Cover Story

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.
Soon, 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 recalled.
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