When Penang-born Jimmy Fong Chin Chew first heard Country Roads by the late John Denver on the radio in 1969, he listened attentively. Then a young boy, Fong did not speak English; Chinese was his mother tongue. (Gradually, his English improved when he was in high school.)
“Although I didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics then, I learnt the tune first and lyrics later,” said Fong, now in his 50s.
Currently, Fong is a singer, songwriter and performer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is back in Malaysia to perform two shows, on June 2 and 9, in Penang and Kuala Lumpur respectively.
In 1994 Fong met his idol, the American singer-songwriter Denver when he toured Malaysia on the invitation of the then Sultan of Kedah, who was also a big fan. Denver performed Country Roads and requested a local artist (Fong) to perform with him.
(Denver passed away on Oct 12, 1997, in an airplane crash. He was 54.)
Fong has released four albums – Just When You Thought (2013), My Time With John Denver (2015), Down Memory Lane (live album) and Dancing Fireflies. The last two were released this month.
Some of his popular original songs include Balancing Act, Build That Bridge, Jonker Street, Helang Langkawi and Just When You Thought (debut album), which are his personal favourites too. His latest song Memories Of Penang (April 2018) can be found in his latest album.
In 2011, Fong was one of the top 10 finalists (out of 3,500 entries) in a national songwriting competition aired live on Malaysian television (TV2). In 2013, Fong got together with some fellow musicians in Melbourne to produce his own musical show, My Time With John Denver.
Then in October 2015, Fong was invited to perform in Aspen, Colorado, for the John Denver annual festival. Later that month, he performed in New Mexico (Denver’s birthplace), the United States, in a fundraising concert.
Fong was invited back to perform again at the annual John Denver Festival in October 2017 and he was given the Soaring Eagle award by the Rocky Mountain Foundation For The Performing Arts for his outstanding musical talents and accomplishments.
Child of music
Fong studied in Penang’s Union Institution (primary school) and Chung Ling High School. At age five, he started playing the harmonica and, at nine, he taught himself to play the acoustic guitar.
Fong likes listening to all types of music. “I even gave death metal a go but I hated it. I play many types of guitar,” said Fong, who owns 17 guitars.
In the mid-70s, after Form Five, Fong became a full-time musician and performed in pubs, clubs and hotels in Penang. It was after one of his gigs in Penang that he met the love of his life, Julie Wear, whom he married in 1981.
Fong has a three-piece band and a home recording studio in Melbourne. In February, he formed another band, Jimmy Fong & The Baby Boomers, in Penang. Fong plans to develop his show Down Memory Lane and turn it into a platform to raise money for charity.
Last year, he raised RM20,000 in two Down Memory Lane shows in Penang.