The distance between Cape Town and Le Mans in France is a tad under 10,000km. That’s a stack of frequent flyer points – and a long way away to conduct a serious relationship.
Yet, that is exactly what Leslie Kleinsmith is hoping to achieve.
Home for Leslie these days is a little village near Le Mans, about 180km south-west of Paris where he lives with wife Isabelle. Cape Town, of course, is where his legion of fans is.
It’s not the ideal situation for an entertainer to be in, but, as they say in the classics, ‘you do what you got to do’.
According to Les, he is working on it. It’s not easy, but he is working on it.
“At the moment, there’s not much happening for me. But I’m hoping to get back on the cruise liners that ply the ports of the Continent and the Caribbean as soon as the summer season starts. I have material, I have new costumes . . . I’m just waiting,” he said from France.
“As far as Cape Town is concerned, I’ll always try to get there as often as I can to keep in touch with my roots. Last year I did the ‘Jazz on the Rocks’ gig in Tietiesbaai. This year, if all goes according to plan. I shall be performing in ‘something’ over the festive season and into the New Year.”
“It will always be important for me to maintain the SA fan base and the ‘brand’, so to speak. There is still a brand, it just needs to be exploited.”
For the moment he is being the perfect stay-at-home husband. He is assimilating into the regional community with the obligatory French lessons and wandering around the supermarket mixing with the locals.
So, does he speak French and has he gone all “Francophone” with his stage routine? “Not really, Isabelle and I converse in English, her English is far better than my French. In the supermarket I get by and for my repertoire when I worked the French Caribbean in December, I had a few lines to say and I included five French tunes, which went down well with the Francophone audience. Voila!!!”
However, of all the things that speak to his new life, it is the image he projects on social media of being the quintessential farm boy and homebody cultivating a healthy vegetable patch. His 2994 friends on Facebook are constantly regaled with his achievements in putting fresh produce on the table.
“I beg to differ! I would rather say farmer as opposed to farmboy. I have been experimenting, planting potatoes, pumpkin, turnip, onions, celery, lettuce carrots, string beans and butternut. The tomatoes have been driving me round the bend. For two years I have struggled to produce a good crop, but this year they are looking much happier. I have learnt that I should not water the leaves. I’m getting there.
“I have to give credit to Isabelle, she’s a country girl, she knows more about these things than I do and helps me a lot.
“It’s a different life. Yes, I miss Cape Town but then again, I love the tranquility out here in the countryside, no hustle and bustle. The music business in Cape Town can be very ‘clique-y’ and you always seem to be chasing your tail.”
But he will forever be tied to Cape Town – and District Six – with the proverbial umbilical cord. That’s where it all started for the young boy from Eckard Street, behind the Avalon Bioscope. “I was actually born in Bishop Lavis but, my folks moved to the District when I was a mere three months old, so for me, District Six will always be home.
“Also, I come from a very large and close knit family, six boys and three girls. Religion has always been a big part of our lives. So I guess it is safe to say that we were raised in the church. For me, I see myself as ‘all religion’. Simply because I think God is too big for any one religion.”
And when did it start for him? “My story always starts with Elspeth Davids – now known as Tashneeqa. She started her singing career way before me and, being my cousin, I used to hang out with her and got to know many of the local showbiz performers of that time – the likes of Cyril Valentine, Jerry [Lewis] Hector, Dave Bestman, Al Hendricks, the rather suave Zane Adams, debonair Taliep Petersen, Latiefa Barnes, Deelah, Neisha Abrahams, Jane Londis and Daphne Malgas to name but a few.”
“From hanging out with her and going to the various rehearsals and shows, I got to fooling around on the instruments during the breaks . . . the drummer would play guitar, the pianist would play bass, the guitarist on the piano and I would always grab a mike and sing. I thought that I was pretty okay at holding a tune.
“I had day job as a despatch packer at a lingerie factory. I was 13 going on 14 but I lied about my age, said I was 16. Yes, I left school early – due to lack of interest– so my sister, Pam, who worked there, got me a job. Gawa Abrahams, who sang with the Ambrosias vocal group, also worked there. I got to know Gawa pretty well along with the rest of the group, her husband, Boy, brother Gakie, ‘Jood’ and Solly Junior.
“One day Gawa said there was a charity show at Silvertree Boys Club up at the Dry Dock in District 6, to raise funds for some association.
“She wanted to know if anyone was interested and I volunteered straight away.
“During that performance, I shat myself. I don’t even remember opening my eyes, I was so nervous. It was 1967 and I sang Timi Yuro’s 1961 version of I’m So Hurt, a very popular tearjerker at the time that included the pitiful little speech. I had the hanky in pocket, did the going-down- on-one-knee thing, faking a tear and wiping it away, to huge applause. I was also wearing a lurex jacket that I borrowed from somebody. Those were the days of lurex jackets for shows.”
“That charity show led to another charity show and so on until one day, to my surprise, somebody actually booked and offered to pay me. It was one of those shows where you did two songs in the first half and two in the second half and you got R4.00 at end of the night.”
“I must have done OK because I started getting more bookings. Even though, the shows were few and far between, a gig in the Woodstock Town Hall, the Bonteheuwel Civic, or a church hall somewhere etc.
“That’s where it all started back in 1967. The days when you earned your R4.00, you go home, give R2.00 to mom and pocket R2.00. The very next day, she would send me to buy milk, bread and potatoes with that same R2.00.”
It was not a meteoric rise for Leslie by any means. By his own admission he “faffed around” with quite a few groups but not as a full-time member.
He got to know most of the musicians through being backed at variety shows. From one stage show to the next, he would have the Playboys, Exotics, Magnets, Lunar Five or Respect as the show’s backing band. He did a few spots with Charlie Anyster’s group, Clash, but that was because he was hanging around with them at the time.
“I sang with many groups but wasn’t part of them. Quite frankly, it was a time when I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted out of life. The first time I was actually part of a band on a permanent basis was with the Exotics. But then again, that was only in the white nightclubs, the Navigators Den, Spurs and Disco Snack.”
“I was earning R90 a month. We played seven nights a week in those clubs which meant we did not get a chance to play in the black community and I couldn’t do stage shows.”
It was through the Exotics gig that his first break came that would broaden his horizons. He was with the Exotics at the Navigators Den for about three years. When the band broke up and he was at a loose end, he got a call from the club owner to join organist Duncan Mackay and drummer Mike Gray.
“It was a duo and they needed a front man. I was tagged on and that lasted for about four months. Duncan’s girlfriend at that time, Sandra Weiner, was a dancer-choreographer. She offered me a gig, wanted to know if I would I be interested in doing a show in Angola,” Leslie recalls.
In Angola, Leslie teamed up with Jonathan Stevens of Durban. He was essentially a mime act and the Luanda gig was his first foray into singing.
“That was in 1973, we were two singers and six dancers. The show was called SA Extravaganza. It was a six-month contract. I came home for two months and then went back in ’74 to join Sandra in another show. This time, I took Elspeth, [Tashneeqa] with me. The show was called SA Spectacular.”
Leslie’s time there came in the midst of the turmoil that involved Angola’s struggle for independence and a conflict that involved MPLA, UNITA, and the apartheid regime forces that crossed the border from Namibia to hunt down SWAPO freedom fighters.
It was a turbulent time in the region but it never really touched the budding entertainer from Cape Town. Even when he was back in Cape Town after Angola, when the Peninsula was in turmoil.
“Yes, Angola was volatile but not in my mind,” he says quite candidly. “I was never political, I was never a ‘struggle singer’ and never involved in any marches or protests, and therefore quite unaware of things that were happening around me politically. I guess I was too busy carving out a niche for myself in the business of music.
“I wasn’t even aware of what the MPLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA was all about except that they wanted to be independent from Portugal. The only time it was brought to my notice was when my mother wrote to me and enclosed clippings from Cape Town newspapers which showed how people’s lips were being torn off with rusted pliers and being tortured in the bush in Angola, what SWAPO was doing and what the SA apartheid regime forces were doing whilst they were both blaming each other.
“For me it was, like, ‘I don’t see any of this and I’ve been here for a while’. Yes, at night we would sometimes hear gunfire and explosions in the distance, but where we were on the island of Luanda – the club we worked at was on the island which was linked to the city by a short bridge – life was normal, outdoor cafés, drinking beer and eating shrimp and crab.
“It just never occurred to me that we were that close to where the pot was burning. I think it was because of my ignorance of the whole political situation between Angola and SA. I never paid any attention to it.
“The only time I felt affected was when I couldn’t send money out of the country because of the war. I did however find a way to exchange my Portuguese escudos to SA rands on the black market. I would buy two postcards that were the same, put some ‘notes’ in between and glue them together, face to back and send my mother a ‘postcard’. It was something I learnt from the locals and it seemed to work. My mother always let me know by post when the money arrived, which she was very grateful for.”
An emotional day meeting my son
Angola was significant for something else in his life, something that would not feature in his life for the next 30-odd years.
“If you are referring to my son, Miguel, I was always aware of him. He was conceived and born in Angola. After my 1974 contract, I returned to Cape Town. Miguel’s mother, Fatima Tuxa, who is from the Portuguese island of Madeira, and I, had parted ways. Much later I got news that she was pregnant. I was young (21), stupid and perhaps even arrogant. I chose to ignore her letters. Soon after that it was my family’s turn to move from District 6, due to the Group Areas Act. Our house was razed to the ground. It was the only address his mother had for me which meant no more letters.
“The war in Angola was also going full scale at this stage. I had no address for her and had no idea if they got out of Angola or if they were even alive. Basically, we had lost all contact.
“As I got older, they were always, but always, on my mind. That was the way my arrogant, selfish self handled the situation, it always haunted me.”
So how did the contact come about? “Miguel contacted me. In 2011, I was in Denmark when I opened my Facebook account and there was a message for me – ‘hello Dad’. I shat myself – again!
“I was performing on a cruise liner and it so happened that the ship was docking in Lisbon (where he was raised from a baby and still lives) three weeks later. It was the longest three weeks of my life. My entire nervous system was shattered. I was going to meet, speak to and touch my son for the first time in 36 years.
“We met on the 7 September 2011. Needless to say, it was a very auspicious and extremely emotional day for both of us and one that will be etched in my heart forever and a day.
“We have since forged a relationship that is great and full of love. I have also had face-to-face contact with his mother and we have made amends. Miguel will be 40 with his next birthday. He speaks a bit of English – enough for us to converse. I speak enough Portuguese from my time in Angola so, when the going gets tough, we help each other.”
After the Angola stint Leslie came home and hooked up with Big Daddy, one of the top groups in Cape Town at the time.
“Guitarist Darryl Andrews and bassist Bernie Lawrence rocked up at my door and wanted to know if I was interested in joining their band. I had nothing else happening at the time so I became a Big Daddy.
“Since those Big Daddy days, Darryl Andrews and I have forged a long-lasting personal and musical relationship. He has been my musical director/arranger on many projects and also scored, arranged and played guitar on all the music for my CD, Moon at the Window. He is a formidable self-taught musician and is currently a lecturer in jazz studies at the University of Cape Town’s college of music.”
A long friendship with Zane
The Big Daddy gigs were essentially Friday and Saturday night gigs and Leslie had Sunday nights free. That is where is long friendship with the late Zane Adams kicked his career into another direction.
“Through the years, Zane and I became close friends and saw each other often. I became one of the many children who frequently visited his parents’ home. [View Leslie’s tribute to Zane here]
One day he said to me ‘what do you do on a Sunday, why don’t you come and do cabaret with us at the Sherwood Lounge’, which was where he was performing with Pacific Express. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t a cabaret artist but he insisted and basically talked me into it.
“For the next few years, Sunday nights at the Sherwood Lounge was my entrance to the cabaret stage. Rather than the variety shows of the earlier days, it launched my solo career. Leslie the ‘cabaret artist’, whatever it meant at the time, started there.
“The type of songs I did in Angola was not cabaret, but more the musical genre that the dancers could move to, except in my solo spot where I had the opportunity to do the big show-off love ballads. That type of show fashioned my musical direction in that it did not require pop/radio hit tunes. It required more attention and more performance.
“Sandra Weiner taught me how to communicate with the audience using my eyes and body language. It called for more of an act rather than just standing up there singing a pop song to make people dance.
“With the cabaret stuff I had to focus on song choice, dress code and later make- up – which I point blank refused to do but later accepted as part of the job. I started with just a little bit of eyeliner, to make the eyes appear bigger I was told. Now, you have to keep the make-up away from me ’cause I find a reason to use everything in sight.
“After the first few cabaret spots at the Sherwood, I started getting bookings all over the Peninsula, I was quite busy. I had Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night gigs with the band and cabaret on Sunday, sometimes at two different venues, while still holding down a day job.
“In Big Daddy we never took money out of band. We were always paying off instruments. Holding down a day job was imperative.”
The very talented Victor Sampson
It was in the mid-Eighties that Leslie established himself as one of the top-three male entertainers. He had paid his dues and learnt from his peers and the old stagers. The people he looked up to and admired were those who had been around well before his time.
“In my opinion they had been around a long time and had been successful and therefore had to have a formula that worked. There were vocal groups like the Falcons, Ambrosias, Rockets, Splendours and Playboys – soloists Zane, Taliep Petersen, Ebrahim Rodrigues, Victor Sampson, Rudolf Paulse, Vernie Saunders, Salie Daniels, Chico Levy, Gobi Martin, Roy Gabriels and Roy Petersen, to name but a few.
“Cape Town always had an abundance of talent, especially in District Six. They were all legends in my eyes and in my early days. I looked up to them.”
Being a solo artist means Leslie has to make do with backing tracks or when the occasion allows, a backing band. He has worked with hundreds over the years but has no hesitation in picking out the musicians of the rhythm section that would make him look good when they’re backing him.
On piano he would have the likes of Andrew Ford, Sammy Hartman, Camillo Lombard, Andrew Lilley or the late Tony Schilder. On bass, Kevin Fester, Dave Ridgeway, Wesley Rustin, Gary Kriel or Shaun Johannes. On drums, Denver Furness, Kevin Gibson, Ivan Bell, Richard Pickett or the late Monty Weber. On guitar, Daryl Andrews, Alvin Dyers, Errol Dyers, Tich L. Jean-Pierre or Tony Steinbank.
“It’s a long list but all of these musicians have played a very special role in my musical career.”
Quite surprisingly, unlike most of his contemporaries of the Sixties, Leslie never did a tour with the Golden City Dixies or with the African Follies. But he did tour with Sydney Vellan’s 1977 Rockets roadshow with him and Sophia Foster as featured artists.
He has had moderate success with his recordings and his last CD, All Wound Up, enjoys constant replays on Cape Town radio stations. Does he plan any more?
“In my mind I’m in the studio every day. I’ve always wanted to do a jazz album, but a proper jazz album with horns and strings. Or even a big band album. But financially it has just not been possible. I’m talking about the real thing, not something that’s been put together on a computer in some garage. For a long time that has been a dream that I have yet to realize. I just haven’t gotten down to it,” he says, with just a hint of regret in his voice.
“I have thought of doing a trio album to minimise cost, with just piano, bass and drums. It would be a great sacrifice, because in my head I’m always hearing strings and . . . that big band sound . . . too costly unfortunately. And having had the experience with the last CD, which all came out of my pocket, it almost scared me off completely. When I say it came out of my pocket, I mean going to the bank and asking, no begging, for an overdraft . . . and getting it. It was the only way I could do it.
“Apart from having to pay the musicians to play on the recording, there is the actual studio time which normally doesn’t come cheap. Many hours and days, sometimes weeks later, you have to think of printing, pressing, packaging, costume, photo shoot, artwork, marketing etc.
“When all of that’s done, you will not believe the hoops you have to jump through to get your CD into the record stores. If you want them to put up a poster, they dictate what size the poster can be. Every available space in that record bar is already bought and paid for by the big companies. If you knock at their door as a private entity, they take five – yes, five – CDs at a time.
“If you are not affiliated to one of the big record labels, it becomes a chore akin to going to the dentist and having a tooth extracted.
“The CD itself, as far as sales were concerned, didn’t pay off that loan. It all came out of my pocket.”
To most people Leslie comes across as the easy-going-always-smiling entertainer. But he can be hard-arsed as well. He saves some of that hard-arsed attitude especially for show promoters.
“I had my fair share of being ripped off when I first started out. I knocked my head many times in the early days. Standing up to them came later. It has cost me a lot of work, but that’s the game. When you stand up to them, you win some, you lose some. Sometimes they’d involve you only if no one else is available.”
Leslie is 62 now. He is a stage veteran of 48 years, how long does he think he can carry on?
“I’ve always said I’d like to sing well into my old age if my health allows. I think this is one of the professions where one can. I always looked to performers like Louis Armstrong or singer-comedian George Burns as examples – George Burns was 101 and still strutting his stuff on stage, with a cigar in his mouth.
“If you can hold a tune and do a bit of a shoe shuffle, even better . . . then why not?
“On one of the cruise liners I worked on recently. I met an Italian trumpet player who also sang in a Satchmo style voice, he was 77, very good and the audience loved him. He kept saying ‘this will be my last cruise’. But I’ve been told that he says that all the time, goes home, takes a year off and then comes back. I say, if you can, why not?
“So I’ve never really seen an end as such. Most sportspeople and dancers, because of the physical nature of their professions, often end up with injuries and have to stop at a certain time or age. For singers, there isn’t really a cut-off date. On a lighter note, I was saying to Isabelle recently, it has been said that man will live for three score and 10 – if that is so, I’ve got eight more years.
“If my health holds up, I’m up for it. If my good friend Zane’s health didn’t let him down, he would still be singing. So would Nat King Cole, Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald and everyone else.”
Jazz singer or just a singer
So, 48 years in the business. In two years’ time, there will be the 50-year tribute, n’est-ce pas?
“Certainement !!! I was chatting to Terry Fortune about this just recently. Without a doubt, it is a milestone that has to be celebrated. It is on my things-to-do list.”
His long career has had many highlights but two stand out for him. The first was doing 414 performances of District 6 The Musical over a period of two years with Taliep that saw him perform at the Edinburgh festival in 1989. The second was performing at the Miss World beauty contest at Sun City in 1992. The show was beamed “live” to more than 600 million television viewers in 62 countries.
Now is it jazz singer or just a singer?
“I would call myself a crossover singer with a flair for jazz for which much of the credit goes to Tony Schilder. I have had no formal training in music. The many years of experience in this game has given me the opportunity to switch from one genre to the next with complete ease.
“Many years after the Sherwood Lounge had closed its doors, it was reopened by a good friend, Taffy Du Toit, who renamed it Club Montreal.
“I had just started working with Tony’s trio which consisted of Tony, Gary Kriel on bass and Willie van Bloemenstein on drums at Max Raizenberg’s club, Scruples. We finished the Scruples run and opened Club Montreal sometime in the early 1980s. Three years later, we were still playing that gig.
“I learnt so much about the jazz genre from Tony Schilder. He taught me jazz standards that I never knew existed.
“On a lighter note. Once, a lady came off the dance floor and whispered ‘love for sale’ to me. I thought she was coming on to me, only for Tony to tell me that it was the title of a jazz standard she was requesting, he was reeling with laughter. Whenever I skimmed over something musically, he would invite me to sit next to him at the piano and note for note he would set me straight.
“I was the first singer to break the back of the song Tony wrote for the opening of Montreal.”
And a little more than 30 years later people are still groovin’ to the sound of that hit record, “. . . at Montreal, you can always have a ball. Where the girls are so pretty and the guys seem to know they have it all . . .”
Taliep made sure Leslie didn’t act up
There wouldn’t be too many people in Cape Town who were not smitten by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer’s award-winning stage show, District 6 The Musical. The 1987 stage production starred Cyril Valentine, Salie Daniels, Terry Smith and a host of other veteran who had cut their teeth in similar shows.
It also featured, for the first time in an acting role, Leslie Kleinsmith. At that time he was one of the top vocalists, acting was not on his CV.
He ended up being one of the stars of the show – but it nearly didn’t happen were it not for Taliep’s persistence and Leslie’s natural instinct not to let a phone go unanswered.
Leslie tells the story: “Taliep called me about four times for that show which required singing and acting. Three times I said ‘no’. The fourth time he asked I kept saying, ‘I’m no actor’. Basically, I was scared of the challenge.
“On the last occasion he asked, I was going somewhere and as I left the house and put the key in the car door, the phone rings. I thought ‘you now what, it could be work’. It rang and rang. There was no answering machine so it couldn’t kick over to anything. I went back inside – opening garden gate, security gate, then the house – I pick up the phone and . . . it’s Taliep.
“He’s opening line was: ‘My broer, die mense hie’ byrie Baxter, hulle wiettie wie djy issie’. Ek will net hê hulle moet vir jou hoor sing.
“He wanted me to come to the Baxter and sing something, so the management and David could hear what I sounded like.
Maybe a little too arrogant
“Since I had no theatre experience and absolutely no idea of how things worked in the theatre, “I thought to myself, ‘it’s a gig, just another gig, why should I have to audition’. That was my attitude, I was a bit bakgat, brekgat. Maybe a little too arrogant for my own liking I think.
“He kept pushing this line that these people at the Baxter didn’t really know me. He insisted I just come around and do one song. So I went. Wayne Bowman, a singer/actor who now lives in Canada, was also there to audition for the same part of Cassiem.
“When the Cassiem character was called into the audition room I remember each of us egging the other to go in first. Eventually I went in first. By the time I was done, the part was cast, I got the gig . . . sorry Wayne.
“In the audition room itself, Taliep was strumming his guitar and he just told me to ‘sing’. There were quite a few people from the theatre management, whom I did not know, waiting for me to start, which added to my nerves. I had nothing prepared. Everybody else, the actors, dancers, came to the audition with stuff prepared.
“All Taliep kept saying was, ‘just sing anything, anything’. And from the chords he was strumming I heard something familiar and I broke into Lionel Ritchie’s, Hello, is it me you’re looking for . . .
“I did a shortened two-minute version because, I could not wait to get out of that room. As I ended the song and made for the door, Taliep said, ‘hold on, here’s a script, they would like to hear you read something, choose any page. I read.
“Months later the show’s director, Fred Abrahamse, told me what he thought at the time – ‘not an actor but he certainly can sing, and since this is a musical . . .”
The rest is history. Leslie was a standout in the show and stayed with it for 414 performances over a period of two years.
“By 1989 I found myself performing the part of Cassiem on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
“With District 6 The Musical, Taliep had a vision of who he wanted in the various roles. That vision opened many doors for many of us. Even the Baxter Theatre became like a second home.
“Thank you for your persistence Taliep Petersen.”
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