By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

It was a long overdue night out with Norman Cheng, my longtime friend from the days when we were in bands to our time running Universal Music and then EMI Music for the region before the bottom fell out of the music industry and a new online business model emerged. We’ve also continued with our interest in horse racing and especially our friendships with former jockeys John Didham and Neil Paine and their families.

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Norman took some time off to spend time with his family and I took a very different career direction- the marketing of horse racing as part of the entertainment world.

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In the way of background, Norman had been guitarist with one of the most popular local groups- Teddy Robin and the Playboys- before paying his dues as studio musician, engineer and producer and then leapfrogging to be the head of PolyGram where he was instrumental in signing up new talent who became some of the biggest artists in Hong Kong and the region- Alan Tam, Jacky Cheung, Sam Hui, Teresa Teng, in the Philippines, Martin Nivera, Gary V, Regine Vellasquez, Side A starting with adding the legendary Filipino singer-songwriter Freddie Aguilar to the artists roster.

Fast forward to Norman becoming Chairman of, first Universal Music, then EMI Music before setting up his own music company and selling it when the price was right- and the “right” investor waltzed in, someone whose ego was bigger than his grey matter and dearly wishing to pay to make a name for himself in the world of entertainment.

Norman is seen as part musical visionary and a major player in the Art Of The Deal. But once a musician, always a musician, and over the past couple of years, Norman has been jamming with friends. He was readying himself for something. It wasn’t long before he was making onstage cameo appearances with Canto Pop icons including his actor-son Ronald.

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With him having one foot back in music, of course his business mind has been working overtime. It will surprise no one when he stages another of his famous comebacks.

Timing, it’s all in the timing, and which is how we met up from the Champagne Bar, then attending a surreal open mic session at Morrison Cafe before making it to the Hard Rock Cafe in Lan Kwai Fong. This last stop was for a quick drink, and especially to see my friend and guitarist Jay Apungan who was playing with the resident band.

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Norman hadn’t really heard Jay before, but listening and watching him this night, we were back as if still in A&R with a music company. Norman saw Jay as being a vital part of backing bands for touring acts from Hong Kong. I heard Jay perform a Bryan Adams song and knew it would be a huge hit if recorded in Mandarin by Norman’s son. It’s an A&R strategy I had worked successfully when with EMI. This was having Danish group Michael Learns To Rock record an English version of the first Mandarin hit for singer Jacky Cheung. That song became “Take Me To Your Heart” and a massive hit throughout the region. Though having other hits out here, this one song helped give MLTR a long lifeline to their career in Asia.

As for Jay, he was introduced to us by Hong Kong based Australian saxophonist Blaine Whittaker who can blow off stage most of the Canto Pop singers he backs on tours to give them some “jazzy” and “class”.

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This was when the original guitarist in the band at the HKJC owned venue Adrenaline was just finding his feet and he was hit by the strict immigration laws in place today affecting many Filipino musicians. Jay had no such problems. He was a Hong Kong resident, and more importantly, he came highly recommended by Blaine as both guitarist and singer.

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Though the band had a very good singer, Jay gave the band a new dimension. In a word, he was good. More than good. Having known Jay now for a number of years- one of the nicest and non-political musicians around in an increasingly nasty industry- he needs a home run. The one-off gigs playing covers and giving guitar lessons must fade to black and into the portfolio marked The Past. He has a young family, and with any family comes responsibility.

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He’s not getting younger and he needs a longtime career plan. So when Norman turned to me this night and said, “We should help Jay”, that meant a lot. As he keeps telling me, “Jack, don’t help losers.” He calls me “Jack”, I call him “Walter”‘as in actors Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. No idea how this originated. It might have something to do with The Odd Couple. “You’ve been used too many times,” he continued. “But it’s good that you no longer care what people think or say about you. Forget them.” He then added, “This is an excellent band.” I mentioned the prejudice affecting Filipino musicians in Hong Kong.

Norman’s reply was one of those obvious Eureka moments: “But who says this? People who don’t know music and they’re always in Hong Kong. If music was this racist, we wouldn’t have heard the great Black musicians. Radio banned them in the Fifties- white radio stations. You and I have had to prove ourselves when in music companies to head office because we’re Asians. We did this by having home runs. Anyway, music has no barriers. Jay is incredibly talented as a Rock guitarist- maybe not an overall good creative guitarist or songwriter, but this is where we can guide him and this band. They’re perfect for Hard Rock Cafe, but they also need to get out of Hard Rock Cafe. Let’s create new opportunities for them. These are people with talent and worth helping- but they must first know they have to help themselves.”

Jay was onstage. On the way back home, I was thinking, “I wish Jay could have heard that conversation.” There’s playing music for a living and living for the music, and there’s always the need to know one’s worth and to keep improving and taking chances. If not, complacency takes over, and the fire is gone.

That night at Hard Rock Cafe, Jay was on fire. And this fire helped ignite a new fire in Norman and myself. That’s how chain reactions work. Thanks, Jay.

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