Few Singaporean musicians have arguably left such an indelible impact upon local culture as Dick Lee.
The singer-songwriter has embodied the country's history of "local" pop music, with fleeting melodies and inspirational messages tailor made for Singaporeans since the 1970s. An apt summary of the man's work is to be reminded that this is the guy who wrote both 'Fried Rice Paradise' and 'Home'.
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He's both parts earnest and theatrical, colourful and contemplative. He has not been influential to individual musicians as much as he has been to our cultural zeitgeist. He adores, nay, lusts after Singapore, and lovingly dissects several facets that make up the country. He's the closest we can find to country pop —except, instead of twangy guitars, an endearing Southern slang and national pride, we have Chinese musical scales, Singlish, and also national pride.
It's no wonder, then, that Dick Lee was easily able to pull over 3,500 Singaporeans to congregate in The Star Theatre, to witness the singer's ascent into senior citizenship by celebrating his entire career making music, picking out the best and most meaningful from his lengthy body of work.
Titled the Dick Lee Singapop! 60th Birthday Concert, it had him centre stage as he fleshed out his beginning as a musician struggling to stay on the radio — he asserts that they weren't too pleased with his "bad English" — and playing his most notable early hits, like 'Fried Rice Paradise', 'Life Story' and 'Flower Drum Song'.
There was even a surprise cover of 'Beautiful Sunday' with special guest and longtime collaborator Jacintha Abisheganaden — the first of many special guests that night, roping in everyone from mandopop icon Kit Chan to veteran jazz singer Alemay Fernandez.
The setlist was fragmented by decades, and it also depicts the singer's rise to fame through the years — with his glamorous, multi-faceted output in the eighties, his work in musicals from the 90s, and songs that make up his brief period of commercial success in mainland Asia. Slotting in a medley of songs he wrote for several successful Hong Kong singers, he rounded off the night with his most iconic songs.
Serving as his polished paeans to the country, he invited a number of emerging Singaporean acts to share the stage — some that worked wonderfully (Dru Chen in fine form, and tabla player Govin Tan, whose contributions steadily enhanced Dick Lee's subtle renditions), and others not so much (ShiGGa Shay, just another confounding example of our country's obsession to inject rap into national themed pop music).
It was fascinating listening to stories by Dick, from trying to break into Singapore's pop consciousness, to his period being an eminent Asian superstar.
While his halcyon days may not be over, the concert — part of The ICON Series, an effort backed by the Sing50 fund to "preserve and celebrate our Singapore music heritage" — serves to remind us that his contributions only make up one part of the Singaporean music fabric.
The bulk of 60s Singaporean pop-rock music, the searing vengeance of the indie rock underground from the 80s to the 00s (Zircon Lounge and The Oddfellows are arguably just as important as Dick Lee), all the way to what we have right now — it's all absolutely amazing.
It's also the truest reflection of Singapore's unyielding diversity. Dick Lee's just that sunny reminder of all the good things in the country that even your little kids can listen to, and that's not always a bad thing.
Special thanks to The RICE Company for the invite.