Colin “Bones” Delight played one of the more unusual gigs of his long career last month. He was the main act — no, the only act — at a wake.
If you thought it was all sombre and funereal, think again. He had them dancing in the aisles, as it were.
That isn’t unusual for the former Rockets frontman. He has been doing that ever since he started out as a teenager with pop groups in Athlone.
As Colin [that is generally the moniker he goes by now, “Bones” is pretty much last century] tells it, the wake certainly was an unusual and serious gig but it just segued into a nice little celebration of life.
“I am currently performing at a country club in Bryanston and a few weeks ago this woman comes up to me and tells me her mother had died and she would like me to do my routine at her house after the funeral ceremony,” Colin said.
“It was a strange request, but I thought I could pull it off with songs like Amazing Grace and the easy-to-listen-to stuff of Frank Sinatra. She just wanted me to play the songs I do at the club, the stuff they sit down and listen to after a round of golf. It’s not a dancing thing.
“It started out like that, but as the day wore on, with the bar open, they were soon singing along with me and even started dancing. I enjoyed it and I even got paid overtime.”
The wake was a first for him but Colin says he is at that stage of his career – going on almost 50 years – where he feels he can handle almost anything.
He is going to be 61 this month (February 24 for you groupies of yesteryear) and is already a grandfather of seven courtesy of his two daughters with wife Helen.
He was born in Harfield in Claremont but, no thanks to the Group Areas Act, he was moved out of the area by the time he was eight and ended up living in Bridgetown.
The Sixties in Bridgetown wasn’t exactly filled with hope and opportunity for most families. Times were hard. Families struggled. For young boys there were always distractions that could end up with them going off the rails.
So it was with Colin. School wasn’t a welcoming environment because, he says, he had difficulty in learning.
“I wasn’t stupid by any means. I think I had some condition or a learning disability that couldn’t be diagnosed then but is easily remedied now,” he says.
Before he knew it, he was hanging out on the streets of Bridgetown with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells doing things that would make them prime candidates for falling foul of the law.
The beginnings of a Cape Town heart throb
“He wanted me to come around to his place the next day to try out with his group. That group was the Heart Throbs. I gave it some thought and realised that if I continued with what I was doing, it was going to end up with me in jail
“It was where it all started. I didn’t choose music, music chose me.”
The Heart Throbs was simply a makeshift garage band and Colin moved on quickly to the Pleasure Seekers and the Buttercups where he played with a young Stephen Erasmus. There was a little more exposure there because they had gigs in Athlone, Retreat, and Elsies River.
There were other things that had earlier piqued his interest in music. He had gone on a school outing to see The Sound of Music film and loved it. He also saw a movie that featured Gerry and the Pacemakers and it involved a battle of the bands contest (very popular in Cape Town those days). He loved it and it came as no surprise when he opted for music as a career rather than a “9-5” job.
“I did have a day job for a while,” he recalls. “I worked for Edblo furniture manufacturers in Ndabeni but it wasn’t for me. I hated it, I had to get up early and catch buses and trains to get to work and home. It didn’t last long.”
His career as a singer was going along nicely around then. He had left the Buttercups to hook up with the Fantastics, which then featured the Du Pont brothers, Robert and Basil, Warwick Hawkins and Claude and Frank Brown (both of whom went on to join the Rockets).
The Fantastics were enjoying good support and had even managed to break out of Cape Town with a tour to Durban. It was while he was in Durban with them that Colin’s life turned to emotional turmoil.
“I was in Durban when I heard my granny had passed away. I had been raised by my grandparents and they meant the world to me. I just had to be with the old man. I left the band and made my way home – by train – for the funeral.”
But his loss had something good come out of it, if one could say so. He was back in Cape Town at a loose end with nothing on the horizon. Then one day, while “chilling” at the Athlone Baths, he was sought out by a local entertainer in a move that was to change his life.
“Molly Barron, drummer and leader of the Rockets and Abduraghman “Laughings” Tifloen, who used to handle Rockets gigs, came to me to ask me if I wanted to join the group. Robbie Jansen and Georgie Carelse had left the Rockets and they felt my voice was very close to Robbie’s.
“I filled that Robbie role and believe me, those were big shoes to fill. I was with the Rockets from 1971 to 1987-88. I was the frontman, I toured all over with them and recorded with them. I actually listened to some of those recording recently. It sounded terrible!!!.
“I never had a proper education, but the time with the Rockets, those were my ‘varsity’ years. That was my education.”
Colin says he particularly liked the times when the Rockets opened for big touring acts like Tavares, the O’Jays, Champion Jack du Pre and Curtis Mayfield.
“We used to do all their songs, so when we opened for them, we had to drop it from our repertoire.”
But 16-odd years with the one group wore thin with Colin eventually. The Rockets, like most popular groups in Cape Town, only did cover versions of the big hits heard on the radio. It was what the crowds loved and they gave it to them in spades.
He eventually left the group in 1988 because, as he puts it, “I outgrew them”.
“I had started broadening my horizons and taking an interest in the saxophone after a guy walked into a club one night and I fooled around with his sax. I could make noises; I could get a decent sound.
“Molly was so impressed with what I did that he bought one when it came up on offer one night. A guy walked into the Jo’burg’s New York City nightclub [South Africa’s first ‘multiracial’ club] and offered it for sale because his son wasn’t interested in playing it anymore. We bought it for R200, and R200 was a lot of money in those days.
“Initially, I wasn’t really THAT interested. The sax actually ended up with the roadies and on one occasion I had to fetch it from Robbie Jansen. But sometimes, little things happen and you are forced to re-think your life.
“I started having trouble with my throat and it got me thinking about what would happen if my voice packed up. One thing I didn’t want to do was work for a boss again, to wake at 7am and have a long day at work. Maybe the sax would take the pressure off my voice. So I made a conscious decision to learn the instrument. It just made me realise again how little I knew about music.
“I bought myself a cassette tape and a book and taught myself to play the sax. I’m still learning today.”
The sax, he says, exposed him to more mature, progressive music while the band itself was locked into lead guitarist Jerry Watt’s kwela and rock roots. Jerry had joined the band from the Fantastics after Frankie Brown had moved on.
“I was really pressing to do original stuff because we were quite capable of writing some nice stuff. South African audiences however were so spoilt, all they wanted to hear you do were the things they heard on the radio. They didn’t encourage originality.”
Things were happening in Colin’s life as his time in the Rockets came to an end. His long-term partner, Helen, had moved to Johannesburg to be with him. Their loved had blossomed in Cape Town despite the fact she had been classified “white” and he “coloured”. They could both have been jailed under the infamous Immorality Act that banned relationships across supposed colour lines.
Did their affair attract the attention of the authorities? Colin is reluctant to talk about those days. All he says is: “I used to tell her then that she was my forbidden fruit, now she is simply my fruit.”
Leaving the Rockets wasn’t all that easy. In fact, he left them twice. The group’s then manager Mike Fuller persuaded them to invite him back but there was a bad vibe in the group and it didn’t last long.
At that stage the group was still extremely popular. A typical night involved a gig at the Champion Club in Grassy Park from 8-10pm, then a dash to Elsies River for the 10-12 midnight stint at Aquarius, rush to the La Fiesta in the city for the midnight-2am spot. They would round off the night by going back to their base in Athlone, the Rock Den, to play the last session.
Some of the highlights during those heady days were the big roadshows with Richard Jon Smith (“that was huge”), being the first local group to play Sun City Super Bowl and supporting Leo Sayer.
Colin wasn’t the only one who walked away from the group and came back. He recalls Molly and pianist Cliffie Valentine also leaving and coming back.
“Molly and some of the guys had started becoming quite religious. He went off and tried his hand at laying bricks but quickly decided that was not for him.
“When I came back to the group I soon realised that I had definitely outgrown the music they were playing. They were talented as a group, but as individuals, they just didn’t go forward. They couldn’t create with you, so to speak, they could only play what they could hear.”
Colin left the group and took over from Lionel Petersen at the 9-0-9 club at the Sandton Sun in Jo’burg. It was supposed to be a three-month spot while Lionel had treatment for nodules on his vocal chords, but the band liked him so much it went for three years.
“Lionel in the meantime, had hooked up with Mike Faure in a group called Soul Purpose but he left to take up gospel music, so I stepped in for him there again. I had to learn 21 songs in a week, but they were all songs I had sung on the street during the soul period of the Sixties. I never had a chance to do them because the Buttercups did heavy stuff and the Rockets did pop.
His career morphed into performing duets with a Jo’burg entertainer Tony Geddin and took another turn when he formed a group with Richard Caesar and Derek Africa to take up a contract in Dubai and then Abu Dhabi.
“I still considered myself a greenie on the sax but before long I was doing jazz tunes. I love the stuff of Grover Washington and David Sanborn.
“In that period I built up a selection of backing tracks and when I finished overseas, I used them to establish my solo career. That’s what I’ve been doing for more than 10 years now. I work at places like Serengeti and Back of the Moon. I had Ronnie Joyce with me for a while and we really had some good times.”
He looks back on his long career and has few regrets. He played in one of the most successful groups in the country yet has little to show for it. They never made much money, he says, because they were always paying off instruments and kombis. But for him, it’s never been about the money. “I left the group with just the clothes on my back, so to speak. As long as I have enough for the rent and essentials, I’m happy.”
Although Molly was the longest serving member of the group and the de facto leader, Colin says it was he who organised the on-stage stuff. “I compiled the music and the choreography. I had to be lenient with the guys on the instruments . . . a few foot movements a here, a walk there. It was effective, the crowd loved it.
“Molly was good at organising and setting up the gigs. If we had a gig at 8pm in Stellenbosch, he would be there at 4pm. There was a lot of bad feeling with lawyers involved when he left the group, but by that time I was gone.”
Did he consider going down the gospel road like so many of his contemporaries?
“No, not really. I once did a gig at Rhema and sang (and here he breaks into song) Born Again, I’ve been Born Again. But that’s not my thing. I’m not religious. I follow that line that my life is set out for me. There were things that happened . . . I should have been dead but I believe a higher hand is guiding me. And is still guiding me.
“But, I wasn’t the ‘vuilgat’ that people thought I was. I was always of the belief that you don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you.
“When I saw my friends going into gospel, I believed that is what they needed to change their lives . . . and I would encourage it. If that’s the path they’ve chosen, be it a Muslim or Christian, I’m cool with it.”
The entertainers who stand out in his long career are Robbie Jansen, Richard Jon Smith and Jonathan Butler.
“Robbie was my idol, he is one of the reasons I’m playing the sax and singing today. I saw him perform Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness at the Las Vegas club and at the Gleemoor Town and it blew me away.
“I never worked with him but he was the man, he was my bro’. I used to go to his place to get some tips on playing the sax. Invariably we ended up sharing a joint or two.” Colin says although one or two of the guys in the group used to enjoy the occasional “skyf”, they were never into hard drugs. “Anyway, my excuse was I had asthma!”
He holds Richard Jon Smith in high regard for helping to open so many doors for entertainers from disadvantaged communities.
And Jonathan Butler? “Hell, there is an entertainer. He was with us in the Rockets. He was playing original music — with his upside-down style because he was a lefty – as a kid in the Seventies. On stage he was Michael Jackson and I was Jermaine. As an act, we killed ‘em.”
Colin also remembers the occasions when Jonathan annoyed them.
“When we were on the road, we would stay at a private home. After the show we would be having an after-show party. Jontas would end up being the centre of attention as this cute kid. They’d have him up on the kitchen table dancing and playing his guitar with all the cool chicks cheering. And we would be outside wanting the girls to join us. We’d be shouting ‘put that damn guitar away’, and all he would be doing is singing Your daddy’s home. . .’’
Being a popular group, were groupies ever a problem? “Yeah, they were a problem, but it was a nice problem to have.”
Colin’s into a settled routine now. He has had a major health scare but is getting over it. He performs at night, practises on his sax learning scales in the morning and plays golf off a 10 handicap whenever he can.
A delightful life, might one say?
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