Saturday, October 11, 2008
The Singer not the song
Tony Brent created a splash in the music scene of the 1950s; his songs ring true even today. But the singer’s journey through life is yet to find a chronicler, writes Mathures Paul
The saddest part of a show is the overture. What begins must come to an end. And Tony Brent knew this well. For most, it is a forgotten, if not unheard name. He did the disappearing act from music charts many decades ago. But he recorded in a few years what most contemporary singers would record in a few lifetimes. Walkin’ to Missouri, The Game of Love, In My Little Room, Cindy, Oh Cindy, Forever My Darling, Don’t Save Your Love for a Rainy Day... Brent records are classics.
After all these years we wonder where he is. What happened after the 1960s? Where did he begin? How did it all end? There are questions galore but answers, none. Not even the best music encyclopedias or Internet search engines will answer your queries. First, the sad news. Tony is no more. He died suddenly in 1993. Re-tracing his family was an arduous task which this correspondent undertook years ago. Turning up with negative answers time and again, it was by sheer luck contact was established with a friend of Brent’s wife.
Pam Peisley, now a resident of Didcot, UK, studied with Noreen Brent. “In 1943 I was in Lucknow for the school holidays and Noreen (nee Crawford) lived in a house down the road where we were staying for the winter. Both our dads were in the Army. She had three sisters and a brother ~ Joan, Barbara, Dorothy and Lenny. All the sisters have passed away except Barbara who now lives in Australia. Even Lenny is no more,” says Peisley, who was born in Simla and did her schooling in Mussoorie.
“Noreen was a great dancer, and did a fantastic jive! We used to go dancing at the Standard Ballroom in Lucknow! She was great fun to be with, and we did a lot of daredevil things at that age (around 15). We were usually accompanied by my sister and two other friends from the Military Lines in which we lived. When I came with my family to England in 1952, I stayed with Noreen and Tony for a month before returning home to Didcot in Oxfordshire. Before they left for Australia, Noreen and the two children, Kevin and Karen came and stayed with me in Didcot for a couple of weeks, while Tony was selling the house and getting ready to leave,” she continues.
Thanks to Pam, I was able to communicate with Karen Bretagne, Brent’s daughter, and grandson Cory Bretagne. They have provided valuable information about a man who helped put India on the international music scene much before Cliff Richard.
Reginald Hogan Bretagne (Tony Brent) was born on 13 August 1926 in Byculla, India. He was the oldest son of Patrick Joseph and Irene Marian Bretagne, and had three brothers and two sisters. Sadly, one sister died when only six months old from pneumonia, and the other, Patsy Douglas, currently lives in Perth. Brother André now lives in Sydney and the youngest brother, Maurice, died in 1988 from a severe stroke leaving his family in Sydney.
Cory says, “He started school at the age of five with one year at preparatory school in Bombay. At age six, he was enrolled in a boarding school in Doolali for nine years where he completed his Junior Cambridge followed by Senior Cambridge. Later, he went to a school in Nasik called Boys Town where he matriculated after two years.” Brent was good at Geography, English and Urdu but, like many of us, was scared of Mathematics! He was a champ when it came to football, cricket and his favourite, hockey. But closest to his heart was knowing more about cars. Fortunately Reg’s father was a Ford dealer, giving him the opportunity to pursue his hobby. He reassembled post-war jeeps, Dodge weapon carriers and military vehicles. By the age of 18 he had a great knowledge of mechanics and went into business with his father in the Ford dealership.
“In 1946 he, with his cousin Henry, visited the Dance hall next to the movies in Deolali. At one of the morning dances held there, he met 17-year-old Noreen Crawford who was there with her two sisters. He asked Noreen for a dance. Music for the session was provided by a jukebox and consisted of big bands of that era such as Artie Shaw and Glen Miller. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned when Noreen’s family was to move to England. They kept in touch through letters for about a year, and finally he proposed in one of his letters. The Crawford family returned to India on the SS Stratmore and arrangements for the marriage began. The day after the wedding both left for the UK to live in Surrey,” continues Cory.
It was in England that Brent discovered his talent for singing. A talent scout from the BBC, London spotted him and arranged an audition with the Bert Ambrose Band. The audition was successful. This was followed by radio broadcasts and a recording contract with Columbia Records. He joined the BBC Showband in 1951 and took on the stage name Tony Brent. That very year the couple had their first child ~ Kevin Patrick. His first taste of success came in the form of Walking to Missouri. Of his 104 records, 29 made it to the hit parade. In 1953, the year Tony went on a world tour, Karen was born.
Recalling Tony, Pam continues, “I met him in 1952. He was quite popular by that time, and had a number of hits. All I remember of him was that he was working hard at his singing. He came to Didcot and visited our family and narrated interesting anecdotes about the various happenings in his life. In March 1956 they attended my wedding in Didcot, together with Noreen’s sisters, and we had a good day with all of them.”
In 1961, the Brents shifted to Sydney where he joined Eric Jupp on his television programme Magic of Music. Cory says, “In 1964, Tony’s other talent surfaced ~ cooking Indian food. So, the family opened a restaurant called Rajah’s in Crows Nest, Sydney. They sold this restaurant after two years to buy a slightly larger one in Chatswood naming it East India Restaurant. With the immigration of other relatives in the family, Mona (Noreen’s mother) moved to yet another branch of East India in Brookvale leaving Tony as chef in Chatswood. Three years later, Tony purchased another restaurant in Double Bay and named it Sabu’s incorporating other Asian preparations and featuring a cabaret starring none other than Tony Brent. The Bee Gees also appeared quite regularly as young ‘potential’ stars. Two years later Tony decided to move business to central Sydney calling his new restaurant New India Curry Cellar. At this stage, Tony won the award for ‘Best Asian Food’ which helped make the New India Curry Cellar a very popular and successful business. This restaurant remained the source of their livelihood for 10 years after which they made their final move to their largest and most lavish restaurant ~ which included a nightclub. Situated in the basement of the AWA building in York Street, Sydney, Tony christened this restaurant Shalimar, where he not only supervised the cooking but also played in various bands appearing each evening. Tony played the congos, harmonica and sang. Kevin, Tony’s son, had grown up to become a fine musician; he played the piano.”
But disaster struck the big happy family in 1981 when Noreen died at the age of 50 and so did Mona Crawford. The family was devastated. Shalimar continued until the ownership of the building changed hands. The business could have been shifted, but the family decided otherwise. Rounds off Cory, “Tony was a bit lost for a while. He tried living on a boat, but during winter this proved too harsh on him particularly having suffered a slight stroke after Noreen’s death and also having been diagnosed with diabetes. He bought a mobile home and travelled extensively around Australia until in 1990 he joined his daughter Karen and me in Queensland and retired.”
In 1996, Cory and Karen flew to India with Tony’s ashes, which were scattered in the Ganges. The sad part is that not many record companies released collections of Brent’s music. The most popular one is The Magic of Tony Brent, which was released in 1999.
Brent is dead but his music lingers. We keep talking of singing greats such as Cliff Richard or Freddie Mercury being born in India. But how many times do we mention the person who gave the eternal hit In My Little Room, Don’t save your Kiss for a Rainy Day or Every Time we say Goodbye? There will never be another person who would sing Pleading My Love with all his heart, enough to make you fall in love, over and over again.