A teen idol while growing up in South Africa, the guitarist nonetheless
experienced firsthand the degrading effects of apartheid. The Los
Angeles resident returned home for an uplifting concert and video
segments now captured on a CD/DVD package.
By Brian Soergel
Jonathan Butler is a much-loved player on the smooth jazz concert
scene, his face more often than not sporting a grin as he strums
his left-handed acoustic guitar. His killer app is his throaty
vocals, which he puts to good use on both his smooth jazz and gospel
CDs.Today, the 46-year-old Butler lives in sunny Southern California
in a private, gated community called Bell Canyon. But to understand
what made Butler the artist he is today, you must travel back to
South Africa, where he managed to escape a dirt-poor childhood
thanks to his prestigious musical talents. Part of Butler's story
is told in Live in South Africa, a new CD and DVD package
where he shares compelling stories of his youth lived under the
oppressive cloak of apartheid––South Africa's formal
policy of racial separation and economic discrimination finally
dismantled in 1993.
Butler was raised the
youngest child of a large family in a house built with corrugated
tin and cardboard in the “coloreds only” township
of Athlone near Cape Town.
“A lot has changed
in Athlone,” said Butler,
who returned to the area for Live in South Africa. “It was so
touching for me to go back to Seventh Avenue, where I grew up, and to look
around. When I was growing up, it was all shanties with outhouses. People had
horses in their shanties, they sold fruit, fish and vegetables, and you could
buy it all on credit. Most of the people I grew up with were poor, which was
my family as well. Now there's so much development. Even the house I grew up
in, somebody bought the lot and built a beautiful house. But here and there
you still see shanty houses.”
Butler's parents and relatives rarely mentioned the
turmoil in their country, as they were more concerned about getting food in
stomachs. Summers were hot and winters cold. During a traditional sing-a-long
by a roaring outside fire, young Butler, at age 6, sang for the first time.
Seeing his son's talent, Butler’s father built him a homemade guitar
constructed out of a hollow floor-polish can and a tomato crate––and
one gut-bucket string.
“I learned one string at a time,” said
Butler. “Then I played two strings, then three, and everything began
to make sense after a while. I could hear melodies, hear where the harmony
needed to be. There was always some sort of torn-up guitar in the house.”
While learning to play, Butler was inspired and mentored
by his late older brother Cecil, who also played guitar.
Butler was performing in and around South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in bands
fronted by older brothers and friends. He became a teen idol on par with Michael
Jackson and was noticed by now-famed record label mogul Clive Calder, a Johannesburg
native who formed Bullet Records and would go on to create Jive Records. At
12, Butler became a sensation with a Burt Bacharach song originally recorded
by the Drifters called “Please
Stay” that earned him the distinction of being the first black artist
to be played on white-controlled radio in South Africa. It also picked up a
Sarie Award, South Africa's version of the Grammys.
It was while traveling and performing that Butler
was exposed to the deep racial divide in his country.
“Growing up as a kid in show business, I'd wake
up every day to signs saying 'whites only,' 'coloreds only.' You grow up with
this messed up notion of what life is about because in the middle of the day
you'd hear sirens go off and you'd see black people running. I'd go, 'Where
are they running to?' There were always illegals coming across the border to
work, and the police would do random stops to check your papers,” Butler
Butler found himself as the No. 1 artist in South
Africa and joined one of Cape Town's best-known groups, Pacific Express. One
of his favorite songs became Tom Jones' “Delilah.” **
**The complete story can be found in the February edition
of Smooth Jazz News.
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For more information on Jonathan Butler, including
his complete tour schedule, visit www.jonathanbutler.com.