King Kong -programme The New London Version 1961

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The original South African stage production “King Kong, All African Jazz Opera“ went overseas to be premiered in London, UK  in 1961 after having taking South Africa by storm.  The cast and production numbers were altered for the London version of “King Kong, All African Jazz Opera”.  The London show was presented by Union Artists, also known as the Union of Southern African Artists. Founded in 1952 this organisation came into being with the dual function of promoting the talent that had already been shown to exist in the musical and dramatic  field and to act as an Artists’ Equity. The Union promoted Township Jazz concerts which were the first large scale African entertainment shows to be presented in Johannesburg, and arranged for non-European audiences to see and hear a wide range of entertainment like Dame Flora Robson and Rosalinde Fuller, among others.  It also provided rehearsal facilities, advice on a variety of topics, and opportunity of employment of its members.

Six years after the Union was formed ‘King Kong’ was presented. The musical was a spectacular success, over 100.000 people saw this South African production in the first months after its premiere. After ‘King Kong’ Union Artists went into the production of another all-black cast musical ‘Mhkumbane’,  written by Alan Paton with music by Todd Matshikiza.

 see also King Kong -Original London Stage Cast 1961

 Copy of king kong London programme merged

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South African Soul Divas Pt 4 -The Skylarks

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.

The Skylarks –Siyavuya 1959

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.

Miriam Makeba –Dubula 1963

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.

The Skylarks w Makeba & Spokes Mashiyane -Inkomo Zodwa 1959

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.

The Skylarks -Goodbye To Africa 1959

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)


King Kong -Original London Stage Cast 1961

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King Kong 1961 -King Kong

King Kong 1961 -Damn him

…in a previous post I have highlighted the original South African stage production and LP release of “King Kong, All African Jazz Opera“. Now here is an alternative version released in 1961 that surprisingly  has far more production numbers and new songs than the  original play and LP of 1959

Recorded in Johannesburg , South Africa by the original cast of King Kong, without Miriam Makeba, whose musical opened at the Princes Theatre, London, on 23 February 1961, after having taking South Africa by storm.

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The Princes Theatre, London UK 1961

The sleeve carries this message on the back:  “No theatrical venture in South Africa has had the sensational success of King Kong. This musical, capturing the life, colour and effervescence – as well as the poignancy and sadness – of township life, has come as a revelation to many South Africans that art does not recognise racial barriers.”

King Kong 1961 -In the queue

King Kong 1961 -Gumboot Dance

Décor and costumes for the King Kong musical were by Arthur Goldreich, who also designed the LP cover. Goldreich was a leading architect and visual designer living in Johannesburg, a Jewish Communist who was arrested by the Apartheid regime in one of the clampdowns in the early 60’s.

King Kong 1961 -Crazy Kid

King Kong 1961 -Wedding Hymn

Also the orchestral arrangements and vocals have been altered, probably to suit European tastes and preferences and to add more drama and dynamics to the new stage version. The credit “Jack Hylton presents” on the cover seems to have been added simply as some assurance of quality entertainment. Later pressings of this LP have the subtitle ‘All African Opera’ without mentioning the word ‘Jazz’…

king kong UK LP voorkant

King Kong hoes 1961 achter

King Kong 1961 -Be smart, be wise

King Kong 1961 -Sad times, bad times

Jack Hylton presents ‘King Kong’ Decca stereo SKL 4132 UK first issued 1961

King Kong, the first All African Jazz Opera 1956

King Kong is of course one of the most famous movies ever made, involving a big ape being transported to New York from an obscure island. But in 1956 in South Africa King Kong became the first all African Jazz Opera starring Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers with Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela among others.

Miriam Makeba

Between the conception of ‘King Kong’ and the actual premiere of the musical lay 3 years. In  1956, the syndicate of African Artists commissioned Todd Matshikiza’s ‘Uxolo’, a work on a massive scale  for choir and brass band. Todd Matshikiza wrote great choral works, using a brass band because it was impossible for him at that time to get access to a full orchestra. He wrote in a certain way because he was a man who interacted with jazz musicians, understood what genres were all about….

Matshikiza wrote the music and some lyrics using as much African lingo as he could.  ‘King Kong’ was situated in a township in the heart of the White kingdom and blacks were shot at sight at nine by the police, especially if they were talking some lingo.

Nathan Mdeledle played the title role with Miriam Makeba,the female lead as  the shebeen queen,  Joyce, who presides over the legendary Back O’the Moon drinking den.

A fourteen piece orchestra backed the sixty-three member cast, the cream of the era’s modern jazz players. Among them was reed player Kippie Moketsi, whose contribution to modern jazz led to comparisons with Charlie Parker.

The musical was produced by Ian Ephriam Bernhardt,  the manager of Dorkey House as I was informed by his son Brian Bernhardt recently.

Back O’the Moon

The show opened on 2 February 1959 at the Wits University Great Hall and was an immediate success; the white Star newspaper called it ‘the greatest thrill in 20 years of South African theatre-going’. In South Africa, it repeated packed runs over the next two years before securing a London booking for early 1961. By the time the company left for London,  200.000 South Africans had seen King Kong. Two-thirds of them were white. The music of ‘King Kong’ was also favorite amongst the punters of  the Jo’burg shebeens and listeners to black radio stations all over the country.

The origins of South African theatre can be found in the rich and ancient oral tradition of indigenous South Africans – the folk tales around the fires, with their drama, and an audience ranging from the very young to the very old. Performances on stage came much later. In the townships, particularly in Johannesburg’s vibrant Sophiatown, an eclectic performance culture developed, drawing on American, English and African cultural traditions and involved comic sketches and acting as well as jazz, singing and dancing.

King Kong -All African Jazz Opera, music by Todd Matshikiza, lyrics by Pat Williams, book by Harry Bloom.

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Todd Matshikiza with members of the original cast at work

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The real King Kong

From time to time, in every country in the world, a figure emerges from the masses –pulled up usually by his own bootstraps- and catches the imagination and affection of the people. King Kong was such a person. Mostly they are tough guys and flouters of authority, but often they have courage.

King Kong, more prosaically Ezekiel Dhlamini, was a Zulu from Vrijheid. Dhlamini’s meteoric rise to the top of South African boxing dwindled into lost bouts, drunkenness, off-ring violence and murder. He knifed his girlfriend when she arrived in a club surrounded by rival gangsters. He asked for the death sentence, but got 14 years hard labour – and drowned himself in March 1957 at the age of 32;  a perfect story for the first township musical. He was a bully, and a braggart and was recognized as such in the townships. Yet they cheered him. He brought colour, vitality and excitement into their lives. And hope, too.

King Kong

Kwela Kong

If a man could work himself up to be a heavyweight champion and have the crowds roaring their delighted heads off as he jumped flamboyantly over the ropes into the ring, perhaps they, too could somehow manufacture this sort of adulation for themselves.

Uncontrolled and violent in temper, the downward slide began when a middleweight champ –a puny man by comparison- knocked him out in the ring. The unthinkable had happened.

Sad Times, Bad Times

When King Kong staggered up that night from the canvas he was not the same man. Some people had laughed, actually laughed when he was floored. Thereafter he went about beating up anybody with the suspicion of a jeer in the face.

In a brawl the leader of a much-feared gang lay dead, felled by King Kong’s fists. The plea was self-defence, an he was acquitted. But the next he was in court the charge was murder. She had been his girl friend.

It was the night the had hired a hall for the dance. The girl arrived followed by a gang who forced their way in. There was a fight. The girl was knifed. Above the din the tremendous voice of King Kong roared; ‘send for the police’.

And when they came he stood there, the knife still in his hand. He refused to drop it and was warned that action would be taken unless he did. He refused again and firing began. He appeared at a preparatory examination into an allegation of murder and was committed for trial. Eccentric to the last –he pleaded guilty. In February 1957 he was sentenced to 12 years of hard labour.

‘No’, he cried out. ‘I tell you to sentence me to death’. The judge rebuked him and repeated ‘twelve years hard labour’. What good would that do, King Kong asked, in stopping other people from killing.

He was sent with a labour gang to Leeuwkop. There is a vast dam there. One day, within a short time of being sentenced, he leapt far into it.

Two days passed before they could find the body. King Kong was about 32.

about Todd Matshikiza

Todd Matshikiza, who composed the music of ‘King Kong’ was commissioned in 1956 to write a choral work for 200 voices and orchestra for the Johannesburg Festival, the result being ‘Uxolo’.

A musician of exceptional gifts, Matshikiza was born in Queenstown and has his early education at St Peter’s, Rosettenville. He matriculated from Adams College and then studied at the Lovedale Teacher’s Training College. For some time he taught at Lovedale High School.

He is one of a family of 10, all of whom are either singers or instrumentalists. His father was a church organist. He started to play the piano at the age of six, and music has absorbed him ever since.

Todd Matshikiza made his home in Johannesburg in 1947, and in the past 11 years he has turned his hand to many things other than music. In between composing choral works and songs –many of which are heard regularly over the radio in the township-he has been bookseller, messenger boy, hotel waiter and journalist.

Quickly in Love

His newspaper career began in 1951 when he joined the editorial staff of ‘Drum’ under editor Anthony Sampson. He wrote vigorous, colourful prose, and the way he played with words was not without its own kind of music. Sampson in his book ‘Drum’ pays warm tribute to the part that Matshikiza played in helping to establish the magazine.

about Pat Williams

Pat Williams, lyric and scriptwriter, is a journalist of wide and varied experience. She started on the Cape Times at the age of 18, then joined the Sunday Times, where she wrote specialized articles on a wide range of subjects under her own name. For more than a year she was the newspaper’s film and theatre critic. Ms Williams has a natural flair for writing verse, both light and serious, and her delightful pieces have appeared in most of the major newspapers of the country.

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Original liner notes from “King Kong, All African Jazz Opera” Original Cast 1959

(Gallo GALP 1040, South Africa)

excerpt from “Soweto Blues” Gwen Ansell Continuum 2004

 the South African and UK release of 1961 ‘King Kong’ is still available as second hand vinyl.  Check out the following link