Mention the name Jimmy Boyle to music buffs of my generation and it would surely rekindle memories of an accomplished composer and jazz pianist.
Back then, this Penang Eurasian was perhaps the most famous composer of Malay songs. I vividly remember listening to his songs while growing up in the 1960s.
Boyle’s notable compositions include Chendering, Jauh Jauh, Ingat Ingat, Bunga Negara, Sang Bayu, Ke-Hulu Ke-Hilir, Pantun Melayu, Gemaran Bulan and my personal favourite, Putera Puteri or Putra Putri.
A momentous occasion in Boyle’s life was when one of his compositions, Kemegahan Negaraku (My Country’s Majesty), was chosen to be played at the inaugural raising of the national flag on 31 August 1957.
One of Boyle’s best-known compositions, Untuk Negeri Kita, was adopted as the Penang state anthem in 1972, a year after his passing. He composed and wrote the lyrics for this song.
Not just a prolific composer, Boyle was also a well-known pianist, picking up the skill from his mother, a piano teacher. He wrote close to 350 songs during his lifetime, and some of his songs, like Putera Puteri, are familiar to many who learnt them in school.
Boyle endured hardship during the Japanese occupation after being incarcerated. He studied at St Xavier’s Institution, Penang and returned to his alma mater as a teacher soon after the war.
One day, at the request of British officers in Penang, he formed a band and entertained them with some music over dinner at the Runnymede Hotel in Penang. This sparked his musical career.
Boyle also performed at the Minden Barracks, the present site of Universiti Sains Malaysia on Penang Island, and at the then Royal Australian Air Force base in Butterworth.
Those who knew Boyle remember him as someone with music in his veins – a musical genius even. He was part of a generation of talented composers and musicians from Penang back then who included David Yeoh, Ahmad Merican and Ahmad Nawab. In the 1960s and 70s, pianist Ooi Eow Jin was one of the nation’s most sought-after composers, having written hits for singers like Sudirman Arshad.
Many of Boyle’s songs were patriotic and blended harmony with an unyielding love and passion for the nation. It almost seemed as if he was destined to compose patriotic songs. We definitely need more such songs in our polarised society today.
Boyle’s musical legacy lives on through his son, James, a graduate of the Berkley School of Music in Boston. In 2006 James Boyle and The Ragged Tigers performed in Penang to the delight of jazz fans. In 2010 they took part in the Fringe Festival, followed by a similar concert in 2016, organised by Paul Augustin. Augustin was familiar with the prime movers of music in Penang and, like Jimmy Boyle, he has a great passion for jazz.
James has also written a book about his father, The Music and Legacy of Jimmy Boyle.
In memory of his father, James recorded another of his father’s famous songs, Chendering, with well-known singer Bihzhu, at the Penang House of Music. Written in 1960, Chendering is about a popular beach in Terengganu. His father was, after all, an avid admirer of the Malaysian countryside.
James has also performed with other notable Malaysian music luminaries over the years, including the late Paul Ponnudorai. Paying tribute to Paul and his band, Paul Ponnudurai and The Handsome Coconuts, James credited them with providing him a good learning curve.
Paul, who passed away in 2012, had himself backed up some of Malaysia’s renowned recording artistes, including Sudirman. He co-produced Sudirman’s hit song One Thousand Million Smiles, together with jazz maestro Michael Veerapen.
Many of the younger ones today find it difficult to name a renowned local jazz player, unless they look it up on the internet. They are oblivious to the big names of the past, such as Ahmad Merican, Alfonso Soliano and Jimmy Boyle.
Boyle was the epitome of the accomplished musician and composer, apart from being a popular teacher. His most eye-catching virtue was that of a true Malaysian patriot – a rarity these days. Besides being nationalistic, his songs were soothing to the ear, as they were often infused with jazz music.
Rising above ethnic and cultural baggage, Boyle’s songs instilled a sense of patriotism in our country at a critical juncture of the independence era. A towering Malaysian in every sense of the word, he did more for national unity than most politicians could with their fiery oratory.
This song-writing giant passed away at the relatively young age of 49 in 1971 from an intra-cerebral haemorrhage. Over five decades after his passing, many in my generation still remember him for the music and songs he composed – a timeless treasure trove.
Sadly, today we have a dearth of local jazz talent compared to our glorious yesteryears.
Boyle ranks as one of the most talented music composers Malaysia has produced. Yet the name of this musical legend does not ring a bell among many younger Malaysians.
Boyle has not been accorded due recognition for his immense contributions to the Malaysian musical scene. It is time that celebrated personalities of the past like him are accorded a hallowed place in the musical annals of the nation.
The federal and Penang state governments should posthumously bestow an honour on Boyle for his immeasurable contributions to the local musical scene. It would be a fitting tribute if a prominent landmark in Penang is named after this musical giant.
Rest in peace, Jimmy Boyle. Thanks for the memories.