11 June 2016
The highlights reels of Four Sounds jazzman Cliffie Moses’ musical career would contain a fair few golden moments – from being arrested, twice, back in the bad old days of apartheid to putting Chick Corea on the spot with a tricky question.
But none would surprise as much as the singing first prize this celebrated guitarist won in a coon troupe competition. It’s not the image of one of our revered jazz musicians that springs to mind.
True story. He won it as a teenager way back in the ’50s when the annual coon carnival contest was still held at the old Hartleyvale Soccer Ground in Observatory.
Cliffie, now 78 and recovering from his second stroke, relishes telling the story that pre-dates his Four Sounds jazz career with his bassist brother Basil, drummer Billie Dollie [then Bowers] and pianist Richard Schilder.
“I was part of the Jolsons Coon Troupe, named after the American minstrel singer,” he recalls. “Basil was also in the troupe, as was Billie.
“We grew up in the Stone Street-Nile Street area in District 6 and we were all into the coons. It is what we did. That was part of growing up in District 6.
“I walked down Hanover Street with the best of them and, in fact, won the best vocalist at Hartleyvale singing Let’s Fall In Love (Why Shouldn’t We Fall In Love).”
The coon performance did not segue into a career as a solo performer but it kicked along their nascent vocal group, the Heart Throbs that featured the three and another friend from the neighbourhood, Ralph Adams.
“We used to hang out on the corner and sing all the songs that were popular in those days,” Cliffie says. “We had our first gig as the Heart Throbs in the Lutheran Church in Grey Street and I can remember singing our first song, Our Father.
“It was the song that sort of started our career and the song I sang at Basil’s funeral to send him off.”
The young men taught themselves to play although Basil went on to be tutored by a bassist connected with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra – “when Joseph Manca couldn’t teach him, this German bassist would step in and he was brilliant”.
Richard Schilder, eldest of the Schilder brothers, joined them at the Moses household in Nile Street and it was there that the Four Sounds was born.
“We were hard at it, practising in our little room, trapped by the four walls, just us, the four sounds. That was the name we settled on, the Four Sounds.”
It was as the Four Sounds that they set the benchmark for jazz groups in the Peninsula in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, giving music lovers an alternative to the pop fare that was on offer at most clubs.
In the early Sixties they played at Davey Saunders’ Ambassadors Club in Woodstock when be-bop was the “in” thing.
They then played the Beverley Lounge in Athlone in the late Sixties for more than 10 years as the resident group, playing danceable jazz or backing cabaret and guest artists.
“Those were the best days. Others tried to copy us, but we knew what the people wanted.”
Cliffie admits he modelled himself on the famous American guitarist, Wes Montgomery, in the beginning but went on to develop his own style.
“I loved Montgomery for his pure jazz style. George Benson I liked for some of the modern pop, cool jazz stuff he played.
“A lot of people said I had a style similar to Montgomery. I did a lot of his stuff although I played with a plectrum and he played with his finger. I played with a muffled sound because I kept my plectrum at a slant.
“I also manipulated my amplifier, half treble half bass. I was very good at that. I worked on it until I got that tone that Wes produced.”
The Beverley stint was interrupted by a national tour with American soul singer Percy Sledge as the nucleus of the big band that backed the artist.
The Sledge show taught him a salutary lesson as far as his career went and providing financial security later in life, something that is a hot-button issue with the African Musicians Trust and Cape Town musicians these days.
“I realised that if you don’t have a full-time job, you can’t depend on music solely to provide for you, especially if you’re a married man with a family to support. I told the guys ‘if you have your daily jobs, go back to your daily jobs, you can’t depend on music’.
“I felt at that time you could give more to music on a part-time basis, which I did. We played the nightclubs, and a lot of pain went with that but also a lot of love because we loved jazz.
“It had to be for the love of it, certainly not for the penny-ha’penny they paid us.”
He is lot more optimistic about the new breed coming through and making a go of it as a career.
“They have a lot of talent, lot of scope, and a lot more opportunity. We are going to produce some good musos.
“They’ll be schooled musically, be able to read and be able to manipulate their instruments, especially the horn players. They’ll be able to produce a better sound.”
Cliffie hung on to his job with Maskew Miller book distributors. The company gratefully took him back after the extended Percy Sledge tour.
The Four Sounds enjoyed a long run as the pre-eminent jazz band in Cape Town but that did not translate into recorded music. In fact, they have only one album to their name.
“We recorded The Four Sounds Play Jazz From District 6 back in 1969. It was the only jazz album that came out at the time. Sadly, it sold only a few hundred.
“We were ahead of the game. Dollar Brand only came out a few years later with his Manenberg LP. In fact, Basil Coetzee, whose saxophone did so much for that album, played on our LP first.”
The group also did recordings at SABC when that organisation featured local groups taped in its studio but, as Cliffie puts it, “they kicked us out one night, we were told we couldn’t move around the building”.
They also recorded another album in their early years. “It was never released. I think some German company stole it. That time I was so stupid, I just don’t know what happened to it.”
Having played the local circuit for close to six decades, Cliffie has a good insight in the past and future of the Cape Town music scene.
He talks in glowing terms about the Schilder family and the pianist brothers, Richard, Tony and Chris. He says Chris is phenomenal but still thinks Richard was the best of the three.
“Chris played with us for a while. He practised at my place every day. Richard, however, was just so good. He could read so well.
“The best bassist I ever heard, naturally, was my brother, Basil. He was the best bass player this country ever produced as far as I’m concerned.”
Who was his favourite local jazz singer? “I was my favourite jazz singer,” he says unashamedly, accompanied by raucous laughter. “Sorry that I have to say it myself, but that’s a fact. Zane Adams told me before he died, ‘you’re my favourite jazz singer’. I loved the songs of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Lou Rawls.”
Truth in music is a big factor in Cliffie’s thinking. “Musically, you must speak the truth. You can play what other guys are playing, that’s fair enough. When you improvise though, you must play yourself. That is what jazz is.
“When Chick Corea came out here, I asked him at a workshop how he arrived at his sound. There was a person in the audience who got quite annoyed with me for asking the question. I never did get that answer out of him.”
At its peak in the Seventies, the group played host to a number of musicians who wandered in and out of the Beverley and the white club, The Three Cellars, where it spent a few years.
“During the apartheid years, we had white, black, coloured, they all played in my band. We pushed through it, we were all brothers in music.”
It was during those years that he ended up in police custody. Nothing serious. In fact, in a normal society it wouldn’t have been a crime at all. In apartheid South Africa it was – he was in an African township without a permit.
“I was arrested taking saxophonist Winston Mankuku home on one occasion, and then with hornman Danae. They were in my group, they played with us. You do what you have to do. The things I went through could fill a book. They are beautiful memories.”
Memories may be all he has to look forward to if he can’t get the capability back into his hands after the stroke.
“As much as I want to play, as much as I want to sing, I can’t at this stage. I do my hand, facial and breathing exercises daily but the second stroke, unlike the first one six years ago, has left me in a much poorer condition.
“With the first, a mild one, I could still do all the things I wanted to do. The second one it was a case of you ‘go and sit on your backside, no more’.”
He says it was a knee replacement that was actually the cause of his first stroke.
It is a source of great enjoyment though, as he recuperates, to reminisce about those days. Like the time he entered the Cape Post’s Mr Entertainment competition and made the semi-finals. He was up against the hot shots of those years, Zane Adams, Taliep Petersen, Roy Gabriels.
“Oh, I remember that so well. I sang How Soon the Flame of Love Can Die. I love songs where the lyrics are good. A lot of singers do songs that have no meaning. I always believe that when you sing a song, the first thing you do is go to the poetry to see what is being said. The lyrics to me was important . . . what was the reason for composing it.
“I was very fussy in choosing a song and so were the band members. If it wasn’t to our taste, we wouldn’t touch it.
“We surprised a lot of young people with the music we played because it was different to the type of music they were listening to. I’m not trying to boast, but that was just the way it was.
“I’ll never forget, Basil approached me one day and said we have to start playing local music.
“I said ‘what’s the use us playing local music, we’ll just sound like the others; I will continue to play jazz, we are a JAZZ band!! We can play the commercial music, but play it to our taste.
“Someone said it was the only way we we were going to be popular – I don’t want to be popular, I want to play music that I love and that the band loves. That’s how we started and that’s how we are going to end.”
Cliffie attributes his strict values to his conservative upbringing growing up in the “Bronx” area of District 6, around Upper Ashley and Shepherd Streets.
“I owe a lot to my parents. My family was all converted people, strongly church people. Not Anglican or Catholic. Nowadays it’s born again. But then, it was converted. That is where our music really started. My dad and mum sang on the street corners preaching the gospel.
“They laid the basis, our musical history comes from the church.
“Basil and left school early to go and work for them, but I went to night school. I read my Shakespeare, I studied the English language because I love the English language.”
What about the coons then, at that time a lot of social stigma came with belonging to the coons? Some people said they were just a bunch of skollies
“Oh no, they were decent skollies in our troupe,” he says with a hint of a laugh. “We knew them all. Boete Vyf met die lang baadjie, Sakkie vannie Star and his Star Spangles troupe. We knew them all.”
Just talking about those days, sets Cliffie off . . . his childhood attending George Golding School (“the best ever”) with its principal “Katjiepens”; Fatima Regal, Johaar Mosaval, saxophonist Jimmy Adams, “the Charlie Parker” of Cape Town. All “talented” people.
“I could go on speaking forever about those days. I can take you down Hanover Street and name every street in the area . . . Stuckeris Street, Russel Street Muir Street, the Crescent Restaurant, the Avalon bioscope, the pissgang.”
He is not a man trapped in the past, but it does seem to be his comfort zone.
“I’m not interested in the Internet, I don’t know what it is. I’m not interested in cell phones. I’m not interested in the modern world, I LOVE the old world.” And that statement is accompanied by a full-throated guffaw.
There is a glimmer of hope that he may perform again, if only as a support act. His son-in-law is noted pianist Tony Cedras. They have played together on occasion and Cliffie says if he (Cliffie) improves enough, there may be a chance again.
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