6 September 2021
“Richard Jon Smith”, the headline from the 1974 newspaper report read, “is a homegrown superstar”. No one could argue about it. Photos of packed stadiums and thousands of fans at public events screamed that fact.
Every stage show he performed at was sold out. His records were monster hits. South Africa had not seen anything like that from a local solo performer. His name would go down in history.
Yet, given the propensity for new technology and social media to elevate even the most pedestrian of performers to “legend” status, Richard Jon Smith’s presence on the Internet is sadly underwhelming.
An extensive look, using multiple search engines, throws up very little of the performer who became known simply as RJS. There are lots of discographies but nothing about the boy who sang in the local group with his Athlone buddies; who left school in Std 8 to work as a porter at Groote Schuur to support his family.
His Facebook profile is enlightening – 530 friends and no followers. He hardly ever posts and occasionally comments – when he does, it’s mostly in CAPS. A FB fan page had a few hundred followers and died a quiet death.
Does that say something?
Juxtapose that with one of his contemporaries, Jonathan Butler, who was a supporting act on the RJS shows in ’76. Jonathan has 264,700 followers on his FB page. He posts videos almost daily and some videos are watched more than 2000 times.
Richard is unperturbed by that: “Different strokes, for different folks, I suppose.” He made a conscious decision not to engage with social media too much.
Comparisons are odious at the best of times but . . . it does make one think: where is the historical information on one of the true superstars.
The truth is, RJS himself is largely responsible. He chose a career path that was in synch with his personal life and did not necessarily involve chasing popularity. “Amen to that,” he says.
It is best summed up in a message he sent me a while back. “Life has only ONE PING. I thank God for letting me hear that.”
That message was in response to my request for an interview for this blog, something I have been chasing since this blog started back in 2014. His short reply was: “I believe you know my story from way back.”
And then he threw in a titbit about himself to underscore his perspective and outlook on life: “I once sang for a DONUT+COFFEE at the Woodstock Golden Dish with my first band friends, The SHINDIGS, and today I still treasure that naivety.”
Yes, like he said, I do know Richard’s story, from the first time I saw him in Jay Jay’s Soul Workshop club in Athlone around ’67-’68 as a novice singer with The Shindig 5.
As was the case with most of the groups of the late ’60s, their shelf life could be measured in months, if not weeks. From the Shindig 5, Richard moved to The Hippies and then on to PE band, The Triangles, who had a bit more exposure through provincial tours.
There was a touch of serendipity attached to the move to The Hippies that led to his first stint in the studio to record the US hit, Storybook Children.
“They had committed contractually to recording it,” Richard recalled. “So when Harold Adams, their lead singer, went AWOL, they approached me the Thursday night to please stand in for the recording. It was really so naive of me to be drawn into the situation. But GOD HAD A PLAN THAT LONG AGO. Halleluyah.
“Storybook Children was a very popular hit nationally through the grapevine, and on the club circuit.”
His next bit of luck also involved another recording gig. Richard had moved to The Triangles who had recorded a single called Here I Come in the early ’70s and they had approached EMI Records to do an album.
“Doug Hill, of EMI Cape Town, linked us with EMI Jhb where we met Clive Calder who produced the album called The Best Son,” Richard said. “He took an interest in my songwriting and wanted to contact me at a later stage.”
It wasn’t long before Clive, and his business partner, Ralph Simon, signed up Richard. Through astute business management – and Richard’s innate talent – they were going to take the awkward boy from St Athans Rd in Athlone to superstar status.
They persuaded RJS to base himself in Joburg. He quit The Triangles and found himself a support act on the Percy Sledge Show that was touring Southern Africa (but not South Africa). RJS proved to be worth every cent they invested in him.
He released his first single, Candlelight, and it was promoted through the roof by Calder and Simon.
It was followed in October ’72 by a gig that was to prove a forerunner of his future performances. He was the headline act at the Cup Final between Joburg’s top soccer teams, Kaizer Chiefs and Pimville United Brothers. H-U-G-E!! More than 60,000 people at Orlando Stadium. Entertainers of that time would have killed for a crowd that big.
RJS may have started his singing career in Cape Town but it was Joburg where he cracked it.
Eighteen months after the soccer show, and with hits like That’s Why I Love You and Sweet Mama, his management launched his “farewell tour” prior to heading overseas. It started in Soweto in March 1974 and ended in Durban in May. He played close to 40 venues in that time and such was the demand that the promoters had to do two shows some days.
Included among the supporting acts were “Little” Ronnie Joyce, Lionel Petersen, Ruschda Conradie and Ivan Ross and backed by top jazz Joburg group, Drive.
One of the backing group, guitarist Henri Donjeany, said the tour was an eye-opener for him in terms what could be achieved by a local artist.
“I kid you not, every show was packed and his appeal, on stage and off, was phenomenal,” Henri said. “When we hit my hometown Durban, I took him to a restaurant. We couldn’t finish our meal because of the crowd around.”
That tour was a precursor to his big show in mid-’76 when he took it to the next level. The Western Cape leg of the tour was a sell-out. His fans couldn’t get enough of him and his high-energy stage performance.
In the South African context, he WAS a superstar.
The next move was the obvious one – Calder and Simon took their man to the UK to see if his SA talent could translate into that of international star. Their London operation was called Zomba Records and RJS honed his skills as a producer for a number of British acts.
The big break never really materialised. Over time Richard immersed himself more and more in his faith. Eventually Richard turned to full-time gospel work and even recorded an album called Bring It To The Lord.
Richard made London his home and only ventured – almost yearly – to South Africa to do gospel work.
On the rare occasion that he did perform in the “pop” sphere – at Zane Adams’s Tribute Concert at Grand West in 2012 – the audience response showed that he had lost none of his appeal
Singer Leslie Kleinsmith who was part of the tribute event said: “The crowd went crazy when he broke into Candlelight. They certainly hadn’t forgotten him after all those years.”
The director of the show, Basil Appollis, said: “He almost caused a riot when he came on. The show’s security had their hands full when he ventured into the crowd during his song.”
For someone who hadn’t performed for a local audience for about 30 years, the reaction showed he had lost none of his appeal. “I was a huge fan of Zane’s and that appearance was my tribute to him.”
The support back in the day saw him awarded double gold discs for Michael Row The Boat Ashore, That’s Why I Love You, and Happy and Gay, and gold discs for Dayo-Island and Sweet Mama and many others
Stack up all those highly successful tours with a string of hits and it does make one wonder about the absence of any profile of this legend. He has a helluva CV and had a helluva career.
As he hits his biblical age today, RJS has a lot to reflect on his life, particularly those early years when he had his mother, Maria, guiding his life. She bought him a guitar in his teens and instilled in him a love of music.
What intrigues him most is the way things panned out with his star-studded career. “The overwhelming interest took me by surprise,” he says.
“With the Shindig 5 and The Hippies, we were just a lot of young talented singers and musicians who loved being together in music. It was so-o-o uncomplicated.
“Gammie Lakay [The Hippies lead guitarist] was our Jimi Hendrix. We had a special sound. I started out as a singer, thrown in at the deep end. PHEW! I ended up being the drummer and lead singer, building on that special sound.
Richard still has contact with Gammie but has no idea what happened to Harold.
“My first gig with the Shindig 5 was in a shed-cum-make-believe-hall in the back end of Heideveld. It was a real dive!! We feared for our lives. [Gangsters] were waving pangas and machetes at us if we stopped playing. We were ducking behind amplifiers and drums. The memory still sometimes haunts me.”
Richard’s favourite venues were along Elsies River’s club strip. “Elsies River was the greatest, from the Panorama to Tiefie’s club [Aquarius] or the Rio Hotel or the Eureka Lounge – dit het geruk ou Pel!!
There were other “scary” venues” like the Burial Hall in Matroosfontein. “Most of our gigs were risky and scary places. Glory to God we’re still standing.”
The UK was a far cry from those scary days. Richard left SA in 1981 for London and settled into the local music scene easily, making his name as a studio producer. He counts his work with artists like The Real Thing, Precious Wilson, LuLu, Samantha Fox and doing music for the movie Jewel of the Nile among the highlights.
RJS is of the firm belief that the move to London changed his life.
The other significant “moment” in his life hinges on the success of the song Michael Row The Boat Ashore. It stands alongside Sweet Mama which he says “was a testimony of my relationship with my Mama” and That’s Why I Love You “because it is the truth”.
The decision to focus on gospel came with the huge success of Michael Row The Boat. “It was me being thankful to my Heavenly Father.”
The song was No1 the singles charts for nine weeks and the album charts for 23 weeks. “This made me understand GOD’S GRACE on my life,” Richard says.
Just to put things in perspective, the two men who played a significant role in Richard Jon Smith’s career . . . one is a successful businessman in the States and the other, Clive, is a reclusive UK billionaire who had a hand in making international stars like Britney Spear and ‘nSync. RJS was with Clive and Ralph before the others. Did they do enough for him after he did so much to set them up in SA?
“Yes,” says Richard, “God bless them both.”
Richard lives a very quiet life in North London with wife Glenda who he married in ’73.
Wish him well as he celebrates a significant “biblical” 70th birthday today”.
Would he consider one, final big gig? “Maybe,” says RJS.
Someone should be thinking about a tribute concert for him. Happy Birthday Ree!