on the Jazz Train with Dolly Rathebe

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 South African Soul Divas pt 3 Dolly Rathebe,MabelMafuya,NancyJacobs,EvaMadison

African Jazz & Variety -AlfredHerbert1952

Dolly Rathebe -Thlapi Ke Noga

following  Dolly Rathebe’s film career,her fame as a singer increased. Before there was Miriam Makeba, Dolly was the lead singer of the Manhattan Brothers and she recorded her first tunes with them.

She says: “It was a hectic time because I also worked with the Harlem Swingsters and toured with the African Jazz and Variety Show.”

 At that time, Dolly was under contract with Alfred Herbert, a creative organiser who arranged many concerts and who was a driving force behind the popularization of South African jazz. It was Herbert from whom Dolly Rathebe learned the tricks of the trade. She became the star of the show because of her silky singing and good looks. Her legs were considered so beautiful that a metaphor was coined for them. ‘It’s dolly’ meant ‘it’s wonderful’ and was an abbreviation of the Afrikaans ‘s’Dolly se boude’ (it’s Dolly’s tights).

Dolly Rathebe -Ke Ya Kae Le Bona

Drum cover July 1955 photo Bob Gosani

At the start of the 50’s, Herbert had an extensive series of jazz concerts arranged as the African Jazz Parade, a series of numerous performances and concerts, ending years later in Kenya as the African Jazz and Variety Show. During this period that show became somewhat of an institution inSouth Africa. The theatres of Johannesburg were sold out and the show went on tour around other main cities of South Africa and across the African continent.
The musicians all travelled by train and formed bonds and friendships during those long tours away from home. Inspired by the successful Jazz Train in the United States, a special tour to Durban was  organized. The most important musicians of the South African jazz scene from that era were onboard this train.   On a Wednesday morning in June 1955 the Jazz Train left Johannesburg, full of fans, musicians and groupies, on their way  to Durban.

  • Dolly Rathebe posing for an ad for Max cigarettes in 1951.

Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg. “I took this photo in theWerner studios in Johannesburg to promote a cigarette brand. It was one of the first images of black people who were used for commercial advertising.”

  • Dolly Rathebe on the beach 1952. Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg.

 Excerpt and photographs from the book

‘Familieverhalen uit Zuid Afrika, een groepsportret’ by Paul Faber

KIT Publishers, Amsterdam and Kwela Books Cape Town 2002.

King Kong -Original London Stage Cast 1961

king kong UK LP voorkant

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.

princes theatre london
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.

cast king kong copy

Todd Matshikiza with members of the original cast at work

band king kong

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.

credits king kong

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 

African Jazz & Variety -Alfred Herbert 1952

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