15 February 2023
Jerry Watt’s death last week brings to end one of the most remarkable and enduring performance careers of Cape Town and South Africa’s entertainment industry. For the last 53 years, The Rockets guitarist has been entertaining the band’s legion of fans across the country.
Since the departure of drummer Molly Baron more than 30 years ago, Jerry has been the face of The Rockets. Keeping alive the name of the group he joined two years after it was formed in 1967.
Social media has been awash with tributes to Jerry and he has been eulogised on radio, TV and in the print media. This blog joins the thousands who have extended condolences to Jerry’s families. He was one of the true nice guys I dealt with over the many years of reporting on local music.
Sadly, his death after a lengthy illness, brings about the demise of The Rockets, an institution, no less, among local bands. No more. The band’s manager, Jerry’s wife Alison Watt, has issued a statement saying Jerry’s wish was that the band no longer continue under the name of The Rockets.
It is understood the last gig would in fact be the tribute concert for Jerry held at Grand West last weekend and planned before his passing.
A profile on Jerry Watt’s long career, can be found by clicking on this link: The life of Jerry Watts
And, just like that, the curtain comes down on the band. They started when the big names were The Flames, the Invaders, the Big Beats. All long, long gone
Who were The Rockets, and what made them so popular?
The Rockets had its genesis in Elsies River and Bellville South. A self-effacing singer named Walter Brown had something going with another youngster, named Robert Jansen, from Matroosfontein. In Bellville South, Molly Baron had hooked up with guitarist Georgie Carelse and bassist Carlo Barron in a group called the Bell Beats which had a very short shelf life.
Walter Brown was the driving force in getting the five together under the banner of The Bismarcks. They played the majority of their gigs in places like The Reo Hotel, Eureka Lounge, the Dunsheen, The Burial Hall (yes, it was a multi-purpose venue) in Matroosfontein and backyards in Elsies and Belville South.
The Bismarcks did not last very long, probably because Walter Brown always had his eye on being a solo stage performer doing popular ballads.
The Bismarcks morphed into The Rockets sometime in 1967 with Georgie Carelse on lead, Robbie Jansen on rhythm, Carlo Barron on bass and Molly Baron on drums.
They played what the people wanted – and that was songs they recognised from the radio hit parade and songs that they could dance to. It was a formula that The Rockets have followed right up until their last gig.
Record companies recognised their popularity and The Rockets was one of the first local bands in the ’60s to cut a single just as The Invaders and The Flames were earning gold discs for songs like Shockwave and For Your Precious Love. The Rockets released Itchy Fingers and Argie. Instantly forgettable.
But their ability to do cover versions well stood them in good stead. In December 1969, they won the prestigious Battle of The Bands competition that earned them a trip to London. By then the group had had a significant line-up change. Georgie had switched to keyboards and Robbie to saxophone. Carlo had moved on and the group had recruited two teenager brothers, Claude and Frankie Brown from The Fantastics, where they had been playing with Jerry Watt.
ABOVE left: The first media mention of the Rockets in 1968 and, right, the moment the group heard they had won a trip to London in 1969.
That arrangement didn’t last long after their return from London. Towards the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, popular music started evolving into different “genres”. Music-lovers who scorned the simple tastes of syrupy songs like Sugar Sugar and Simple Simon stuff, followed the psychedelic and underground sounds from groups like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Vanilla Fudge, Spooky Tooth.
Georgie Carelse and Robbie Jansen quite clearly had matured and sought other kindred spirits in the form of guitarist Issy Ariefdien and drummer Jack Momple who were putting together Pacific Express with Paul Abrahams at the Eureka Lounge.
They moved on and for a while Molly, green behind ears, had to go it alone with the Brown brothers. But Claude Brown also had bigger ambitions and he moved on.
Molly lured Jerry Watt away from The Fantastics and Claude duly walked out because the stage wasn’t big enough for both him and Jerry as lead guitarists. The group then struck gold when they recruited Colin “Bones” Delight. And for a while they also had “Little Jonathan” Butler sharing the stage with them as they toured South Africa in the early ’70s. They also brought Cliffie Valentine on deck to handle keyboards.
This, to my mind, was their golden period. The group was dynamite – but they still played, essentially, cover versions.
Molly had matured into a very capable band leader. Under his guidance there was a long period of stability in the group during which they increased their popularity and came to be the go-to backing band for the overseas artists who toured South Africa and local superstars like Richard Jon Smith and Lionel Petersen.
That tranquil period came to end in the ‘early ’80s when both Molly and “Bones” walked away. Molly followed in the footsteps of RJS and Lionel Petersen (and a few others) in turning to gospel music. “Bones” opted to pursue a solo career. He did cause a stir when he gave an interview to the local paper saying he was quitting the group because he did not want to play mainly in white clubs.
Molly did return to the group in 1985 but in 2000 he went back to being a gospel artist. He had also wanted to form another group using the name of The Rockets but Jerry, now much more experienced, stood firm and said he had left the group. He had no legal right.
So, after 30-odd years, Jerry was the ringmaster and guided the group right up until his death.
The group was responsible for blooding a number of solo performers who went on to greater things. Among them Little Ronnie Joyce, Ricardo, Alistair Izobell.
My connection with The Rockets fell away after 1986 when I moved a little way down the road but I am in awe of their achievements over all these years.
They may not have played everyone’s type of music, but when it was time to party, the Rockets was everyone’s type of band.
I have listen to the Rockets those years when they played at the Reno Cinema in PE.
Well done Warren🙏⚘
A truly awesome story and absolutely spot on. Met Jerry and the Rockets in February 1974 when they were playing at Disco Snack in Cape Town. Thank you for the music Jerry.
There was a singing group named “The Rockets” who released a seven single in 1961 the year I matriculated with a recording of Enchantment on one side and “South Africa the Land of Milk and Honey” on the flip side. Molly Baron in later years told me how after he got together with Robbie Jansen and the others, they adopted the name The Rockets and recorded Enchantment. The original version of Enchantment was a tad faster than the version which the “New Rockets” did which was considerably slower. I came across the newer recorded version on YouTube.