The girl with the yellow shoes, 1954

In the 1950s, the Anglo-Indian crooner Pamela McCarthy was among the most striking figures on the Bombay bandstand. She was always dressed in a stunning ball gown. Her swinging voice kept dancers on their floor to the very end of the set. And then, of course, there was her wheelchair.

McCarthy had been struck by polio in 1945, at the age of 11, but she didn’t let that get her down. When her uncle, Ken Mac, the best-known of all the city’s band leaders, suggested that the teenager sing with his group, she grabbed the chance.
Music wasn’t the only field in which Pam McCarthy left her mark. In 1962, she represented India at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games – and won two medals.

The plucky young woman in that photo is now in her seventies and, since the early 1960s, has been living in Australia. I was able to track her down in Melbourne thanks to the help of friends, acquaintances and relatives.

The ever-generous Jehangir Dalal, who been part of the team that published the jazz magazine Blue Rhythm in the ’50s, put me in touch with a former neighbour of the McCarthys from the time they lived on Rose Garden Road in Colaba, in South Bombay. The neighbour gave me Pamela McCarthy’s Melbourne address, which allowed me to find her phone number in the online Australia White Pages. But though I called several times from Bombay, no one picked up.

Just when I assumed the number had been disconnected, a freelance journalist contacted me from Melbourne for help with a story she was working on. I, shamelessly, asked for help finding Pamela McCarthy. Within a few days, the journalist, Sarina Singh, sent me Pamela’s email address – it turned out that she’d been on vacation.

My cousins Laila Fernandez and her husband Shavaj Kallamkote who live in Melbourne were dispatched to Kellett Grove to scan in McCarthy’s scrapbook, which contained a wealth of photos and press clips. As Laila and Shavaj departed, McCarthy gave them a stack of 78s her uncle had cut to bring back to me in Bombay.

In an email message, McCarthy told me that she lived with her aunt, Jean Statham, Ken Mac’s wife who had also sung with his band. “I am vague on exactly when I joined the band full time but I was singing all through the ’50s,” McCarthy said. “Having an uncle who was a bandleader and a father who played trumpet in the band, it wasn’t long before I started making appearances with the band.”

Ken Mac played dance music with a touch of swing and his niece was drawn to light classical music and soft standards. “I love singing and am happiest with a mike in my hand,” McCarthy told one interviewer in the mid-’50s. In her mail to me, she said, “Music and dancing was so popular and we played at all the top venues – the Taj, Ambassador and Ritz Hotels, the Radio, Willingdon, Yacht Clubs, Bombay Gymkhana, to name a few.  Sometimes we did two sessions a time – an evening dance and later a night dance.”

In 1954, McCarthy travelled to Calcutta to make the only record she cut during her career. The tune had been arranged by the pianist Lance O’Neil, whose group, the Wagoneers, was the backing band at the session.
“Lance was a Scotsman who was the pianist on a cruise ship ‘The Caronia’,” McCarthy recalled.  “When he came to Bombay he liked it and asked Ken Mac for a job in his band.  He subsequently came out and joined the band for two years.  After that he moved to Calcutta and started his own band.”
The session had been organised by the music promoter KC Senn and featured two Pams:  Pam Crain of Calcutta belted out Que Sera, while Pam McCarthy did The Gal with the Yaller Shoes.

As was the case with many musicians of the time, McCarthy also had a day job – she worked as a stenographer at The Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped.  On the side, she was a keen sportswoman and, in 1962, participated in the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth.
Ten countries took to the field, including Singapore and Rhodesia. McCarthy won a gold medal for swimming and a bronze in the javelin event. Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She told New Youth newspaper at the time that her next ambition was to learn to drive a car.

The Girl With the Yaller Shoes: Pamela McCarthy

All these years later, McCarthy still thinks of Bombay with fondness. “My memories of Bombay are fabulous,” she signed off. “All for now Naresh.  If you have any other queries, fire away.  Good luck with your project.  It has been fun travelling down memory lane!”
Here are some of the responses this article received after it was first published in 2011.

My wife’s father Clarence Bean was the trombone player in Ken Mac’s band and we have been fascinated to find him here in the picture of Pamela MaCarthy! He moved to England in the 1950s and sadly had to give up playing. He passed away 12 years ago at the age of 78.

Our families met when Pamela and my brother Gary were in Childrens Hospital in Baltimore MD.. We often talked about her and wondered how she was doing, not knowing that she was so talented and successful. Please give my best wishes when you talk to her next.

My mother, Yvonne Moore, sang with Ken Mac’s band. My step father Joseph Ray played the piano accordion. I have a number of records she made with the band. Ken Mac, Jean and Pamela were friends of the family. Pamela appeared on a Melbourne TV variety show..I believe In Melbourne Tonight and I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch her perform.

Write a comment ...

Write a comment ...