The Early Bird has made his last flight

The Early Bird has made his last flight

Over the years there have been many talented foreigners who made Thailand their home. One such person was Australian Jim Davison who pioneered English language radio broadcasting after arriving in 1966 and continued for five decades. I am sad to report Davison passed away in Australia recently at the grand age of 104.

His name may not be familiar with many readers, but Davison became something of a celebrity during more than 50 years in Bangkok, primarily through his popular Early Bird radio show on which he played standards, and later Anything Goes. But he was much more than a DJ and through his music and mellifluent voice became a valuable source of comfort for thousands of listeners.

I met him a couple of times at the Bangkok Post and occasionally heard his radio show. He had such a colourful life it is impossible to cover it all. According to an article he wrote for the BigChilli in April 2014, Davison spent most of World War II aboard merchant navy ships plying the dangerous Atlantic route from the US to Europe. After the war, there were several years in Africa in what is now Ghana and in Morocco.

An amateur pianist, when he didn't have a job he often tickled the ivories at assorted establishments "just playing for a meal".

Eventually he made his way to Asia and old friend Sam Scott, a talented pianist who owned the Yard of Ale pub on Convent Road, suggested he might like Bangkok. Sam was spot on and it became Davison's home and workplace for 50 years.

His longevity was greatly admired as he continued to work past the century mark. In an entertaining interview with Alan Parkhouse in the Post in Dec 2015 marking Davison's 102nd birthday, concerning his health he remarked "I was going well until I hit 99".

No temptation

In Bangkok, Davison launched his Early Bird programme in February 1966. It was such a success he added an evening show, Whisky and Sofa. During those days he interviewed such celebrities as Bob Hope and Johnny Mathis.

It was not all plain sailing, however. In his BigChilli article Davision recalled that in the mid-1970s "with no prior notice all English-language programmes were banned … there was no advance warning. The next day Thai music replaced the Early Bird."

Davison was not the sort of character to throw in the towel and some years later he was back on air. Despite setbacks he was enjoying life in Thailand. He told Parkhouse "I admire [the Thai people] for their tolerance and their respect for elders like me."

Despite being a Centenarian he continued to work, becoming known as "the oldest deejay in the world". At the age of 101, he was spotted singing on stage at the Oriental Hotel's Bamboo Bar. Importantly he retained his sense of humour: "The one great thing about being my age is that I no longer have to avoid temptation -- it avoids me."

Radio days

I arrived in Thailand three years after Davison and one of my first purchases was a 700 baht transistor radio from Pratunam market. It quickly became my most prized possession as I couldn't survive without music. The major English language FM station, Radio HSA, had some excellent foreign DJs who played the latest hits. I remember Bessie Casteneda from the Philippines. She was fond of the Beatles and when they released Abbey Road in late 1969 she regularly played tracks from the album, particularly George Harrison's Something.

I was living in an old wooden house at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 1 at the time, adjacent to the malodorous Khlong Saen Saeb. Whenever I hear an Abbey Road track it brings to mind an image of the house, the smelly khlong and the deafening racket of long-tail boats.

The boat that rocked

My introduction to Thai radio stations had come a little earlier, in April 1969 aboard a boat. With my overland colleague Clarence Shettlesworth, in Songkhla we had boarded a Thai Maritime Navigation Company vessel bound for Bangkok. It was 75 baht deck class, sleeping anywhere on the deck. The Thai crew were delighted to have a couple of funny-looking farang for their entertainment and went out of their way to make us feel at home.

They had a transistor radio and for our benefit surfed the stations for Western pop music. Among the songs on that wonderful trip up the Gulf of Thailand I recall Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells, and Petula Clark singing Kiss Me Goodbye. Then there was San Francisco by Scott McKenzie, which remained a big hit in Thailand years after it was forgotten everywhere else.

All at sea

My favourite radio stations were the so-called "pirates'' operating from old vessels sitting in international waters off the British coast in the mid-1960s. Radio Caroline, a former small ferry and Radio London which had earlier been a minesweeper, were the most vibrant. During the frequent North Sea storms it was fun listening to the poor DJs trying, usually unsuccessfully, not to throw up.

One of the Radio London DJs, Earl Richmond, was better known in Bangkok as John Dienn. He came to Thailand in the early 70s and worked on radio in Bangkok for many years. At least he didn't get sea-sick in Bangkok.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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