PETALING JAYA: Billy Chang is a little embarrassed to share this story, but finally gives in.
“Once, when we were returning from a gig in Singapore, Hussein and I got caught up with something and we ended up being late for our flight,” he reveals.
“We were expecting to be turned away at the airport gate, but the airplane was still there. They waited for us and even sent down the rampstairs so we could board after the gates had closed.
“We walked onto the plane with our heads hung low, and Michael Magness who was already on-board was cursing us.”
Both Chang and Hussein Idris burst out in chuckles as they relate this tale. Along with Magness, these men are part of the famous Strollers, one of Malaysia’s best known acts from the 1960s.
Initially modelled after instrumental bands like The Shadows and The Ventures, the band played pop music at venues like Tomorrow Disco, Tin Mine, Glass Bubble, Gypsy Caravan and Carmen’s Inn.
Chang says, “We never thought of ourselves as real celebrities but when we think back, I guess we were.”
The original band comprised Magness (vocals, organ), Nand Kumar (vocals, congas), Chang (bass guitar), Hassan Idris (lead guitar) and Ramli (replaced by Hussein on drums).
Signed with CBS Records, Strollers recorded one album, “Waiting is…” in 1973, influenced by the sixties British progressive and psychedelic movement.
The band split after that, but over the last few decades there has been a number of revivals with new members.
This Sunday, March 15, Strollers will once again strut their stuff at the Musicians for Musicians Benefit Concert 2020 at the Mines International Exhibition & Convention Centre in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.
The concert will feature 30 iconic acts comprising 100 musicians who performed in the 1970s and 80s.
Hussein remembers the first time the band toured East Malaysia in the 70s, to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Tawau.
“We were on our way to KK, and there were some politicians on our flight. After we landed, we noticed a huge crowd waiting and assumed they were there for the politicians.
“But after the politicians left and it was our turn to disembark, big banners saying, ‘Welcome Strollers!’ started going up. We were shocked!” Hussein shares.
“In those days, none of us had a camera handy to document that warm reception.”
Chang and Hussein both agree that this sort of affirmation of their talent and music back then, only inspired the band to do better.
Chang says, “We could see the appreciation, and that made us work harder.”
The musicians, now in their early 70s, relate how they made a living in those days. “The money was good, and we wouldn’t play unless we were paid upfront,’’ Chang adds. “That’s how much people valued the band.”
Chang has never regretted making music his career. “It wasn’t always easy to ‘cari makan’ but when we started selling records, we got to see the money.
“We could pay our bills. Even when we were playing the hotel circuit or on cruise ships, we were earning good money.
“Magness insisted that for us to move forward, we had to play music exclusively, so we all made a commitment and gave up our day jobs.”
Hussein, however, admits to a small regret. “We were earning good money in the 70s, but we didn’t know what to do with it. There was nobody to advise or guide us.
“Nobody taught us how to make use of our money, how to go into business or invest in property.”
Chang agrees. “We were young. Money came in and we spent it all.”
Indeed many once popular musicians find themselves in a bit of a quandary later on in life, an issue that the Persatuan Pemuzik Tempatan Selangor (PPTS) hopes to address.
The March 15 benefit concert aims to raise enough cash to start a fund, which will be in aid of musicians whose once passionate careers have been interrupted by financial difficulties, illnesses or accidents.
After five decades, Chang and Hussein remain close. “Of course the band has had some minor arguments every now and again, but we never really fought.
“We are very close. After work, we go out, have drinks and ‘makan’ together. We’ve remained close friends all this while.”
Chang and Hussein are happy to reunite for this effort, and want to spread the music of Strollers.
Hussein says, “Our group has a very ‘muhibbah’ quality, we are made up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian musicians. Our fans also come from all races as well.”
Hussein adds, “Some of our fans are in their 70s, and they still come for our shows with their ‘tongkat’! Some people can’t believe that Strollers still exist so they want to come and see for themselves.”
March 15 will be your best chance to catch the famous Strollers in action.
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.