South African crowd 152   In 1952, white promoter Alfred Herbert organised his first African Jazz and Variety Show in South Africa at Johannesburg’s Windmill Theatre, presenting some of the city’s best musicians, dancers and singers. Herbert was the son of Sarah Sylvia (‘Madam Sarah’, she preferred to be called), who had toured South Africa, leading a Yiddish theatre company in the 1940’s. She taught Yiddish songs to both Thandi Klaasen and Dolly Rathebe whose popularity won her the opening spot for her son’s show.

Herbert was a feckless entrepreneur with a taste for gambling, who created a programme somewhere between concert and dance and burlesque. He gave his artists regular work, including tours (he was able to secure passports for his performers), and promised good wages. This meant that he attracted many top acts to his programmes, despite his penching for pushing the staging towards the sensational and stereotyped. ‘We had to have bodyguards, because we were dressed in short African attire and it was very sexy’ remembers Dolly Rathebe. Dolly was in the shows, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Sonny Pillay, Ben ‘Satch’ Masinga and The Woody Woodpeckers….* It was the first time in history that a white audience could witness black Africans perform on a stage.

As it always goes, the big recording companies had a keen eye on South African tunes made popular by local ‘black singers’ to adapt the most succesful ones to please their ‘white audiences’.

Like this original song by Barbara Thomas “Pickin’ a Chicken” that became a chartbuster with new words for Eve Boswell in 1956, which rose to No 9 on the UK Singles Charts. More on Eve Boswell in future posts…

here is the original…Barbara Thomas -Pickin’ a chicken

Barbara Thomas on stage in 1952
Barbara Thomas on stage in 1952

The troupe performed ragtime, Negro spirituals, jazz vocals, and syncopated African hymns and satirical comedy sketches


King Jeff and African Jazz Troupe -Rock Around the Clock

Sonny Pillay -My Yiddische momma

Ben Satch Masinga -six foot three

South African Institute for Race Relations presents African Jazz and Variety


The Woody Woodpeckers -Fanagalo

this rare 10″  includes two songs by The Woody Woodpeckers, a group around  songwriter and musician, Victor Ndlazilwane, who was awarded the Metro FM Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 in South Africa. During his early career, Ndlazilwane was part of the legendary Woody Woodpeckers group as well as the Jazz Ministers, both of which were signed to Gallo Record Company. The Jazz Ministers were the first African jazz band to perform at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in New York.

The Woody Woodpeckers -Gumdrop


*Excerpt from ‘Soweto Blues’ by Gwen Ansell (Continuum 2004)

thanks to reader Earle Thomas for the picture of his grandmother Barbara Thomas

29 thoughts on “African Jazz & Variety -Alfred Herbert 1952

  1. Fantastic to find your site – thank you – a pair of us has recently started electricjive – if you are amenable, I would be glad to add a link your site. Best wishes.

  2. Hi,
    Are the Woody Woodpeckers the same group who released “The Woodpecker/You Can’t Sit Down” – Decca F11835 (1964) and “Hey Little Girl/What’s Your Name” – Oriole CB 311 (1965) in the UK, as just The Woodpeckers?

    Thanks for your answer,

    1. to my knowledge, the songs by the Woody Woodpeckers were not released outside SA. The records that you mention must be by another group

  3. Hi, I discovered your fascinating blog while searching to find details of the original South African song that was changed with a new lyric by Paddy Roberts to become the version of Pickin’ a Chicken made famous by Eve Boswell.
    It was great to hear the Barbara Thomas performance. However, what surprised me is that the lyric appears to be exactly the same as the Eve Boswell version. Is it the original of the Paddy Roberts adaptation rather than the original song I wonder? I guess I was expecting the same tune with a different title.
    Do you know when the Barbara Thomas recording was made or when (and on which label) it was released? Any further info/references you can offer would be much appreciated.
    Thanks, Dave.

    1. hi Dave,
      the original song ‘Pickin’ A Chicken’by Barbara Thomas was featured in the African Jazz And Variety that premiered in Durban in 1952. The record I review here has no clear info on date of release nor record label as it seems to be a private pressing but I guess the date of recording must have been between 1952-1954. Eve Boswell had a hit with the same song in 1955. Hope this helps

      Thanks for your interest in my blog
      Eddy@Soul Safari

    1. i just can believe the contents of this site. I just love it. Our own black brothers, with enough resources, including the SABC, in South Africa cannot initiate this kind of legacy. I am so addicted to rare sounds.


    1. thanks for your comment. I wonder if you have any photographs -or other memorabilia- of Barbara Thomas that you want to share? As there is virtually no information or pictures of her to be found I am always interested in adding any information to my posts.
      Your response is appreciated, best regards, Eddy@SoulSafari

  4. Sonny Pillay is a legend. At 80 years he performed at Centre for Jazz and Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for one night only. A great success. He lives in New York. He sang My Yedishe Mama to tumultuous applauses. But he was born at the wrong time. Manny Gounden, Durban

  5. Do you know of someone who might be interested in the 10″ album “African Jazz and Variety” that you show in this post? I just found a copy myself.

  6. i have a few pictures from the African Jazz and Variety, and ive seen Babara in a few pics with Thandie Klaasen does one upload?

  7. We’ve been searching for information on Barbara Thomas. It’s a honour to know where I get my signing from and how talented my 2 brothers are in bass guitar. As well as my baby cousin Jamie. Earle Thomas is my uncle. Singing is my life and I’m blessed to know that my great grandmother has left a great legacy in her singing. My hearts desire and dream is to continue leading her legacy as her great granddaughter.

    1. may the musical legacy of Barbara Thomas live on! As your message states, this is definitely the case.
      Thanks for your comment. Appreciated!

    1. African Jazz & Variety by Alfred Herbert was a travelling variety show. Probably a lot of local talent was on the roster as well next to the big stars. Alas, no programs are known of the shows. Only the record reveals some artists that were regulars of the troupe. Maybe a reader has these old programs?

  8. A Kwela flute band also recorded under the name of “The Woodpeckers” on HIT recordings. On HIT 97 they recorded “Tall Grass” and “Bottle Bottle” both excellent Kwela tunes!

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