At Montreal: Anatomy of a hit song that gets them moving in Cape Town

The late Tony Schilder . . . composed At Montreal more than 30 years ago to boost the profile of a club and the song turns out to be one of the most popular tunes on the Cape scene.

 26 May 2018

At Montreal, you can always have a ball

Where the girls are so pretty

And the guys seem to know they have it all

Picture this: a jol or a stage show is as flat as last week’s beer and going nowhere fast. Then someone plays Montreal and voila! – the joint comes alive and everybody’s clapping, stomping their feet, dancing!

That’s it! That’s what that song can do. It’s like an adrenaline shot for a slow-moving gathering that’s just short of rigor mortis.

But why? It’s not as if it is purple prose. It’s not an international hit. It’s not even a South African hit. But it is a Cape Town hit. A big hit.

What is it about Montreal and the people of Cape Town, particularly those from the Cape Flats, (and those in the diaspora in Melbourne, Sydney, Toronto . . .)?

This is my little effort to try to put it all on the record, as it were: how Montreal came to be one of the most popular songs around. Music historians like to do it for songs like Hogey Carmichael’s Georgia On My Mind and Paul McCartney’s Michelle. 

So let’s unpack Montreal.

Bassist Gary Kriel . . . was with Tony in the recording studio to lay down tracks for At Montreal. 

 

Tony composed the song almost 40 years ago, with his daughter, Delene, contributing to the lyrics.

But there is so much more to the story than just those bland facts.

The song refers to a nightclub in Manenberg that was extremely popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Initially the venue was called The Sherwood, also very popular in its early days, but the patronage dwindled after a few years. To get the place back on its feet again, the management called in Taffy du Toit who sang with jazz combos in Cape Town nightclubs before moving, briefly, to Canada.

“They gave me carte blanche to get the place up and running again,” Taffy, who now lives in Adelaide, said. “I had been in touch with Tony, with whom I had sung in a white club before I left. When I came back he was playing in The Surwell with Gary Kriel and Leslie Kleinsmith. It wasn’t exactly a swinging joint with hipsters.

“When the time came to launch the revamped Sherwood, I didn’t have to ask them twice.”

Taffy du Toit . . . named the new club Montreal.

How did it come be called Montreal, then? “I had spent some time in Montreal in Canada and I found it to be such a vibrant  place, it left a lasting impression on me. When it came to naming the place, I couldn’t help but think of the good time I had in Montreal.

“One night, Tony and the band surprised me by playing At Montreal. It blew me away. It was such a nice gesture. The crowds just loved it.”

The song itself was recorded in 1984 at UCA Studios in Bloem Street for Paddy Lee Thorp’s Mountain Records. Tony recorded all three of his albums on that label.

“I don’t know how many takes were necessary in the recording it but I suspect that Tony and the guys were pretty well rehearsed. It would have been recorded rather quickly,” Paddy said. “Montreal first appeared on the album Introducing Tony Schilder. It was quite popular and went out of print pretty quickly.”

Ten years later, Paddy took the group back into the studio to redo the track for a CD and add Jonathan Butler’s voice as a duet with Robbie Jansen.

A feature of the recorded song was the fact that neither Jonathan nor Robbie sang the lyrics the way Tony had written it.

“It annoyed the shit out of Tony from the very beginning,” Paddy said. “I think the only guy that knows what the real lyrics are is Leslie Kleinsmith. He was the one who used to sing it with Tony at the club.

“Jonathan and Robbie come from a school of singers who don’t pay a helluva lot of attention to lyrics. They will get it right and see to it that it rhymes but they would come with the most incredible lyrics.”

Paddy said there were quite a few versions of Montréal recorded.“

“I have recorded three versions. The latest version is the one that is going to be part of the forthcoming Cape Jazz volume, which is an instrumental version by Ramon Alexander. The Sons of Table Mountain played it as did Tony’s son, Hilton, with his various groups.

“If you talk about standards, it is a jazz standard in the Cape. It is among the top five jazz standards in the Cape, along with Seventh Avenue and Mannenberg.

Paddy point’s to another irony of the song Montreal.

Paddy Lee Thorp . . . released At Montreal on Mountain Records.

“The most popular version of Montréal on the radio was Leslie Kleinsmith’s version. He recorded it with the SABC as part of their transcription recordings. It was never released commercially. It was one of those unfortunate things that used to happen in those days. The SABC only circulated these recordings internally. They never had the commercial rights to the recording. That belonged to my record company.

“Tony was allowed to do the transcription recording and the SABC played the hell out of it .

“Robbie’s version was not as well known as Leslie’s version. When we finally did the Jonathan and Robbie duet, it became the version of choice.”

Leslie has his own particular memories of Montreal.

“Tony, Willie van Bloemestein, Cecil Ricca and myself were playing at Scruples in Welcome Estate when Taffy came in one night and said he was re-opening Sherwood as Club Montreal . . . and two weeks later, there we were.

“We opened Club Montreal and I broke the song. We played at the venue two or three years, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.”

What many people ask is: if Leslie was the regular singer in the group, how come he never recorded it with the band for commercial release.

The way he recalls it, it was all a bit of miscommunication about being at the studio on the day they were due to record.

“I got a call from Paddy about 11am wanting to know where I was,” Leslie said. “Well, I had had a late night from coming home from the gig and watching movies until the wee hours.

“Apparently Paddy had organised with Tony and Tony was supposed to give me the message but he didn’t. Words were spoken and I didn’t end up doing the vocals, Robbie did.

“How do I rate the song? For me it is one of those obscure songs that you never really pay much mind to and then it shocks you. That’s how the public reacts to it. For me it is just another song but it turned out to be almost a national anthem for the club goers.

“What amazes me about the song is it’s simplicity; it is straight forward, it’s got a nice dance groove to it. But I do cringe every time I hear it on the radio and I hear the wrong words.

“Everywhere I go I have to sing it. At the recent Suidooster festival, I did a medley that included Club Montreal and Flying High. They crowd hears the introduction and there is this roar from the audience.”

Hilton Schilder said they played the song whenever he did a tribute to his father “and the crowd always goes bonkers”.

“It’s a feelgood song and it’s local song with a local composer, not something imported. It’s just a happy song.”

Last word from Gary Kriel, the bassist on the recording and long-time band member with Tony Schilder: “It was just an advert for the club, man. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Leslie Kleinsmith . . . best known version of At Montreal but never recorded it for release.

MONTREAL lyrics (courtesy of Leslie Kleinsmith)

At Montreal,

You can always have a ball

Where the girls are so pretty

And the guys seem to know they have it all

Club Montreal

the jazz is wild and free

You can swing with your lover

And your wife can discover

She’s a queen

(Chorus) In your jeans or your sable

You’ll find you are able to fly

With a glass in your hand

And the sound of the band you’re not shy

So come one, come all

To the place that has it all

Where the vibe is so happy, ask a girl or a chappie to dance

It’s a social experience, summer winter or fall

When you hear the good vibes call, at Montreal

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7 comments

  1. My heart warmed up just reading the history, of two great memories of the Cape Flats, that being the place and the song. Thanks Warren for being such a good caretaker, of our colourful past.

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  2. Hey Warren, fun piece. Thank you.

    To elaborate on how the wrong lyrics got duplicated, here is the story (if my old memory still works).

    Jonathan Butler actually produced the first version of the song and he sang what is known as a guide track when recording the rhythm section. This tells the musicians what the geography of the song is during the takes. But Jonathan is a great singer and so he did it like it was a final take, just slipping in the lyrics he did not know.

    Then Robbie Jansen came in to do some saxophone parts on other tracks.

    I think Leslie was supposed to do the real vocal but for some reason there was a miss-communication via Tony and as Robbie also knew the tune, he recorded the final vocal but copied Jonathan’s lyrics, we mixed it and that was the way the record went out on vinyl.

    However when I decided to do the CD, I re-mixed the tracks and there I discovered Jonathan’s perfect guide vocal, so I chose to make a duet out of it, Robbie and Jonathan.

    I am sad that I never got to do the track with Leslie Kleinsmith as it was on the SABC, but the duet worked out great anyway and finally the other stations got to play the song too.

    Best,

    Paddy

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  3. Without a doubt, the quintessential song of the Cape Flats. This somehow captures it all and the dance tempo is so “Cape Flats Jazz” which, while being so similar to Latin American styles, really has a style of its own. Whenever I want a pick-me-upper I play Montreal.

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    1. Some may argue that Mannenberg is the quintessential song of the Cape Flats . . . but they are so different. Or are they?

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      1. I guess it is how you wish to define the spirit of the “flats”. I like Montreal because it is immediate and conveys the happiness and spirit of a people despite the oppression and socioeconomic conditions surrounding them. It’s a get up and go and leave your troubles behind number that embodies the “local beat” so well. If you are in a pensive and melancholy mood and want the strains of the struggle to permeate through you in a repetitive strain, then Mannenberg or for that matter Cape Town Fringe would work for you, they both have the same underlying rhythms.

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