October 28, 2021
Playing raucous American pop in 1960s Vietnam, Phuong Tâm became a sensation – but turned her back on singing after emigrating to the US. Now she’s 76 and her incredible music can finally be heard after her daughter tracked it down
Do the Saigon twist! Meet Phuong Tâm, Vietnam’s first rock’n’roll star
In early 1960s Saigon, Nguyễn Thi Tâm would appear on stage in the city’s vibrant phòng trà (tearooms) and nightclubs. She embodied quintessential young womanhood, with long, straight black hair and wearing a white áo dài, an elegant Vietnamese dress. But instead of traditional songs, she would belt out music that recalled American hot rods, hip-swinging dance crazes and even teenage abandon: using the stage name Phuong Tâm, she was one of Vietnam’s first rock’n’roll singers. “Back then, everyone was singing Vietnamese, some French, but no one else was singing American music,” says Tâm, now 76. “Just me.”
Lost for decades, 25 of the brilliantly crafted songs she recorded – all rich in verve and atmosphere – can now be found on Magical Nights, a landmark compilation that required an international collective effort to recover a lost era of early Vietnamese rock. Tâm and I speak in Vietnamese, logging on from our homes in two of the world’s largest Vietnamese-diaspora communities: she is in San José, California; I am in Sydney, Australia. Given that we are talking about events from more than half a century ago, I’m astonished by her vivid recall. “Of course, these are precious memories. I was lucky. I sang every night.”
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