I finished school in ’74, after failing twice, once in the 9th std and once in 11th std. I did not want to go to college. I wanted to work and had had enough of studying.
I used to play piano as a kid, did the first three exams, passed with 98%, 97%, 95 %. In those days, the examiners would come down from the UK. This was before the 5th std.
My teachers were my grandmother Mrs Mary Flanagan, Mrs Leach from Colaba and Arnold Saldanha from Dhobitalao. My grandmothers lessons were free of course but I never learned with her. She could not stop me running all over the house. Mrs Leach on the other hand had a big thick wooden ruler and was not shy to use it. I got quite a few good whacks on my knuckles. Arnold Saldanha was also a no nonsense guy.
6th std, I was sent off from St Xaviers, Dhobitalao, to St Mary’s Mount Abu, Rajasthan. German music teacher, don’t remember his name, insisted that I play Clarinet. I excelled at it. I remember playing ‘black is black’ which made him very angry. Incidentally, the other clarinet player in the band was Micky Correa’s son Mark. We used to stand up and play our solos at school functions and I remember Micky was chief guest at one of our functions and he came up to me and asked who my father was. He assumed my father was a professional musician in Bombay. But even though my dad was a good pianist, he never played professionally.
I got thrown out from Abu in the 7th std by Brother Judge, Principal and very strict disciplinarian and that was the end of my clarinet playing. I met Micky very often in Mumbai later but I never saw his son Mark again.
8th std, I was put in St Mary’s Mazgaon, ISC section. I entered a singing competition…….. I sang ‘Hey Jude’ and even though I felt I sang very well, I was sent straight back to class, unselected and disappointed. Everyone else sang “Precious Lord” !!!!! What did I know? Std 9, changed schools again. I went off to Barnes School Deolali. I did play a bit of piano but boxing, swimming, football, hockey, cricket and girls were more important. (it is a Co-ed school) so music took a back seat. So, here I am in 1974 with my 2nd class Cambridge certificate in my hand, facing the world with no skills whatsoever.
All the older boys in my colony in Cavel, Chira Bazaar, played guitar, dropped Mandrax tablets, smoked Charas and I learned two or three chords and sang CCR, Rolling stones, Beatles, all that cool stuff that I still love to this day.
We formed a band called “Good Neighbours” we must have sounded terrible but we played a few gigs/weddings.
I remember playing the wedding march on my small accordion followed by the grand march, keeping it down, strapping on my guitar and doing the rest the gig singing and playing rhythm guitar. I must have learned another two or three more chords by then.
While moonlighting as a musician, I also tried other jobs. I worked for Ericson Richards in Ballard Pier, Cambata Aviation at Juhu airport and my final job before I became a full time musician was a Trainee Assistant Steward/barman at Oberoi Hotel, Nariman point. My salary at Oberoi was Rs 175/ per month !!!! and my mum used to ask me why I needed money to “go” to work when it should be the other way around !!!
October 1976 I was still tending bar in the Oberoi when a bandleader “Victor Martins” who lived down my street, asked me and my band “ Good Neighbours” to play for his wedding………..free of charge of course. Somehow he was impressed with me and asked me if I wanted to come with his band to Mysore. He offered me Rs 750/ per month, which to me was an astronomical amount compared to the Rs 175/ I was earning at Oberoi. I did not think twice. I picked up my guitar, my little Ahuja amp and speaker and without telling my parents, boarded the train to Mysore.
Wrote a couple of letters to my parents of course telling them not to worry. Now I was playing lead guitar and I sucked !!! Victor cut my salary down to Rs 500/ but I could not complain, not after running away from home!!! I learnt some more chords. The big song then was “Band on the Run” and I could play the lead parts exactly!!
I came back 7 months later from Mysore with long hair and smoking hash which I learned to do from “Ervin Vaz” our drummer and my great friend. Mom of course wouldn’t let me in the house till I had cut my hair. I remember playing ‘off’ days with the Victor Martins band at Holiday Inn where the great Mike Fay band was in residence. Then, Victor gave me a shock. He told me that I would have to either play Bass guitar or leave the band. I sucked at lead guitar anyway but I guess he still liked me for my singing. He said he was getting someone called “Herman” to play Lead.
So overnight I became a bass guitarist. Victor loaned me his ‘Paul McCartney’ style bass guitar and we went off to Delhi to the Café Chinois in the Oberoi.
My hash days continued cause ‘Herman Black’ as they called him was the world champ at rolling a joint. And we got really good hash in Delhi. We roamed all over Delhi, climbing over rooftops in the Jungpura area to score our hash. Spent our whole salary on hash and our afternoon meals. This was now 1978. Next job Bahrain ! Victor sold of my bass guitar. He said I could buy a new bass guitar in Bahrain.
Right enough, the Moon Plaza, where we played and stayed also owned Moon Stores the best music shop in the whole of Bahrain (which was not a very big city then, you could see the whole of Bahrain in less than two hours) So I chose a copy of a Fender Precision called “Morris”. I paid for this bass guitar with one weeks tips !!!!! tipping was really heavy and I was forced to sing a couple of Arabic songs which earned us great tips every night. We also had cabaret artists from England and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) but that’s another story!!! Salary only 60 Dinars but who cared! the tips were better. Victor came back from Bahrain and bought a flat in Juhu !!!! but this again is another story !
Victor broke up the band and went solo. He was getting lucrative contracts in Yemen and other gulf countries so he went off. When he came back he settled in Bangalore in a bungalow he had built and played at the Taj Residency where I met him years later on my honeymoon. He now lives in Canada.
So here I was 1978. No job, no band, no money.
We had shared a huge bungalow in Delhi, in Maharani Baug where I met the fantastic pianist Benny Rozario and Lester Rozario. It had so many rooms that Benny’s sax player had a room with family, Benny, Lester and his mom had a room, Herman and me had a room, Victor and his wife had a room, his father and our drummer Abdan had a room and there was even one big room where Lester had set up his drum kit and he banged it all day, playing for Herman and me.
I only mention this because Benny came to see me in Mumbai. I was playing for Tony Carr at the Abanara Restaurant at Fariyas hotel Colaba at that time and Benny had secured a job at the Centaur Hotel, Juhu and he was looking to form a band.
So I joined Benny playing bass and singing. Cliffy on guitar, Lester Rozario on drums, Jazzy Joe Pereira on sax and our singers were Debbie Fisher, Sandhya Sanjana, Clarinda and later Cyrilla (Chinky) daughter of the great Bismark.
This was 1979. Then I did a short stint with Louis Banks in place of his bass guitarist Lou Hilt and they remembered me because when Louis left the band and Braz Gonsalves took over, Benny joined as pianist and pulled me along in this band.
At that time, I remember I was playing Bass guitar for Johnny Fernandes and Ursula at the Mayfair restaurant at President Hotel and our contract was over as they changed the restaurant from Continental to Indian, called it Gulzar and hired a duo to play Tabla and Harmonium. Johnny Fernandes went off to Sun n Sand and I joined the Braz Gonsalves band at Sea Rock Hotel. By now I knew my way around the bass guitar and I could only get better with time.
Nine years playing bass guitar with Braz Gonsalves and the lovely Yvonne. Benny had left the band and Tony Dias, a brilliant young pianist joined. Ashley, Yvonne and me did all the singing and we sounded great. Ashley was and still is a fantastic singer. Lloyd Fishery was on drums. Our three part harmony was the stuff of legend. Band leaders and musicians from all over India would come to listen to us.
We spent 8 years at the Neptune Restaurant in Holiday inn and we were as close as a family then and even now. Braz was a great and patient teacher and what I learned there still serves me in good stead today. These were the Jazz Yatra days where the organizers put great Jazz musicians up in our hotels and we had a chance to jam with them and they with us. We brought in enough booze and when the restaurant closed we jammed till 4 am. We also had spot artists from all over the world that came in with their music around Christmas time and we learned to read music a bit. The great Shiva Mani and Ranjit Barrot came often to jam too.
We broke up in ’84 when a gulf job we were all supposed to go to in Sharjah fizzled out and we formed ‘ The Nightbirds’ with Beverley in place of Yvonne and good ol’ Cliffy in place of Braz. We gigged all over own and even went abroad to do gigs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
In 1980 when I was still playing bass with Braz, I was convinced by a good friend to take up a job teaching singing at St Joseph’s School in Colaba. So I played piano there till I got reasonably good at it for 4 years as a teacher. I really enjoyed that job. I quit teaching when the Sharjah job came up and when it fizzled out I did not go back to teaching. Then in 1984, on a chance meeting with the F&B Manager Dastoor at President Hotel, he said he needed a pianist and bravely, I said I was. He asked me to audition and I auditioned with my toy Yamaha Keyboard and got the job playing solo piano in the President Lobby.
This was great. Many evenings I played from 5 pm till 8 pm and rushed to Churchgate station, caught a fast train to Bandra and was in time to play bass for a gig with my band the Nightbirds. Most of our weekends were busy playing weddings. I was married by then and had two lovely daughters.
Then Nikhil Britto who played piano at the Library bar quit and Dastoor the F&B manager asked me to take over in the bar after my lobby stint. I was getting a double salary and was ecstatic. I played at the Library and the lobby for another 8 years. I was still bunking to play bass with my band on Friday and Saturday nights and the new F&B manager noticed and told me in no uncertain terms to either quit my band or quit the hotel. Sadly I had to quit the band as I now had a family and steady money was steady money !! My bass playing days were over. I was a full time pianist now!
It was now ’93. Completely fed up after 8 years of playing at the President with no increase in salary, only one off day, a mean manager who would cut my salary if I was sick, no paid leave etc, I thought to myself there has to be more to life than this current job. As a family man, I could not take my kids for a holiday, as I did not have paid leave, I could not even take a day off without my salary being cut. I had reached the peak, the best bar in Mumbai, the best salary. There was no way to rise further. I decided to quit and go to the UK and the US.
This was a mistake; it was also a turning point in my life. I discovered that there were better musicians playing on the street in the US than those playing in all the 5 star hotels in India. I knew exactly where I stood as a musician and I have been humble ever since. I wanted to make it as a songwriter and singer. I knew I did not stand anywhere as a musician. But I discovered the UK was broke and the US was full of bullshit and con artists waiting to rip you off. I also learned to my disappointment that I was earning more money in India with my President job and my private gigs. So I came back.
Now I was dead broke. With a family!!! But I have been in this situation often in my musical career so it did not worry me too much. Soon the private gigs kept coming as all the clients from President Hotel heard I was back and kept inviting me over. I was once again earning sufficient money.
I began to do short contracts, 3 months each in Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, which were basically shopping trips as I did not come back with much money but tons of clothes, booze and chocolates for my family. These contracts are far from easy. You have to perform every night without fail, sick or well!!! Only one off day, Friday. But I managed somehow. Salaries were unequal. White skins were getting more. And most of them were using back up tracks. I was the only musician playing really “live”.
My agent used to take 15% of my salary (may the fleas of a thousand camels…………*&%#@) I had decided that I would never again take a 5 star hotel job even if I was starving to death . so I continued playing “Home Concerts” as Dee Wood calls them and I performed in almost every big shots home in Mumbai.
Then I landed the best job of my life. I met Mr Hari Shankaran at a house party about 12 years ago and he invited me to play in his office, the IL&FS building in BKC. He gave me a fantastic salary, Saturday and Sunday off (which no musician in the world has ever got), one month paid leave per year and my playing time was every evening Monday to Friday from 6 pm till 8 pm. I was free to play privately for a lunch/brunch party or any private party after 8 pm which I often did. I was in Heaven and I did this job for 9 years till 31st Dec 2019 when the shit hit the fan. You all know what happened so I will leave out the details.
Since then, like all other musicians in our great city of Mumbai we are surviving as best we can.
God help us all.
This is my story. Ernest Joseph Flanagan who everyone knows as Ernie. 2nd June 2020.