In Dhobi Talao today, her name draws a blank—neither the old man selling brun-pav across the road, nor the manager of the Kit Kat cabaret bar know where she lives. I make one last attempt at Snowflake, a popular Goan eatery. The owner’s eyes light up at the mention of Lorna Cordeiro. “She comes here sometimes, for the bombil fry,” she says, excitedly, before giving directions.
Gazdar House, a hundred years old, is symbolic of this Mumbai neighbourhood that has seen better days. If it could, the lobby, with its glossy tiles and grey walls, would conceal the unsteady wooden staircase, the peeling distemper and the smell of dust and mould. On the first floor, at the farthest end of the corridor, the door is open. An elderly woman in a blue printed nightgown bends over a bucket of soaked clothes. I ask her where I can find Cordeiro. She looks up, pushes back her gold-rimmed glasses and says, “I am Lorna.”
“I am Lorna,” she would announce as she took the stage, an arm stretched out, with a smile and a tilt of her head. At Venice, the nightclub at Astoria Hotel, the effect was instant: a round of applause that grew louder with each song. Dubbed the Bessie Smith of India, Cordeiro was a jazz-pop star who knew how to swing it. But she wasn’t the lone attraction. The band was led by Chris Perry, one of the finest saxophone players of the time.
They were an electric presence on stage. In her full-throated voice, Cordeiro performed jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald and pop tunes by Connie Francis. She swayed as she hit the high notes, throwing an occasional glance at her band leader as he played, his sax raised to the sky as he went down on his knee. Their chemistry was palpable. And legendary.
It was the 1960s, a time when the jazz music scene in the country was at its most vibrant. Dave Brubek and Duke Ellington would visit the city, jamming with musicians at nightclubs and jazz bars on Churchgate Street (now renamed Veer Nariman Road). Local jazz musicians would play by the day, the evening concluding with a cabaret show. From Talk of the Town (now Pizza by the Bay) and The Ambassador Hotel on Marine Drive to Ritz and Astoria round the corner, right up till Bistros and Volga at Flora Fountain, the street was alive with the sound of music.
Growing up in Goa in the 1970s, the legend of Chris and Lorna was familiar to Bardroy Barretto. Perry cut several Konkani albums with Cordeiro, infusing the folksy music with jazz elements. Their songs were immensely popular and played on the radio every afternoon. “While everyone appreciated the music, it was their love story that people spoke of,” says Barretto, whose Konkani film Nachom-ia Kumpasar, loosely based on the two artistes, recently bagged three National Awards this year. Bombay Velvet, which is set in the city of the 1960s, is dedicated to Cordeiro. Anushka Sharma’s character Rosie Noronha is a composite of many real singers of the time. “But Lorna was the starting point,” says Thani, co-writer of the film.
A jazz singer is born, not made, and Cordeiro had the raw talent it takes. But Perry honed it till it shone. She was an ordinary girl from Dhobi Talao till he turned her into a performer. Cordeiro’s hero worship soon turned to love and, at a time when singers worked seasonally with bands, she signed a 20-year contract to sing exclusively for him.
Nine years later, their relationship was over. Perry moved to Dubai with his wife and sons. Cordeiro was 26 and her career had come to an end. She never married, became a recluse and, many say, turned to alcohol.
Those who knew Perry well blame her for “ruining his life”, while Cordeiro’s close friends allege that he “first used her and then conned her into the contract”. No one seems to know why the two fell apart.
When they first met in 1962, she was 17, he was 33 and married. Cordeiro was with Raymond Albuquerque’s band, performing at weddings, private and public functions. Perry was looking for a new singer for his band. “We were playing at a hall near Chris’s residence in Marine Lines’s Chira Bazaar, which is where I think he first heard her sing,” says Albuquerque who had “discovered” Cordeiro at a picnic and took her in his band. “One day, Lorna didn’t show up. I went to her house in Dhobi Talao and her brother told me that she would be singing for Chris Perry from now on,” says the 76-year-old retired drummer.
Dhobi Talao, where Cordeiro grew up, was a hub of the Goan diaspora. Immigrants from the then-Portuguese colony moved here in search of jobs as cooks, servers and musicians, making the city their home. In Goa, under the Portuguese, music was a compulsory subject in schools; almost everyone knew how to read and write music and play an instrument. Walking through the neighbourhood, it was common to hear music wafting from homes, a plaintive violin or a jaunty drumroll.
Down the road from Metro cinema on Princess Street, the musicians gathered at Alfred, an Irani cafe, in the morning. “Band leaders would come here to hire the instrument players for the day. By evening, they would head out, dressed in white shirts and sharkskin suits,” says Diogo DeSouza, who played the drums with Perry’s band for seven years before moving to the Gulf. He now lives in Goa.
Cordeiro inherited her love for jazz from her grandfather, a violinist at Lido Room in Calcutta. Living in a neighbourhood where big names of the time, such as Ken Mack and Chic Chocolate (considered the best saxophonist, he modelled himself on Louis Armstrong, down to the handkerchief), often dropped by, she dreamt big. “I would tell my mother that I want to sing for Chris Perry,” says Cordeiro, now 70 years old. She has settled into a chair near the window of her modest apartment where she lives alone, occasionally visited by her nephew and sister from Mazgaon. “One day, my mother asked me to dress up. When I asked her why, she said, ‘You always wanted to sing for Chris Perry no? He is coming home to hear you sing.’ I jumped!” she says.
When she came face-to-face with Perry, she didn’t lose her nerve. It was her favourite, Underneath the Mango Tree, from Dr No. “And when I finished, he said, ‘I have found the singer of my dreams; I will make her a star. This is the girl of my dreams, and I will mould her and make her’,” says Cordeiro. “And that’s what he did.”
Whatever may have passed between the two, Cordeiro acknowledges Perry as her mentor, the one who taught her how to dress for the stage, how to belt out songs like Ella Fitzgerald, how to hold and sing into the mic, how to sway sensuously to the beat. Perry rehearsed with her for six months before introducing her to an audience, using the yet-unopened Bistros at Flora Fountain as her training ground. In 1963, Cordeiro first took stage with Perry in Lido Room. She sang Fitzgerald’s Cry Me A River, taking each of the eight verses half a note higher. That night was magical. Within weeks, she had a loyal following. A regular at Lido Room would send six bottles of whiskey each time she performed his favourite songs.
After nearly two years in Calcutta, the band moved to Gaylord in Delhi, from where they toured Mussoorie, Shimla, Ooty and other cities, before returning to Bombay. High on success and away from their families, the two, although 16 years apart, forged a bond that went beyond the relationship of an artiste and a mentor.
Cordeiro remembers Perry as someone who fought for her when club owners baulked at hiring a newcomer. If he fought for her, he also fought with her. Perry had an infamous temper. “Chris was short, no more than 5’7”, but no one would dare take him on. It was out of respect for his talent as well as the knowledge that he might bash them up if he lost his cool,” says Ronnie Monsorratte, an arranger in the Hindi film industry and son of renowned trumpeter Peter Monsorratte.
His peers held him in awe for his astonishing talent. Perry had taken up the sax only in his 20s. Yet, by the time he was in his 30s, he had earned himself a place among the best, including Chic Chocolate.
But more than anything else, DeSouza remembers Perry, the perfectionist. “Whoever joined his band ended up refining his craft. He could tell from a distance even if one small note went wrong on any instrument. He would meticulously write down the notes for each musician and he expected them to play it just the way he wanted,” says the 71-year-old, a self-taught drummer.
Those who didn’t incurred his fury. DeSouza recounts how Perry gave a band member a black eye for playing a note incorrectly. It was a show night. He brought him an ice pack afterwards and dark glasses for the entire band. It became their look for the evening.
With Cordeiro, Perry was just another jealous guy. He was extremely possessive, threatening to hurt any man who would dare to chat her up. It was a curb on the freedom of a young, independent girl. But his real weakness was gambling. He would often bet away the band’s wages and spend weekends at the race course. When he would lose big, Cordeiro would bail him out.
At the same time, he continued to live a “normal” family life, with his mother, wife and children, which affected their relationship. Perry’s wife Lily was aware of her husband’s affair but she never raised her voice.
Longine Albuquerque lives close to Perry’s old residence in Laxmi Chandra Nivas in Dabul. A friend of Lily’s then, she remembers her as a quiet, homely girl who took on the responsibility of the household when Perry would be away. When I ask her about Cordeiro, she answers with a stony silence
Caught between Perry’s passion and his need to own her, did Cordeiro feel stifled? She refuses to answer, calling it a “personal matter” but admits that “I can forgive but not forget” and “he wanted everything his way”. “He spoke the Bardes dialect of Konkani while I spoke the Salcete version. But he would insist that I learn and record in the tougher, Bardes Konkani, something I didn’t want to do,” she says of Perry, rarely taking his name. Yet, he took on HMV when they refused Cordeiro a chance to record a Konkani album. The label eventually relented, kickstarting the golden period of Cordeiro’s career. Those albums made her a household name among the Goan community in India and abroad, and the songs continue to be popular even today.
She alone didn’t suffer though. The music they made together speaks of a tumultous, troubled love. In Abghat, she sings, “Sonvsarantle dis kaddlet roddon/Bhurgeachponnar sukh gelem uddon/Kitem anvem kelem re mogan poddon (I cried all the days of my life/I lost all happiness in my childhood/What have I done by falling in love?)”. “The lyrics spoke of eternal love but also anger over betrayal. These may have been sung by Lorna but they were written, set to music and arranged by Chris,” says Barretto, who used 20 such songs to tell the two lovers’ story in his film.
In 1972, Cordeiro stopped singing for Perry. Her decision brought her soaring career to an abrupt halt. She shunned the outside world, mostly staying in and caring for her ageing mother. In a few years, she had passed into the realm of legend: many were convinced she was dead while others reported her working at a dentist’s clinic to make ends meet.
By then, the jazz scene in Bombay was winding down too. The government had raised the entertainment tax to 40 per cent, making the business unviable for smaller establishments and rendering musicians jobless. Some moved to foreign shores while many switched to film work. Perry opened a music school in Delhi. Suffering from Parkinson’s, he returned to Goa in his last days. He passed away in 2002.
In 1995, Lorna returned from oblivion to release an album titled Hello, Lorna. The show to mark her comeback was held at Miramar beach and is spoken of by Goans as if it were a historic day. “People came in droves, from near and far. We had heard she was dead. We wanted to see if this is the same Lorna or someone using her name,” says Edwin Cotta of Hotel Miramar. “It was a sea of people. And when she sang, people went berserk.”
But it hadn’t been easy to break the singer’s resolve to stay away from music for close to 20 years. Having accompanied her on keyboard in his early days, Ronnie Monsorratte had once known her well. “I had heard that she rarely opens the door to people,” he says. But, still, he went looking for her. “I rang the bell but when no one came to the door, I used an old whistling signal that the band would employ back then. She finally opened the door and started to speak of Lorna in the third person. She looked so different, nothing like the bombshell she once was,” says the musician.
Perry showed up at the hotel a day before her show. He threatened to sue her if she violated the “contract” and managed to dissuade his old associates from performing with Cordeiro. They didn’t show up and Cordeiro had to perform with Monsorratte, a keyboardist, alone.
Cordeiro had cut an album only because her mother insisted. “I hadn’t hummed a tune in all these years. Mummy said she wanted to hear me sing once before she dies. It’s a gift of god, she said, I should not let it go to waste for one man,” says Cordeiro, looking out of the window. That recollection brings our conversation to an end. She excuses herself. She is busy. She will not speak to me anymore.
It’s a hot April evening in Goa. Panjim’s Campal ground is abuzz in anticipation. A group of fan girls, with feni cocktails in their hands, are hooting for their “beloved Lorna”. “We attend every concert she has in Goa. We were at the Calangute show too, even though we had to drive two hours for it,” says 33-year-old Cynthia Fernandes. But their worshipful admiration is as much about her voice as about her love story. “It’s heartbreaking, their story; as if two right people met at the wrong…,” her voice trails off as she spots Cordeiro.
She is dressed in a black gown with a yellow floral print. The bouffant has been replaced by a red flaming short crop. Like Billie Holliday and Etta James, Lorna Cordeiro’s life has been haunted by heartbreak. But she is still here, playing on. She looks at her audience through the blaze of the lights and says, “I am Lorna.”