91st Congregation (2022)
Mr Reinaldo Maria CORDEIRO (Uncle Ray)
Doctor of Social Science
“The past is another country. They do things differently there.” My father would have been 100 years old on 12 May this year, and my sisters and I celebrated his centenary, accompanied by his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, from whom that utterly different era is impossibly distant. The 1920s are so close to the end of the First World War that even my sisters and I, three of us grandparents ourselves, cannot readily connect with an era that is now so foreign.
Precisely two years and seven months after my father’s birth, on 12 December 1924, a baby took his first breath in Wan Chai. His parents were Portuguese. He was christened Reinaldo Maria Cordeiro. And it’s my privilege to present him as one of today’s honorands. He is our Go-Between (the title of L.P. Hartley’s novel from which my opening quote derives).
In the year that I was born myself, not long after the end of the Second World War (which will itself seem impossibly distant to many) Ray Cordeiro gave up his job as a clerk at HSBC and started broadcasting on the radio. He kept on doing so for 72 years. He was already in the Guinness Book of World Records in its millennium edition. At that point, he had only just breached the half century, and he still had another 21 years to go. He finally retired on the night of 14 May 2021. Predictions are always rash, but here’s one that I’m confident in making: his record as “The World’s Most Durable Radio DJ” is going to stand for a long, long time.
So far, you could say, we have been focused on width — but shouldn’t we also feel the quality of the cloth and, if so, where should we start? I am going to head to the canteen to listen to the sounds of the kitchen — and if someone starts to play jazz drum riffs on the pots and pans, then that will be him. His life’s trajectory was set up after he had heard the Pinky Pinetta band play at a Christmas Ball in a Macau refugee facility — an interest in music turned into a passion for it. The die was cast. He became the drummer in his own band, and by 1947 his trio was playing in a Kowloonside restaurant — he particularly liked Buddy Rich’s drumming style so the customers should have had a real treat – but that was really just the beginning.
We live in a Golden Age for at least some of the pleasures in life. If you live in Hong Kong you know that we’re in a golden age for food and, take my word for it, we’re in a golden age for wine, as well. People are making better wine than ever before, even though global warming poses a threat to that unless you’re an English champagne maker (and don’t laugh – they do exist and it’s very good). But we’re also in a golden age of access to music; tastes may vary on whether we should say the same about music composition, but our opportunities to hear the music we love have become extraordinary. Sound recording and sound reproduction have become amazingly good. I first listened to my parents’ scratchy 78s, but life changed with 45 singles (and turntables with autochangers!), and Vinyl LPs, CDs, cassettes, FM radio, Walkmans, iPods, and streaming, along with affordable amplifiers and speakers and then quality headsets gradually gave us the means to listen to almost anything, of any length, almost anywhere. But these are recent developments. My mother’s grandparents would have waited in vain all their lives for an orchestra to come to their provincial town so that they could hear a Beethoven symphony. We pick at will from libraries of the very best recordings; Schubert never heard a public performance of his own, final string quintet in C major.
When I was in my mid-teens, “pop” music was still a minority specialism on the BBC – I would have to tune into Radio Luxemburg (wonderful 208) which broadcast to the UK only at night, or into a Pirate Radio station (Radio Caroline or Radio London) to listen during the day. There was so much going on in the music scene, but it was so hard to keep up. When might one even hear about, let alone actually hear, the latest and most exciting groups as they formed, flared up (also a description of the fashions of the time) and fizzled out? And the bands were asking just the same question: how do you get heard?
Many of the answers lay with the radio DJs. They didn’t just discover bands – they gave them airtime, so that others could hear them too, and judge for themselves. And really successful DJs were adopted by the new, pop aristocracy. They knew – they talked to – they even went to parties with – people we idolized who we would be lucky even to see on a stage. They were vital components in what became a world-wide ecosystem through which popular new movements in music flowed, without whom it could never actually have happened. They were also arbiters of taste – an alternative to but a target for the record labels’ publicity teams – Spin Doctors, but who really did what it says – the heard-butnot-seen Influencers of my adolescence. If you had access to a good radio station with good DJs, you could keep up.
Reinaldo Cordeiro became Hong Kong’s Uncle Ray not only because he was one of these people who changed our world (though of course he was), but also, surely because he went further. His decades of broadcasting shows made him a friend to millions. That status meant he could go further. While his shows could offer would-be stars their first break, not only would those new talents get airtime from him but, beyond that, they could get advice and they could get connections. That is real support. Success in show business needs more than just talent – backing singers include some of the most skillful musicians you will ever hear but they remain twenty feet from stardom (that’s the title of a wonderful film on this topic). You need a sprinkling of stardust as well, and as people move among the stars some of that dust swirls around and sticks. Uncle Ray knew an astonishing list of major stars, and this enabled him to pass on more than just knowledge to his own discoveries: they could glitter too.
Hong Kong is lucky to have had him: his fame extends far beyond the city; Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an MBE in 1987 – admittedly twenty-two years after The Beatles (and thirtytwo years after my father), but I suppose news took time to travel in those days. Hong Kong is especially lucky to have had him for so long. Radio Luxembourg finally went off air in 1992, after 59 years of memorable broadcasting, but Ray Cordeiro adds another thirteen years to their, already admirable, record. Width and Quality both – a man cut from the finest cloth. Mr Chairman, it is my privilege to present to you Mr Reinaldo Maria Cordeiro, a Spinner of Sounds and an Uncle to Many, for the award of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.
This citation is written by Professor Nick Rawlins