A Life in Music: DJ Ray Cordeiro’s Extraordinary 70-Year-Career

For many years, every weekday evening around 9pm, a car would swing into the car park of the RTHK headquarters at the top of Broadcast Drive in Kowloon Tong. In the trunk was a ton of CDs. Well, maybe not a ton – but sufficient enough that it damaged the car’s suspension, which was a source of irritation for the driver, the legendary DJ Reinaldo Maria Cordeiro, better known as Uncle Ray.

Uncle Ray started his broadcasting career as a scriptwriter at the Rediffusion studio in the 1950s – Photo courtesy of Ray Cordeiro

As Cordeiro brought in his CDs and records, a collection formed in one corner of one of the ground-floor studios used by RTHK’s English-language channel, Radio 3. As technology developed, those CDs became digital files as Uncle Ray continued his late night show “All the Way with Ray” over the decades. In later years, he would come with his godson Andy Chow and their little white dog, Bo Bo, now nine years old. Chow would help Cordeiro settle in and then head off, and there was Uncle Ray, set for the night on a show that has run for more than 50 years since its inception in 1970.

The show originally took place over four hours, from 10pm to 2am, but it was cut back to three hours after Cordeiro went through heart surgery 10 years ago. The first half “was all pop,” Cordeiro explained in 2009, when he marked his 60th anniversary in broadcasting. “I mean people like the Beatles, [Elvis] Presley, Cliff Richard, and then from midnight until two it’s nostalgia – well known singers like [Frank] Sinatra, Doris Day and, you know, Steve Lawrence, et cetera.”

Ray Cordeiro dancing with Boney M at HKCEC, 2005 – Photo courtesy of Ray Cordeiro

Cordeiro’s career is notable not only for its longevity but also its stability. He credits that to his love for being behind the microphone. “No matter how bad I feel,” he wrote in his newly released autobiography, “once I walk into the studio, I’m full of energy – and ready to go.” Now, after seven decades, that career is finally coming to a close. Cordeiro turned 96 last December, and last week, he announced his retirement to the world. Friday, May 14, 2021 will be his last show – the end of an era. This is a man who is classed by the Guinness World Records as the “World’s Most Durable DJ,” a man who famously met the Beatles three times in one week in 1964, who brought pop music to Hong Kong and helped any number of 1960s Hong Kong bands achieve stardom. He even walked out of an interview with Rod Stewart.

Uncle Ray is a Hong Kong institution, beloved by many here and abroad; his fans can be found wherever Hong Kong emigrants have gone. Older taxi drivers credit him with teaching them English as they drove on the late night shift around the city listening to his music choices and banter.

Cordeiro was born in 1924 into a large Hong Kong Portuguese family, four years before ZBW, the forerunner of RTHK, became the first broadcasting station in Hong Kong. He grew up in Wan Chai and attended St. Joseph’s College, but his education was interrupted in 1941 when the Japanese military invaded Hong Kong. He and his family eventually joined other members of the Portuguese community in Macau for the remainder of World War II. Life wasn’t easy as families crowded into insufficient accommodation, relying on whatever scarce resources they could afford. “I was able to cook rice for 140 people without burning it,” he says of his refugee existence.

Despite the hardship, it was in Macau that Uncle Ray really discovered his love of music. One year during the war, the refugees put enough money in the kitty to hire the Pinky Pinetta big band for a ball to celebrate both Christmas and New Year. Young Ray was in raptures. He had already discovered the drumming of Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman and also loved the sound of Buddy Rich. So he decided to learn the drums.

When he returned to Hong Kong with his family after the war, Cordeiro and a few Portuguese friends signed up to be prison officers at Stanley Prison. His father was less than enamoured with his younger son’s choice of career; he was keen for him to join him at HSBC, where he worked. Cordeiro dutifully obliged after a year at the prison, serving as a bank clerk for four years. He hated it. His main reprieve during that time was playing music with his band in the evenings.

One of the band’s venues was Chantecler, a Russian restaurant at the corner of Nathan and Hillwood roads in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was open for lunchtime trade but shut in the evenings, so in 1947, Cordeiro approached the owner and asked him if he would consider converting it into an after-hours dining club with a band for entertainment. He obliged and the Chantecler soon became a destination for white-collar workers who came to socialise and dance. Cordeiro would scan the customers and adjust the set accordingly. More mature? A waltz to kick things off. A younger set of people? Then he’d liven things up with Glenn Miller’s popular “Little Brown Jug.” When the piano player left, Cordeiro’s older brother Armando replaced him as the third of the trio on saxophone.

It was the era of live music bands and Cordeiro’s band played at Club Lusitano and Club de Recreio among other venues. But he couldn’t suffer his day job any longer. In 1949, he joined Armando at Radio Rediffusion as a scriptwriter. He was there for 11 years. He soon moved behind the microphone with his first programme, “Progressive Jazz,” which showcased the kind of music his own band was playing at that time. He also fronted two live shows, “Talent Quest” and “Rumpus Time,” with big band man Tony Carpio and other later famous names competing on the show.

The Beatles – An autographed page of the second Fabulous magazine signed at Kai Tak in July 1964. Courtesy of Ray Cordeiro

Then came “The Beginners Please” in 1951. It was a weekly talent show sponsored by a tobacco company for British soldiers stationed in Hong Kong and among them there was a real talent – Terence Edward Parsons. He was so good, he won every week. In order to get him off the show to allow others to win, Cordeiro offered him his own 15-minute show, “Terry Parsons Sings.” A couple of years later, in 1953, Parsons returned to England changed his name to Matt Monro and hit the big time.

In 1960, Cordeiro jumped over to public broadcaster Radio Hong Kong, which had always seemed dowdy and old-fashioned in comparison to its more happening commercial peers. Cordeiro was hired as Light Music Producer and he used his position to inject a bit of life into the programming, with several live music shows. One of those was “Lucky Dip,” a show for teenagers, who would write down their requests and put them in a barrel to be drawn at random. The show offered a chance for local bands like Teddy Robin and the Playboys, Christine Samson, Joe Junior, Danny Diaz, Christine Samson and Philip Chan to show off their talent.

The 1960s was a good time to be a DJ. They were pop culture heroes with adoring fans. In one vaguely surreal photograph, a suited Cordeiro sits with black framed glasses at a plain wooden table talking into a microphone. Outside, faces are glued to the window as fans strain for a glimpse of their radio icon.

Although Cordeiro was well known to local bands, a trip to London in 1964 exposed him to what was then the biggest band in the world: The Beatles. He met them three times in one week. Cordeiro was on a three-month course at the BBC and had two weeks free at the end, so he headed to EMI to see what bands he could interview before heading home to Hong Kong. He had only a pad and pen, so EMI loaned him a tape recorder. He proceeded to meet Ringo, John, Paul and George at two London press conferences, ahead of their tour to Asia, where he met the band (minus Ringo, who had fallen ill and had to miss the tour) a week later when they arrived at Kai Tak Airport. 

The first interview was 8.5 minutes long on a reel to reel. A young Paul McCartney somewhat endearingly answers Cordeiro’s question: Does he know where Hong Kong is? “I’ve heard of it but I’m very bad at geography,” replies McCartney. “I reckon it’s in China, isn’t it?”

As the publicity machine ahead of their arrival in Hong Kong had been cranking up, McCartney explains to Cordeiro that they had received a couple of magazines in Chinese with articles about the band. “The funny thing is we got some magazines from Hong Kong but the only thing is you’ve got to read them backwards, haven’t you?” says McCartney. 

John Lennon chimes in. “They were in Chinese characters. So we thought we were on the back of this magazine. Turns out we were on the front,” he says.

Uncle Ray’s first interview with Elton John, Peninsula hotel, 1983 – Photo courtesy of Ray Cordeiro

In 1970, Cordeiro launched “All The Way with Ray” and was a cultural ambassador for Hong Kong at the Osaka World Expo. Until then, Hong Kong’s local pop music was sung mainly in English. But as Cantopop took over the airwaves, the old English bands gradually disappeared. Cordeiro’s focus became more international. Over the years, he met and interviewed many stars as they passed through Hong Kong for concerts. He ended up becoming good friends with Cliff Richard and Elton John.

With such an affable character, it is rare for anyone to get on Cordeiro’s bad side – but it happened once, in 1974, when he attended a press conference for Scottish singer Rod Stewart. “There was a long table for the press conference, and then afterwards three people were allowed to have personal interviews,” he says. Two newspaper reporters were ahead of  Cordeiro. He waited his turn, but was unaware that Stewart had a pressing engagement.  Scottish footballer Derek Currie, who played for the Rangers but would also play in Hong Kong, had invited Stewart to play in a game, alongside Ronnie Wood. 

By the time Cordeiro had his chance to meet Stewert, the musician “was already agitated and wanted to leave,” he recalls. “So he looked up at me and said, ‘I’ll give you two minutes.’ And I said, ‘Rod, I don’t need your two minutes and I don’t need you. And I just walked away. And I was so mad I didn’t play his records for six months, and then after that I thought, ‘Well, he is Rod Stuart.’”

Cordeiro has been well recognised over his long career. In 1987, he was awarded an MBE—an appointment to the Order of the British Empire—and 10 years later received a lifetime achievement award from RTHK. In 2008, he received a Bronze Bauhinia and in 2012 he was named an honorary fellow of the Academy for Performing Arts. In December 2019, just before the Covid-19 epidemic swept into Hong Kong from China, Cordeiro celebrated his 95th birthday with a big party at the Riverside Hotel in Sha Tin. There on the stage came Hong Kong stars Maria Cordero, Christine Samson, Teddy Robin and countless others, all who looked to Uncle Ray sitting with his trademark cap, beaming back at them, as they all sang and thanked him for how he helped them forge their careers.

Next week, for the first time in decades, Cordeiro’s old car will not longer manoeuvre into its usual spot at RTHK. The CDs are long gone. But the music—and Cordeiro’s legacy—remains. Out of all the people he met, and the songs he’s heard, what’s the one he will take with him? His answer: Tony Bennett’s “The Very Thought of You.” This Friday, when he finishes his last-ever show, he will return home and move the needle onto his turntable, anticipating Bennett’s rich tones: “It’s just the thought of you, the very thought of you, my love.”

“All the Way with Ray “will play for the last time on Friday 14, 2021 from 10pm to 1am. Tune in here.

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