Interviewing Leonard Tan can be a little unnerving because he peppers his answers with tongue-in-cheek quips, suddenly breaks out in song or jumps into a jingle – “Mopiko datang” he says in that voice.
Before you can react, he flips to the Trojan Warrior then goes on to play an imaginary instrument. You just never know what’s coming next!
It is humbling how warm and open he is. Tan makes two delicious cups of Kluang coffee as he happily settles down to share his life story.
This quintessential entertainer has been in the music business since the mid-1970s, and has mastered the art of mesmerising an audience.
Tan is one of the 30 acts lined up to perform at the Musicians for Musicians Benefit Concert 2020 on March 15 at the Mines International Exhibition Centre in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.
Labelled “A Concert to Heal”, the show is in aid of musicians whose careers have been interrupted by financial difficulties, illnesses and accidents.
It is an initiative of the Persatuan Pemuzik Tempatan Selangor (PPTS), a not-for-profit association spearheaded by professionals driven by a love for music.
Tan made his name singing and impersonating artistes like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bruno Mars and Teresa Teng. He has a treasure trove of tales from the time he was just 14 years old.
“I would sneak out of my house in Pulau Tikus and head to the pubs on my brother’s motorbike,” the Penangite reminisces.
He sang at the Suzuki Pub in Tanjung Tokong and also at The Welsh Dragon. “I had a repertoire of 42 songs then,” he says proudly.
He’s since played in numerous bands including Body & Soul, Vintage, Asiabeat and Forever Band, but is most well-known for his solo gigs.
He mentions Michael Veerapen, Jordan Rivers, Mac Chew, Jimmy Loh, Ainsley King, Jimmy Sax, Martin Tay and Dodong, all of whom he has worked with at some point.
A father of two, Tan says that while growing up, music overtook his dream of becoming either a doctor or a hotelier.
He graduated in hotel and restaurant management from Fanshawe College, Ontario, Canada in 1985 and returned to Malaysia only to find the hotel industry in dire straits with retrenchments everywhere.
“I decided to sing for a while, but I ended up singing forever,” he jokes.
The event that propelled Tan to fame was the Carlsberg Top of the Pubs competition in 1988, where he emerged second to Alex Peters. His career took off after that.
After a massive tour of pubs all over Malaysia, Tan went on to make jingles, cut three albums and acted in a comedy called Ah Lok Café, based on Reggie Lee’s cartoon characters.
“It was during my country wide tour that I realised singing alone is not good enough. You’ve got to talk to your audience so I started adding satire. I changed the song lyrics and personalised them,”.
“My humour helps people get into the spirit, and I started getting gigs for weddings and other events,” he says.
Tan progressed to the hotel circuit. “I’d do everything – the Comets, KC and The Sunshine Band, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. That was when I garnered a lot of experience,” he shares.
These days Tan works on commercials, operates a music school and does an underground live comedy show called Talk Cock Sing Song. He follows a number of tenets to ensure a successful, happy life.
These are being disciplined, staying away from drugs, not making enemies, finding humour in every situation and knowing when to throw in the towel and walk away when things don’t work out.
He cites the time he helped his fellow musicians when the karaoke craze took away their jobs in the 80s.
“I worked very hard in convincing pub owners that customers would get bored of karaoke all the time, and that it made sense to intersperse karaoke sessions with live music.
Also got them to vary the schedules of the singers so audiences would get a different musician every day of the week. These suggestions worked and business began to boom again.”
At the March 15 concert, Tan will once again perform the tune that made him famous, Bobby Darin’s ”Mac The Knife”.
You’ll get to sample his amazing impersonation skills when he dives into his Malaysia’s Got Talent routine. Prepare to be entertained, folks.
Tickets are priced at RM100 and available at www.airasiaredtix.com. You can also call Edwin on 012 209 8849 or Raj on 019 229 7156.