'80s - Jonathan Butler (2013)
'Serving Up A Slice of Summer!'
Before the age ten, Jonathan Butler traveled cross-country performing in various South African villages with a 100-member troupe to help support his family. The audiences would vary from poverty-ravaged black townships to opulent ‘whites only’ halls. During his travels, the young entertainer could neither comprehend the extreme destitute nor the harsh treatment he endured and bared witness to under the devastating reign of Apartheid.
After signing his first record deal as a teenager with Jive Records, Butler’s first single won a Sarie Award, the South African equivalent to a Grammy award. His self-titled debut album put him on the map internationally and garnered two Grammy nominations. Butler’s albums and worldwide concert tours have afforded him a lifestyle far from what he ever could have imagined as a child, but more importantly, it brought him the freedom to follow his true passion – music – on his own terms.
And so fans of feel-good soul and R&B with a touch of jazz will be ecstatic to learn that South African singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler is embarking on the third outing of his unique concert tour for the summer of 2013.
Jonathan Butler’s 'Soul of Summer Tour 2013' is a refreshing coming together of friends (and family) paying tribute to some of the most unforgettable soul music of all time with equal parts jubilance and romance. The national concert tour kicks off Saturday, June 29th in San Francisco, CA and culminates on November 17th in Washington, DC - stopping off in South Africa along the way! While Jonathan’s own dates span that time frame, the Soul of Summer tour started in late May and has dates into August.
Chatting recently with the man himself Jonathan Butler, taking it from the top, I first noted that as he had been born and raised in Athlone, Cape Town, South Africa during Apartheid, that as he began singing and playing an acoustic guitar the subject matter surrounding him must have been a brutal lyrical breeding ground? "I was a kid, so to speak on the front line of what was going on actually on the front line. I learnt very quickly what kind of country I was born into and what type of laws and social and political structures were built. The country was split. Like some kid went to a white school up the road and would see Whites Only, Blacks Only, Coloreds Only signs in public places. And outside all the clubs and theatres. And then people like me were not able to use the facilities, but we were allowed to perform! It is a dream for me to live the life that I live now. The music that I play now. But back then it was all pretty scary. Pretty scary."
I can only imagine. In fact, your debut single was the first by a black artist played by white radio stations in the racially segregated South Africa and earned you a Sarie Award [South Africa's equivalent to the Grammy Awards] "That's right. I had no idea what the social impact of all of that would mean at the time though. I mean, I grew up in a Shanty House so it was a pretty scary and unbelievable experience, you know. All I remember was loving music. Always wanting to be on radio. And so to hear my songs on the radio, to hear my voice on the radio was unbelievable. Just totally unbelievable."
Well, talking of unbelievable, you began touring at the age of just seven when you joined a traveling stage show! What was life like for you back then? "Yes, I began traveling when I was seven years old on this big traveling show called the Golden City Dixies. And that was a very, very big tour. And we literally lived and stayed in caravans, and slept in boxes, and slept on the stage backstage. There was over one hundred people so there was a big cast. And we were on the road all the time throughout the year. We probably did come home for a month or so and say hi to our parents, but then we got back out on the road. And that's the life I've known and it has not changed. Except there's not one hundred people traveling with me any more," he gently laughs.
After being signed up to perform on a string of hit recordings you later joined Cape Town's best known jazz/rock outfit, Pacific Express and released some albums. At that point would you have been happy if that had been the extent of your musical fame or were you seeking more? "I was still seeking more, because when I joined Pacific Express they were a very progressive jazz group. But they were also caught up in having to do a lot of covers, you know. And I was a kid who was seeking to make my own statement and always felt we should make our own statements. That we should write our own music and it should be played on our own radio stations. And not just British or American music. That our music should be as accepted as well."
"So I had a lot of different feelings and opinions about that. Some of which didn't sit well with a lot of the establishment. Because if Peaches was in the Top 20 we would have to play that song. So it kinda of didn't make me feel we were making our own statements until much later on."
In the early '80s you moved to the United Kingdom, where you remained for seventeen years. And your international breakthrough came in 1987 with his Grammy-nominated hit single, 'Lies,' and was quickly followed by a cover version of the Staple Singers song 'If You're Ready (Come Go with Me),' which you performed with Ruby Turner. Finally you were getting the worldwide accolades you deserved, but was everything, in your own mind, going to plan, perhaps? "I do believe it was going to plan, yes. Because these were all the stepping stones that established me to an international audience. It's really a very fortunate piece to this puzzle, because a lot of times taking a leap of faith can end badly."
"I was a South African artist in an American and British country and that can be very daunting. And it can be very challenging. So I had to build and stay focused and to really endure the whole thing and just get through it. All I knew when I left South Africa was that I wasn't going to go back until I was able to play for everybody in the one place."
"So writing with Ruby Turner and being on Top Of The Tops [TOPT is a UK Music Chart Show] was huge, so big. And so for me to be on TOPT was awesome. It was like, man, yeeeeeeessssss<" he laughs. "It was the show to be on, watched every Thursday night by the whole country. Everyone was on it, like Anne Lennox, Sting, Boy George, Sade ... everybody. So here I'd come from South Africa and now I was on TOPT. It was awesome. And not only that I lived in London and became a British citizen. So it just meant so much more to me."
A decade or two later and you are now launching the third edition of The Soul of Summer tour. But I've heard that this summers concert trek will not now feature the multi-talented Latina Sheila E. alongside both you and Barbadian saxophonist Elan Trotman? Is that correct? "Yes, that's correct. That's correct. I can't divulge too much of it, but it's a surprise to me also. So this years SOS Tour will feature Elan, myself and my daughter Jodie Butler, who's a new and uprising young lady. It's unfortunate that Shelia couldn't be part of it, but I can't really get into it right now. Maybe down the road."
It sounds as if it's left a bitter taste in your mouth though? "I think so, yes. I think so."
So does that mean that your daughter, Jodie, instead of just being on background vocals for you all will now have her own spot on the tour? "Yes, she will now get her own turn in the spotlight. She has been co-writing with me on my new record. She's an amazing artist and I can see great things happening for her."
But the show must go on, correct? i>"Yes, and I'm particularly grateful to all the promoters across the country who have embraced the Soul Of Summer tour without Sheila. It was a tough kind of thing to navigate through, but I'd like to thank everybody for the support they've given me and my tour. This is my baby, you know. This is the third year out on my own and so I do appreciate the support that everybody's given me."
You've created a 14-song set list, so how easy or hard was that to put together choice wise? "Well, I have more songs than that," he laughs, "but we'll see what we get through, in terms of time. But yes, it was very difficult to choose them. But when I play my own shows I'm able to stretch a little bit more, you know. But it's always made more difficult when you're doing a package tour."
You mentioned the new album you're working on, so would that be your very first Christmas album coming out in October, perhaps? "Well, yes, I have just finished my very first Christmas CD. Which is getting released mid to late October. And I've just now finished vocals for my next R&B, Soul and Jazz record featuring Marcus Miller, George Duke and a whole array of great people. And that's coming out on Valentine's Day in February 2014."
OK, so taking both those records one at a time, the new Christmas CD - all the classics or some surprises, perhaps "There's a couple of surprises. I wrote two original songs for it and there's a lot of classics too. I hope you're gonna love it because it's a very intimate, very classy, classic type of record. I've taken the Christmas songs and I've made them much more intimate. Usually a lot of the songs are so overly-produced you've heard them sung many times before. And I don't want to let the cat out of the bag, but I hope people will embrace this very, very personal, very intimate album that I have made. Some of the songs are just me and a guitar and so it's pretty amazing. And I'm pretty excited about that."
How does one write a new Christmas song? "It's not easy, but I write it as if I'm writing a postcard or a letter and I make it a romantic Christmas story. And so I think it's gonna be a cool, cool record. I really think so."
Sounds great and being released on Valentine's Day, one assumes your new record in 2014 will be chock full of love songs? "We called the album Love Language, but I want to call it Living My Dream. Or I want to call it Heart And Soul. Because it's one of the albums that I've done, for a very long time that I'm super excited about. Because I went into the studio with all these great musicians that I've always loved and wanted to work with: Marcus Miller, George Duke, Gorden Campbell on drums, Dave Woods on guitar, and many more. It's just so organic. It's how people made records back in the day. You're all in the studio, you count it off, and what comes through the speakers is just genuine love, and genuine feelings coming from everyone. It's a great record. It's just a great record and I'm very, very psyched about it."
So just how different is it to make an album today? "It was fun, for me at least. Making a record should be an event and that's what old school records were about. If you listen to Quincy Jones talk about making Thriller or Off The Wall, or Herbie Hancock's Day Dreams or Stevie's Songs In The Key Of Life, or Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing or 'What's Going On' with Donnie Hathaway, these albums were such events that they'll be remembered forever. So, for me, that's where the fun is is when you bring in the people that you've really admired, loved and respected into the studio on that same day. You then count it off and everybody’s playing your music. There's nothing more beautiful than that, I'll telling you. It's just incredible."
And touring these days - easier or harder? "Well, they pay you to travel now, these days. I flew from L.A. this morning from Burbank to San Francisco, which is supposed to be a fifteen minute flight. But it felt like ten hours," he laughs. "What the hell! God damn, I could have ridden a bicycle across and gotten here quicker, you know."
So you would rather have a tour bus? "Yeah, I miss having a tour bus because everybody on it was a community. You went from one city to another on a tour bus. You could sleep, chat, look out the window and enjoy the countryside. But when you're doing airport to airport it's tough. It's really tough."
And finally, throwing you a journalistic curve ball, we here at Exclusive Magazine love Penguins ... so, we're wondering if you have any love for them also, perhaps? "Well, I love penguins too," he gently laughs, "I absolutely love penguins too. I think they're just the cutest. I watch 'Happy Feet' all the time with my granddaughter in 3D in the movie house. I love penguins. Who doesn't love penguins? If you find somebody who don't love penguins send them to me and I can re-educate them," he laughs.
So, if you could own one yourself, what would you name him or her? "You know there's already Happy Feet, so I would call my penguin Soul Foot!"
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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