In a style of his own | Sunday Observer

In a style of his own

“I see trees of green
Red roses too
I see them bloom
For me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world......”

No doubt your mind quickly flashed to Louis Armstrong – you are quite right. But why we started off with those lyrics from 'What A Wonderful World' was because, as his band members tell me, Sam the Man could never end an evening of playing without including the song at the beginning of his set or at the end rounding off the session, or whenever he could, even in between the sessions.

In short the song was a particular favourite of his and reflected his thinking and personality.

Next Saturday, July 11 it will be three years since the passing of saxophonist/singer Sam the Man and many are the lovers of yesteryear music who miss the style and voice of Sam.

It was in the late 50s that Sam the Man, an old boy of S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia formally commenced his musical career with Leonard Franke's band Manhattans. At that time dances organised by Mercantile offices, private institutions including the Planters’ Association and such were extremely popular and never a weekend went by without a dance on the cards and bands vied with each other to play for any particular dance.


Moments like these, of missing a musician are enhanced with interesting memories that need to be shared. We asked Mignonne Fernando, leader of the Jetliners her contribution to the memory bank.

“It was in the late 60s that Sam the Man joined us along with Sayban Samat. The Jetliners were augmented with two saxes. Tony asked Sam and he readily agreed.

The music then if you remember was Billy Vaughn oriented and the two saxes were quite popular at all the dances where they played for us. The Jetliners were booked for many dances – the ones at the Taprobane, Inter-Continental and the extremely popular and well attended Planters’ Dances held at Talawakelle. Sam was very easy going and quite jolly and amusing too. He respected my leadership and that of Tony's too. I'm sorry we've lost him. In his own way and style he was an inimitable musician, we've yet to come across another like him.”

‘Daisy, Daisy’

We asked another Thomian, saxophonist and singer Dr. Gananath Dasanayake whether he'd share his memories of Sam the Man and Dr. Gananath was readily willing.

“My first meeting with Sam the Man was when I was just six years old. It was a 31st night evening in Negombo and my father who knew Sam, spurred Sam to make me sing 'Daisy, Daisy'. With no hesitation, and I was eager too, Sam carried me and put me among the musicians and I sang the song into a mic.

I couldn't believe that I did it and I was proud too! You know how it is when you are a kid.

The next time I had the opportunity of meeting and listening to him was when I was nine years old. This was at the wedding of my cousin and Sam's band was playing at the reception. Sam got the photographer to take a photo of me at the bandstand with his sax round my neck.

I must say I was inspired by him and here I am not only a medical doctor but also a saxophonist and singer. Years later when Sam was playing at the Harbour Room I went to hear him. He had not lost his inimitable style. We had a long chat and I enjoyed his friendly rapport.

The Thomian Society at its function had planned to feature “Sam and Gananath’’ but that never came to be. Sam passed away.”

In early 1980 Sam the Man was a regular at the Akase Kade. The group then comprised Kumar de Silva – piano, Lal Witiwala, - drums, Deva de Silva – guitar, Nilantha Ariyaratne – bass, and Neville Pierie – trumpet. We were able to get through to Nilantha Ariyaratne to share his memories of saxophonist/singer Sam with us.

“Sam was an easy going, friendly and jovial musician. We were new to the scene but he was like a father to us. We had to play for many dances throughout the year – this was the in thing then, and the dances were mostly in the weekends and in the up country.

Rehearsals were important to Sam and he was quite strict about attending rehearsals. We used to rehearse at the Three Sisters' (Indrani Perera) residence in Rajagiriya. During performance on stage if one of us goofed and made a mistake he wouldn't say a word. But after the set, backstage he will single you out and read the riot act to us.

After two years there was a change in the members of the band.

Kumar, Lal and Deva, joined Noeline and Galaxy; and in came Lawrence Oorloff – guitar, Ajantha Godanthegama – drums (he is now in Canada) and Dilantha de Silva – keyboards.

It was amazing his repertoire of yesteryear favourites and current hits. Most of all as a leader he ensured that at the end of the month we were never out of pocket.”

The band leader of Pearl, Jayantha de Silva – keyboardist was with Sam the Man from 1976-1979. “These were the years when Sam's popularity was enjoying untold success. Not only did the band play at many weekend dances in Colombo, we were booked for many dances in the outstation – the most popular venue being the Avissawella KV Club.

What's more we were also one of the featured bands for the Live at Akase Kade radio relay that took place every Friday. The other band was Sohan & The X'periments. Sam was a very jovial man and would relate joke after joke until it was time to get on stage.


However, he was very strict about attendance at a rehearsal. So much so I used to go to Galle with my brother-in-law and when practice day clashes with my trip I ensured that I catch the 5 a.m. bus and come back to Colombo to be in town for the practice.

I learnt a lot from him about what to play at dances. One day I was at the Regal Cinema watching a film, and when I came out Sam was waiting out for me to inform me about a booking. We were scheduled to play at the Canza Ball and he came to let me know about the rehearsal date. He was a good disciplinarian but he would never pull you up on stage if you make a mistake. It was only in the wings after the set.”

Sam the Man” (Nihal Samarasinghe) was carrier of the torch when saxophonists kept the thrill of the swing era alive. When he worked with us for the Observer Golden Clef Music Award for four years as a member of the Musicians Committee he imparted valuable advice on how to carry through smoothly the judging of the many categories that were listed.

He carried himself with a rare kind of dignity and with his cruises on sax he had the uncanny knack of making a simple oft heard tune a lasting favourite.I'd like to leave you with this thought he once expressed to us at one of the Observer Golden Clef Musicians committee meetings.

“Many musicians are too bitter complaining they're discriminated against. I tell them play the music – to be a musician is to have a gift from God.”