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Once again to those days

by Geoff Wijesinghe - Sat, Mar 2, 2002

George Siegertsz, who passed away in London last week at the age of 82, was one of the last of a generation of post-World War Two musicians.

George was a regular at Lion House at the Bambalapitiya Junction. He was one of the motley group of young men who visited the popular eatery, which served more as a "cup tea punt" (a cup of tea and a fag) club where these youth chatted for long hours of this, that and the other.

Although the group comprised many toughs who walked around like pocket editions of Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Spencer Tracy, the tough guys at the time of the silver screen, George Siergertsz was more interested in chatting and in music. He was the country's number one whistler, a fine art and often his friends at Lion House, would gather round a table and listen to him whistling the popular tunes at the time.

About one in two months or so, George Siergertsz had a 15-minute program over Radio Ceylon and would whistle the popular tunes of the day, haunting melodies, many of them World War Two favourites such as "Time Goes By", "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", "A Long Way to Tipperary" and "The White Cliffs of Dover".

Many of us younger one who kept in touch with the Lion House crowd knew well in advance when George Siergertsz, a lean, tall, gangling figure was going to whistle over Radio Ceylon.

Incidentally, although some of his pals operated in grey areas, George never blew the whistle on them to the cops. He was only interested in whistling fine musical tunes. The Lion House group, I would not like to describe them as a mob, although some of them were men of violence looking out for a fight.

One morning we read the sensational news in the "Daily News" of two of the Lion House boys having stowed away successfully on board a ship from Colombo to Southampton. If my memory serves me right they were Hula Mortier and Kingsley Rodrigo who, according to their buddies, have gone to the UK to become coal miners.

When I last heard of them many years ago they had in fact made their way to London and were domiciled there. The years following World War Two produced musicians of fine vintage in this country. Foremost of them was Erin de Selfa who was discovered by the doyen of Sri Lankan showmen Donovan Andre, a former racing correspondent attached to the Times of Ceylon, which was published in the evenings and on Sundays.

She was recruited to sing in the group which was known as Red Tail Minstrels and grew up to be dark and dusky, and her voice was very much like the posh Shirley Bassey. Once she grew up, Erin was a regular over a Radio Ceylon. She then left for London under contract to the famous "Talk of the Town" nightclub in London, which was patronized by celebrities.

I had the privilege of listening to Erin over the BBC one night. This was the first time that a Sri Lankan musician had been honoured by BBC, at the time the premier broadcasting station in the world, a highly prestigious achievement.

Her renditions of "Blue Moon", "As Time Goes By", "I can't help Falling in Love with You" and several other sentimental songs, were of the highest international standards.

Several years later, another Sri Lankan Yolande Wolfe, an old girl of Holy Family Convent of Bambalapitiya and whose father owned a building at the top of Retreat Road, followed in Erin's footsteps and became popular in the US.

That was in the early 1950s, the George and Gerry Crake brother were the seniors in the local music scene and they too were regulars over Radio Ceylon. They had a band known as the Crake Brothers, Gerry had a rich, deep tenor. There was also the Millionaires' dance band who practised in a house at Edward Lane.

They had the big band sound and their rendition of the Glenn Miller favourite "Take the A-train", which is a perennial, was superb.

The biggest end-of-the-year dance in the late 1940s was at the Town Hall where several bands played and there was one hectic rush for tickets.

Some of the Lion House "boys" got involved in a brawl at one of those New Year's Eve dances, which ended tragically in the death of a young man, who fell out of an upstair window when taking a punch.

The pint-sized Carl Cooke, the former Thomian wicket-keeper, had a ballroom dancing school opposite Lion House directly behind the petrol shed at the Bambalapitiya Junction. In this sprawling old house he also established the 20th Century Club, no doubt getting the inspiration from the name 20th Century Fox, the international film producer.

One night, some of the boys who had the habit of dropping in for drinks at the 20th Century Club, imbibed more than they should have had and inspired by Bacchus, took all the club's flower pots and placed them on Carl Cooke's billiard table. Being a mild mannered man, all Carl could say was "what have you fellows done? You have damaged my billiard table. And I will have to replace it with new clothes."

Carl, of course, being a peace-loving man, paid for the repairs. But the neighbourhood was very angry with the Lion House crowd for having abused Carl Cooke's hospitality, for he was very popular. Carl's brother Percy who has played for S. Thomas' was my headmaster for long years