Filed under: India
When most people think of the Pop music of India, they think of filmi – the music of India’s film industry. But there were a few other options – albeit a very small. There was a Jazz scene in Goa in the 50s and 60s. There were also a number of garage bands around the country like the The Mustangs, The Tremolos and many more who were featured on the Simla Beat compilations that were released in 1970 and 71. And then there were others – like Runa Laila (who was actually from Bangladesh), Nazia Hassan (who was from Pakistan) and Usha Uthup.
Usha Iyer was born November 8, 1947 in Madras (now Chennai), which is the capitol of the Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Her father Sami Iyer, later became the police commissioner of Bombay (now Mumbai). She has three sisters Uma Pocha, Indira Srinivasan and Maya Sami, all of whom are singers and two brothers, one of whom is named Shyam.
Usha’s first public singing occurred when she was nine. Her sisters introduced her to Ameen Sayani, who gave her an opportunity to sing on the Ovaltine Music Hour on Radio Ceylon. She sang a number called “Mockingbird Hill”. Uthup started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gems, when she was 20. Her performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked her to stay on for a week. From there, she went to Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was there that she met her husband Uthup. Usha then went to Delhi, where she sang at the Oberoi Hotel. By coincidence, a film crew belonging to Navketan unit including Shashi Kapoor visited the nightclub and they offered her a chance to sing movie playback. As a result, she started her Bollywood career with Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, she was supposed to sing “Dum Maro Dum” along with Asha Bhosle. However, as a result of internal politicking on the part of other singers, she lost that chance but ended up singing an English verse.
In 1968, she recorded covers of two pop songs in English, “Jambalaya” and The Kingston Trio‘s “Greenback Dollar”, on an EP, which she followed with the album Scotch and Soda. Her backing band on half of that album was called The Flintstones, who she also recorded a double single. Around this time, she often traveled to London. She was a frequent visitor to Vernon Corea‘s BBC office in London and was interviewed on “London Sounds Eastern” on BBC Radio London. Usha visited Nairobi as part of an Indian Festival. Singing in Swahili made her extremely popular, and President Jomo Kenyatta made her an Honorary Citizen of Kenya. She produced a record Live in Nairobi with a local band Fellini Five.
You can find two more tracks off this record over at Waxidermy.