South African Soul Divas Pt 4 -The SkylarksOctober 1, 2010
Good day to all.
In a previous post I have highlighted the work of Miriam Makeba after her departure from South Africa to the USA. As an artist in exile Makeba became an even bigger star then she had ever been before in South Africa. But how many people will realise the fact that Makeba was already a big star in her country of birth in 1959 before her departure? That she had performed in a movie ‘Come Back, Africa’ singing one of her signature tunes? That she had recorded as a solo-artist on Gallotone Records and later with the Skylarks for the same label? Note the advertisement on a Gallotone 78 rpm sleeve for a release by Mariam Makeba ‘Pass Office Special -Hoenene’ (GB 2134).
She had made a name for herself in her early career as singer with the Manhattan Brothers and in the beginning of 1956 –about two years after she had joined The Manhattan Brothers- Sam Alcock, Gallo’s black talent scout, asked Miriam to form a ‘girlie group’ for recording. He wanted to compete with the success that rival labels like Troubadour were enjoying with similar material and particularly with the Quad Sisters who recorded for Trutone, another rival. Miriam recruited her sister Mizpah and a friend, Joanna Radebe, and two songs resulted which were issued as The Sunbeams on the Tropik label, a Gallo affiliate
The style that so interested Alcock was hardly indigenous although there is a tradition of group female singing in some South African tribal cultures. The line of influence was rather, like so much urban black music in South Africa from that period, taken directly from American popular. In the 1930’s, the white Boswell Sisters enjoyed a tremendous popularity as a jazzy, close harmony trio (they had grown up in New Orleans at the same time as Louis Armstrong and the development of early jazz).
The Boswells drew upon Tin Pan Alley pop and contemporary Afro-American vocal styles, religious and secular, that had evolved from traditions developed under slavery. Their success spawned in turn the Andrews Sisters in the 1940’s and the McGuire Sisters in the 1950’s, and all three groups became well known in South Africa through imported recordings. At some point, perhaps by the Second World War, this style was being copied by black female trios on Johannesburg’s concert stages with vernacular lyrics eventually substituting for the English originals. In the 1940’s groups like the V Dolls and the Twisting Sisters had already enjoyed commercial success as ‘girlie groups’ but it would take another decade before female singing groups would become popular with record companies and the general public as well.
By the mid -50’s when the Quad Sisters were at the height of their popularity, ‘girlie groups’ were already regarded as a black show business tradition. The Manhattan Brothers, too, had assimilated virtually identical American roots. They modelled themselves after the Mills Brothers –who had come to international fame in the 1930’s by updating the same Afro-American traditions- and then later, after the equally famous Ink Spots. As the 50’s progressed, the Manhattan’s music came to incorporate more indigenous elements but they had originally become famous by singing American originals in Sotho or Xhosa.
The first Sunbeams record sold well enough to soon warrant the girls’ return to the studio but this time the songs were issued on Gallotone and the name of the group was changed to The Skylarks. On this second session, Mizpah dropped out because of work commitments and Mary Rabotapi joined. By the time Mary joined Miriam’s new group, she had already recorded several discs under her own name and was regularly singing on advertising jingles.
Mummy Girl Nketle, a good looking girl from Sophiatown who could sing well on stage, was the next addition. Miriam had discovered her fronting a group called the Midnight Kids. Her elder brother, ‘Boetie’, a gangster and a member of the notorious Americans, was briefly married to Dolly Rathebe. See my previous post on Dolly Rathebe who recalls her years as a gangster moll. See also my previous post South African Soul Divas pt 3 Dolly Rathebe, Mabel Mafuya, Nancy Jacobs, Eva Madison
According to Mary, the idea of expanding the group to four voices had a practical rather than musical basis, if one member was absent, the requirements of a trio were still provided for. Then, Joahnna Radebe left and a coloured singer from the West Rand, Helen Van Rensburg, came in. She was in turn replaced in late 1957 by Abigail Kubeka from White City Jabavu.
There was an underlying reason for these personnel changes. “It was all Miriam’s doing”, recalls Mary Rotapi, “she was the boss”. Miriam held the recording contract and she was the eldest, a position from which authority had traditionally emanated in African society. There was a feeling that the younger girls were being entrusted to Miriam’s care by their families. Mary adds “Miriam wants hard workers. If you’re slow on your feet, she’ll take somebody else…I was a lucky one. She never got rid of me!” Needless to say, these circumstances often make it impossible, some 35 years later, to exactly determine who was singing on the earlier sessions, but with the arrival of Abigail, the situation stabilized. The line-up of Miriam, Mary, Abigail and Mummy Girl, occasionaly supplemented with Nomonde Sihawu as a fifth voice and Sam Ngakone singing bass, would produce all of the Skylark’s biggest hits such as “Hush”, “Inkoma Zodwa” and “Hamba Bekile” amongst others.
Just how popular were the Skylarks? Unfortunately, no sales figures for the group’s recordings have survived to reveal the true extent of their success. In fact, sales were somewhat irrelevant to the recording artists of that era because they were paid on an ‘outright buy-out’, flat fee basis. Only with the institution of the royalty system in the early 1960’s would the number of ‘units’ sold become a matter of concern. Nevertheless, because of the frequency with which they recorded, the Skylarks discs must have sold very well indeed, perhaps in the region of 100.000 copies or more for the most popular numbers.
In a short history of little more than three years, the group cut well over 100 sides, almost all of which were issued. Few artists of the time could equal that number and certainly no other vocal groups, not even the Manhattan Brothers whose fortunes declined somewhat towards the end of the 50’s.
And then of course, Miriam Makeba played Joyce as a character in the original black cast of the musical “King Kong”. By the time she left South Africa, she had already built a name for herself that would open doors in the United States of America.
‘Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks’ -African Heritage -Teal Records 1991 TELCD 2303
this article contains excerpts from the liner notes by Rob Allingham
Miriam Makeba performs “Into Yam”
Come Back, Africa (1959)