No joking, back then Dave Bestman was . . . the best man in the business

Singer, compere, comedian, instrumentalist Dave Bestman as many would remember him from his days as one of Cape Town’s sought after artistes in the ’60s and ’70s.

17 December 2016

Multi-talented entertainer Dave Bestman turned 80 a few weeks ago. As far as I know, nothing special was done to mark the occasion. Yet, if anyone deserves acknowledgement for a lifetime of achievement, it would be him.

The name Dave Bestman may not be a household word among the younger generation in Cape Town but 40 years ago, there wasn’t a big show that didn’t feature him – with his trademark chinstrip beard – as one of the headline acts. He doubled as a compere and had his own spot singing and being a comedian.

There can’t be too many of our seasoned entertainers who haven’t had the benefit of Dave’s extensive knowledge about life on and off the stage. By his own admission, he’s nurtured a few, coaxed some and harangued a couple.

That’s the Dave Bestman style. At the age of 80 though, he is slowing down. Not entirely retired, but certainly not doing nightly gigs on the cabaret circuit as he did for the best part of 50 years.

But for the past 33 years, Dave has been living in Botswana running his signwriting business (that was his back-up should a career on stage fail), teaching aspiring musicians, and doing the odd gig at the casino.

“Yeah, Botswana is home now. I still go to Athlone and Cape Town every year but this is where I hang my hat,” he said.

Although Dave was born in Bloem Street in the BoKaap, he moved to Lawrence Rd in Athlone as a seven-year-old and that is where members of his family still live

He left school in the then Std 6 (Year 8) and started hanging out with the likes of Cyril Valentine, Gobi Martin, Freddy Isaacs, Yvonne Cloete and Cecil Barnard who became Hotep Galeta in later life. Sixties legends one and all.

Freddy Isaacs, a popular vocalist in Cape Town in the Sixties, started out with Dave Bestman at talent contests.

“We were just a group of kids who liked to sing,” Dave said. “We’d go around to these local talent contests at the Kismet and the Athlone Hotel. Lofty Adams was the big promoter then. And, we’d walk off with the prizes.

“We all imitated the big stars of the time and I was the Frankie Laine impersonator. Freddy Isaacs was the original impersonator but I started doing it and it ended being my star turn.

“We also did the morning ‘housewives’ shows for Lofty Adams, promoting Lucky Star photos, Jungle Oats and things like that.”

Dave’s “big break” came when he auditioned to be part of Alf Herbert’s African Jazz And Variety show when it came to Cape Town.

“Myself and Cyril Valentine auditioned at the Avalon in District 6 and we ended up going on tour with them. That was in the early Sixties.

“From there, I hooked up with the Golden City Dixies with Majiet Omar doing tours up to the then Rhodesia. Every year we would do it – nine months on the road, three months at home.

“My repertoire involved doing impersonations and I was very good at doing Elvis, Jerry Lewis, Mario Lanza, Ge Korsten, and Louis Armstrong. Even Mrs Miller, but Dean Martin was my best.

“I toured with Fred Langford’s Golden City Dixies for eight years, then I branched out to do cabaret on my own.”

Dave still has good and interesting memories of his glory days in Cape Town.

“I was an entrant in the first Mr Entertainment contest in the Luxurama, I think it was in 1966. It was the one that Gobi Martin won. He actually went to the organisers a week before the show to demand the prizemoney. He said if they didn’t give him the money, he would leave for Johannesburg. He knew he was the big attraction.

“They gave him the money, and he went into the show and walked the competition. Yvonne Cloete won the women’s prize. I got third behind Danny Butler with a popular song called Cucurrucucu Paloma.

“Life was always interesting with Gobi Martin.”

Dave moved on to Jo’burg where the action was and it was there that he teamed up with Taliep Petersen and got Carnival a la District 6 (the forerunner of District 6 The Musical) off the ground. Taliep had just got back from a not-too-successful trip to find fame and fortune in London with Terry Fortune.

“The show started in Swaziland at the Royal Swazi Spa. That was in 1983 and ever since, Botswana has been my home.”

He hasn’t depended entirely on his singing talent to get by. Dave, who has never drunk alcohol or smoked, had the foresight to start a signwriting business in Botswana. Unfortunately, the business was destroyed by fire two months ago and that prevented him from attending the funeral of one of his best friends, Howard “Kef” Links.

“I don’t perform full-time anymore, but I do the occasional gig in the casino in Botswana and I do parties, and one man-shows.

“I also teach music. I play saxophone most of the time but also clarinet, drums, bass guitar, piano and vocals. Quite a few students have passed through my hands. There’s one girl, Kacee, I made famous in Botswana. She’s been singing professionally quite a few years now.”

Like so many performers of his era, Dave is self-taught. “I just picked it up watching guys like ‘Kef’ and Hugh Masekela and the piano players who backed me all the years.’’

As a talented as he is, Dave has never managed to transfer that into being a recording artist. He did record a seven-single (remember that?) once but puts it down to a bad experience.

“I recorded one of my own compositions, You’re My Angel . . . [breaks into song] I want you to know . . . I forget all the words now. That was it, no other recordings. It never went on the market. I had a copy of the single but it’s long gone.

“I definitely wasn’t a recording artist, I am a live performer.”

He may have failed at his own recording career but he certainly had a significant role in launching the career of one of South Africa’s big name artists, namely one Jonathan Butler.

“Jontas” was a precocious performer at the time and had been a teenybopper star on the Richard Jon Smith show.

Teenybopper Jonathan “Jontas” Butler who came under Dave Bestman’s wing on tour with Richard Jon Smith back in the Seventies.

“His managers, Ralph Simon and Clive Calder, who managed Richard, wanted to get Jonathan into the studio to record but he was up in Rhodesia with The Prumes. I had to talk tough to get him to come because he refused when his managers called him.”

As compere, Dave was a key figure on the nation-wide groundbreaking Richard Jon Smith tour in 1976. He got a close-up of the amazing talents of Ronnie Joyce. Jonathan, Lionel Petersen and, of course, Richard Jon Smith.

“It was an amazing tour. South Africa had never seen anything like it with thousands packing out halls across the country,” Dave recalls.

“Lionel Petersen was my favourite. I know, Richard Jon Smith got all the cream, but for me, Lionel was better.”

Dave was also involved with another big show, the Percy Sledge phenomenon that hit South Africa in 1971. Sledge was the first overseas black entertainer allowed in to apartheid South Africa.

“Man, Sledge had to work hard on his show because we were all top stars in our own right. We used to bring the house down – Sammy Hartman, Roy Petersen Eddie Watts, Sydney Cane, Vivienne Kensley and the Four Sounds band – we were hot!

“The first half was so hot, Sledge had to work his arse off to keep the audience going. He used to watch the first half of the show from behind the curtain every night, wondering if the people still had enough voice left to cheer him when he came on.”

The Sledge tour, Dave said, was only supposed to go for three weeks. It ended up running for four months.

“It could have gone a lot longer but Sledge thought he could make unreasonable demands. He insisted on going to Swaziland to do a film, Soul Fire, at the height of the tour. You can’t do that.

“The promoter, Ronnie Quibell told him if he went it was all over. But Sledge insisted. That was it.

“Sledge did try to come back but they wouldn’t let him back into the country because he had also had some run-in with the police. And, the film was a flop. It did not have a preview even.”

Dave has some great memories that has dotted his long career, some of which he is happy to talk about, others he skims over.

On Danny Williams, the Port Elizabeth crooner who went to London and had a hit with Moon River: “We went to meet him at the airport when he came back a big star to do a show at the Lux in 1970. We were all kitted out in coon carnival gear – and he refused to talk to us in Afrikaans after with us on the Dixies show.”

On Taliep Petersen and Zane Adams: “They were great performers, legends. Working with Taliep on District 6 – The Musical was one of the highlights of my career.

On his favourite musicians: “I absolutely admired Sammy Hartman, Tony and Richard Schilder, and Roy Petersen. They were pianists who accompanied me and I put my trust in them when I went on stage.”

On his time with the Golden City Dixies: “They were tough but exciting times. We lived from hand to mouth on R7 a week. Once we were stuck in Bloemfontein because the promoter took the money and dumped us. The authorities only gave Jonathan Butler a train ticket to get back to Cape Town because he was a kid.”

“One year in Jo’burg with the Dixies, one of the cast had a gun with him. His child was playing with the gun and it went off and shot one of the dancing girls in the stomach. We had to do a lot to cover that up because blacks were not supposed to have guns those days.”

The late pianist and multi-instrumentalist Roy Petersen. Dave Bestman placed him among the top performers of his time.

Dave’s most recent gig in Cape Town was performing with the coons as a favour for his long-time friend “Kef” Links.

“I loved the coons. I never walked the streets with them but sang at the competitions. When I did Kef that favour a few years ago, I sang Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. I came second in that category but most people thought I should have won. I think it was rigged.”

Dave has fathered 10 children, four with his late wife and the rest, he says, was a result of being on the road all those years in the early days.

“That was the reality of the times. I wasn’t alone. One of my contemporaries said he had 15 children.”

But he is alone now. He lives on his own in Botswana.

“Kef used to say we were the last of the Mohicans. No, I’m the last of the Mohicans”

I have known Dave for just on 50 years. I haven’t seen him in the flesh for more than 30 years but we keep in touch. In all that time, he has always had a standard opening line when we met or spoke on the phone: “Hey, journalist, are you still writing those kak stories.”

And I would respond in the same manner everytime: “Are you still telling those kak jokes.” And we both would crack up laughing.

Yeah Dave, definitely the last of the Mohicans.

Dave Bestman in the centre of the picture with the cast of the Carnival a la District 6 which was his first venture with Taliep Petersen who is alo in the picture at the back at the right end. Also in the picture is Madeegha Anders (then Velma Anders) Cyril Valentine, Terry Smith and Davey Claasen (the Happy Whistler).

[Editor’s note:  This interview, like many on this blog, was done long distance — we’re 16,000km apart. Repeated requests to Dave  to provide an up-to-date photo fell on deaf ears. Anyone out there who can help me with one?

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