islington during the latter part of October in preparation for his “Oh Boy!” television debut, which was due to be on Saturday 1st November 1958. (Show Number 8 )
However a few days prior to the live broadcast Jack called Bill with some crushing news. Tommy Steele had agreed to come on the show at short notice and so Bill's spot was cancelled.
“I was devastated by the news. I didn't hear anything from Jack for several weeks after that. I was in limbo at that time. I began to think he didn't want me at all and the call was just a polite way of letting me down.”
Then at the beginning of December Bill was finally given his big chance- and a date for his debut show… Saturday 13th December 1958 (Show Number 14)
Bill sang the spiritual number backed by the Lord Rockingham XI with the Dallas Boys and the Vernons Girls providing the vocal backing and choreography.
Shortly after the show Bill signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and between 1959 and 1962 released eight singles, the biggest of which “Too Young” reached the number 29 position in UK Charts during December 1959.
His biggest success however was in his homeland of Sri Lanka, where his 3rd Columbia release “Too Young” backed with “Its Not The End of the World” became a double-sided number one hit at the beginning of 1960.
Bill was regarded as something of a hero in Sri Lanka, because although they had never seen the “Oh Boy” show over there, its reputation had spread worldwide and it was big news that one of its homegrown talents was starring in it.
Today, Bill is still regarded as the first Sri Lankan solo artist ever to secure a recording contract and a hit recording outside his native country.
When he returned there for a 10-day whistle stop tour in early 1960 - topping the charts with his version of the evergreen ballad “Too Young”- he was mobbed in the streets and even invited to lunch with the Prime Minister at his official residence.
“The biggest kick for me was that “Too Young” knocked Cliff Richard's “Living Doll” off the top of the Sri Lanka charts. I really felt I'd made it! It all happened so fast it's just a blur when I think about it now. All the detail gets lost when so many good things happen at once,” Bill said.
On 17th January 1959 Bill Forbes made his 2nd of 11 appearances on the series. He sang another song chosen for him by Jack called “Woman From Liberia” which would prove a big hit with the viewers. “She gave me water but it was not from the well” are the songs most memorable if not politically correct lyrics, which warns against accepting suspect liquid refreshment from dodgy African women!
Despite its popularity here in Britain the song was never released as a single.
Bill sang the song again the following week 24th January (as well as “God's Little Acre”) and for the very final show on 30th May - at Jack's request. Fortunately this final show has survived so at least one Bill Forbes performance has been preserved on film for posterity.
Bill's unscheduled 4th appearance on the 7th February 1959 show came out of the blue and proved to be a highlight in his career.
Bill recalls; “On the Friday - the day before the live broadcast- Jack called me suddenly to say that Cliff was sick with laryngitis and was unable to appear. And he wanted me to stand in as Cliff's replacement.”
Cliff was due to sing 3 solo songs as well as a duet with Marty, and I had to learn all five numbers with just 24 hours notice.
“I sang “Hot Dog”, and “Love Me Tender”. Fortunately I was an Elvis fan so most of the lyrics were no real obstacle. “For the finale Marty Wilde and I closed with a duet singing “Rip It Up”, “Keep On Knockin' (But You Cant Come In)” and “Bird Dog”.
“That was my biggest moment! Normally I would only get to sing just one song but because Cliff was such a big star by this time he would always get about four or five numbers to sing. The show went very well and was my chance to shine as the big star for the week.”
Bill's 5th appearance on “Oh Boy!” was on 28th February singing “Bim-Bom-Bey”- a country hit in 1959 for Jimmy Rodgers in the USA.
Bill Forbes' Eight single releases in the United Kingdom
Columbia DB4232 1959 My Cherie/ God's Little Acre
Columbia DB4269 1959 Once More/ Believe In Me
Columbia DB4386 1959 Too Young/ It's Not The End Of The World
Columbia DB4566 1961 You're Sixteen/ Backward Child
Columbia DB4619 1961 That's It, I Quit, I'm Moving On/ Big City Boy
Columbia DB4747 1961 Goodbye Cruel World/ Next Time
Columbia DB4855 1962 Laughter Or Tears/ Like A Good Girl Should
Columbia DB945 1962 Poker Face/ Marianne
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