Phương Tâm: Magical Nights – Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966)
This collection, which I hereby deem an instant Sublime Frequencies classic, is devoted entirely to the long-unheard and elusive discography of one of the most magnetic singers of Saigon's "golden music" age. Part of the reason why Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's work has languished in undeserved semi-obscurity is grimly predictable, as most of her music was destroyed during Vietnam's great purge of American-influenced culture in 1975, but T√¢m also abruptly ended her singing career in her prime to pursue forbidden love instead (an acceptably cool reason, I feel). According to her daughter Hannah H√†, Phương Tâm remained something of a highly localized karaoke supernova in the years since her stardom days, but H√† did not discover how truly famous her mom actually was until late 2019. One thing led to another and H√† found Mark Gergis after discovering his beloved Saigon Rock and Soul compilation. Gergis and a handful of like-minded crate-digging luminaries then set about tracking down as much of Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's rare and often mistakenly attributed oeuvre as they could find, much of which even T√¢m herself had not heard since the recording sessions. While the journey to this album is undeniably a fascinating and heart-warming one, the best part is the songs themselves, as this album is a treasure trove of fun, soulful, and sexy genre-blurring gems from the golden age of swinging Saigon nightlife. Moreover, I was legitimately gobsmacked to learn that these songs were all recorded by the same person in such a brief span, as T√¢m channels everything from Brenda Lee to Ella Fitzgerald to the kind of impossibly cool, sexy, and ahead-of-their-time numbers that feel like would-be highlights from Lux Interior and Poison Ivy‚Äôs oft-anthologized record collection.
Fittingly, the story of Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's rise to stardom is nearly as strange and improbable as the story of this compilation, as her passion for music was first ignited by the ambient sounds of the courtyard where she played with friends as a child ("from one particular house, all sorts of American music seeped into the courtyard"). Once T√¢m was thusly "introduced to a new world beyond traditional Vietnamese music," she proved to be a natural at assimilating the rapidly evolving cultural forces of the era ("musical trends with wild, ephemeral dance crazes were being thought up weekly; the twist, hully gully, the mashed potato ‚Äì none of them a problem for Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m."). I dearly hope the same can someday be said of me. Fatefully, T√¢m entered a singing competition at age 16 and soon became a fixture at various legendary Saigon nightclubs (often performing at multiple venues in a single night). Unsurprisingly, she quickly caught the attention of all of Saigon's most influential record labels and composers, as she was a "commanding presence" as well as "one of the very first singers to perform and record rock and roll." Demand for T√¢m was such that she recorded "almost 30 known tracks" between 1964 and 1966 that seemed to effortlessly channel every fun twist- or rockabilly-esque trend of the time. Most (or all) of those hits are here and they are invariably a delight, yet the real magic of Magical Nights is the handful of less "bubblegum" pieces that feel like a killer surf band, a Bollywood dance party, a James Dean-style teen exploitation film, and a sensuous cabaret chanteuse all blurred together in a perfect cocktail of soulful, kitschy, and hip-shaking fun. One such gem ("C√≥ Nh·ªõ ƒê√™m N√†o") kicks off the album in style, but that is only the first of many bombshells to come. My other personal favorites are currently the slinky-sounding "Ng√†y Ph√©p C·ªßa L√≠nh" and the rolling lurch of "Anh ƒê√¢u Em ƒê√≥," but there is also an extremely generous helping of second-tier highlights destined to keep growing on me, as T√¢m was almost always backed by musicians who knew how to whip up a hot groove. This entire album is pure pop bliss.
Samples can be found here.