14 March 2018
Steve Fataar, once leader of South Africa’s best known soul-funk group of the Sixties, The Flames, turns 75 today. Wish him a very happy birthday folks, and thank him for entertaining us for the last 60 years.
What does one give him for a birthday present? If you’re stumped for an idea, Steve’s got one for you: “If you want to give me something, I’d be happy for you just to give someone who was homeless, poverty stricken, hungry or destitute, a gift to make their day more comfortable.”
What would I give him? I’d give him access to songs he recorded with The Flames almost 50 years ago. It is locked up in a climate-controlled vault in Los Angeles – the collateral damage of a long and bitter dispute between feuding members of the hit group of the Sixties, The Beach Boys.
It’s a sad, very sad, story, and one that is causing Steve and fellow Flames guitarist Blondie Chaplain a great deal of anguish.
In a long, drawn out drama that involves US lawyers, contracts, music industry politics, the icons of South African music are mere bit players.
“I can’t, for the love of god, understand why a record company would not take a product they have and release it,” Steve said.
Blondie echoed similar sentiments: “That is our legacy they have locked up. That is our creative endeavours that we want our fans to know we were capable of.”
For the last few years there have been efforts underway by an international film company to do a documentary on The Flames. They have been trying to get Brother Records, to whom The Flames were contracted when they went to the States around 1970, to release it for use in the doco, but to no avail.
“The Beach Boys were the hottest thing going at the time and we thought we had struck gold when they took us under their wings,” Steve said.
“They set up this new record company, Brother Records, and signed us up after seeing us play because it fitted well with their plans . . . we were three brothers in the group and they had just created Brother Records.”
“They couldn’t launch their label because they were contracted to Capitol Records, so they used us.”
Things started going awry when The Beach Boys members had disagreements. The Flames had already recorded an album called See The Light which had a limited release in the US and Europe, and had recorded new tracks for their second album for Brother Records. See The Light was never released in South Africa because of legal issues.
The Beach Boys broke up and ever since there has been a well-documented public spat about who is entitled to the Beach Boys name and the rights to certain things from their company – including The Flames recordings.
“What we’d like is to get those tapes, work on them and then make them available to our fans – and there are still thousands of them who still remember us from the days of For You Precious Love,” Blondie said.
“The Flames is a huge part of the history of black music in South Africa. The tapes in that vault are part of that history. Our fans have a right to know what we were capable of and what we could have achieved when we left SA.”
Steve says if the tapes are released, they needed to be worked on and remastered.
“The only people who can do it are myself, Blondie and my brother Ricky. It has to happen soon ’cause we’re not getting any younger. I’m 75, Blondie is 67 and Ricky 66.”
Brother Fataar was the other member of the group. He was the bassist and he died in Amsterdam in the Seventies.
Blondie lives in LA and is a much sought after guest guitarist with top international acts. He has played with The Rolling Stones, and guitarists Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck and Rick Danko.Ricky Fataar lives in San Francisco and has been playing for years with acclaimed blues singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt.
Steve is celebrating his 75th birthday in Cape Town where he has been a frequent visitor in recent years, playing regularly with the late Errol Dyers.
This blog is dedicated to documenting the early days when pop culture in the black communities took off. That was way before the advent of social media, so there isn’t much out there of those days. Steve’s story is part of that history.
He grew up in Grenville in Durban and as a boy was hooked on music when he heard Durban’s equivalent of the ‘Cape Coon Carnival’ on the streets.
“It was such exciting, jolly sounds and rhythms,” he recalled. “Also, in the flats I lived, there were two brothers who played guitars and sang all the popular songs of the early ’50s. They were related to ‘Baby’ Duval, who played with the Flames prior to Blonde joining the band.
“I had considered becoming a school teacher whilst in matric, but that went out the window after discovering the guitar. I worked for a short while as a ‘clerk’ before music became a full time task.”
The Flames were a bit of a slow burn, one might say. Steve learnt some chords on the guitar and taught younger sibling, “Brother”, a few things.
“We played at a few talent competitions at local hotels and we won lot. We then inherited a drum kit from neighbours who were emigrating and I asked Ricky – then eight years old – to play it and ‘just keep a beat for us’. And voila!! That’s how the Flames came into existence.”
Steve chuckles when he recalls how they kept Ricky’s age at nine years for a long time has they climbed the ladder to success in South Africa in the late ’60s.
It was big decision when he took the group to the UK around 1970 but they had reached the pinnacle in SA.
“The trip to London could have been a disaster,” he says. “We left Cape Town on the boat with everything we needed – mics, amps, instruments – except the most important thing: a work permit.
“The authorities held us on the boat four days until a sympathetic British trade union pleaded our case with the Home Office. We were allowed in and granted a work permit for two months.
“We did a couple gigs in the UK and played Albert Hall with Jethro Tull and Yes and played in France where, in a stroke of luck, the Beach Boys saw us. We were just what they wanted for their new record label.”
In next to no time, the group was ensconced in Los Angeles and doing gigs across the States. They recorded the album See The Light and went on a promotional tour with Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. The single, See The Light and Get Your Mind Made Up charted in the top 10 in about 12 states in the US.
“It also made Billboard’s top 100, which as you know is the bible of the music industry,” Steve said. “Sadly, nobody could buy the damn music anywhere. The company the Beach Boys picked out was in throes of insolvency.
“We had already recorded the tracks for the second album but everything got shelved as the Beach Boys went to war with each other. It reached the stage where I had gutful of Hollywood and the industry and the drug situation. I thought ‘if I don’t get out of here, I don’t know how I am going to survive’.
“That’s when I left. We had a big meeting in Hollywood with one of the heavies in the music industry. He was very impressed with our track record and said we we’re set for the big time, the whole world was going to know about us.
“I was adamant though. I said I didn’t need Hollywood to make music; I’m going back to SA. They were quite shocked. In a perverse way, the Beach Boys locked up the progress of the band but it also opened up a lot of doors for Ricky and Blondie.”
Steve came back to SA two years, Brother headed back to the UK, and Ricky and Blondie, for a while, became permanent fixtures for the Beach Boys who, at that stage were experiencing their own issues.
“I am glad I got out. I can play music where I like. And here in SA, I could hook up with people like the late Errol Dyers, Tony Cedras, Mervyn Africa and just enjoy making music.”
Fast forward to today and Steve is enjoying something of a cult hero status. He is a power user of social media and keeps The Flames fan base flickering if not burning brightly.
Last year, he undertook a hectic five-day tour in Australia playing all the big cities. It wasn’t a rip-roaring success but that was more down to promotional inadequacies rather than Steve’s capacity to draw a crowd.
“It was a pretty full-on schedule, missing flights, hopping from city to city and the like but it was, nonetheless, a rewarding experience for a 74-year-old.”
As with all his appearances, Steve was required to play their No 1 hit from back in the day, For Your Precious Love, and other tracks on the Soulfire and Burning Soul albums.
Last year in Cape Town, For Your Precious Love was voted the most popular song on Valentines Day and is a constant favourite on the local radio stations.
“It is just an incredible story with that song. It’s iconic and it’ll be around long after The Flames have vanished. That song was a half an hour’s work in the studio in ’68. It would have been one take; the band was so tight then. Thirty minutes of our lives 50 years ago and it has come to mean such a lot.
“A lot of the people who never heard the band play, certainly know us through that song because it was on the radio all the time.
“It’s sad the way things have ended up with our material locked away. People didn’t have the opportunity to see what we could really do. We were a working band playing quality stuff.
“The music we want was all our own stuff influenced from the bands we loved, like The Beatles. I did a lot of the words because I love playing with words, saying different things with the words. Blondie and Ricky were the two musical geniuses. They had a way of working together, like two people in a three-legged race. They were so smooth.
“But all the songs were mostly a joint effort. No pun intended.”
Steve is sanguine about the future with regard to the tapes. He is also pretty proud of the career he and the group had in South Africa, and their legacy.
“We made enough money when we were at our peak in SA to be totally comfortable. The money was never an issue with us. People say we were disadvantaged. We were probably the most successful band and I say what is so disadvantaged about that?
“People want to talk politics. I believe the band did more for politics than the politicians. We brought people together. All we did was concentrate on our music.”
Back in the day, when they were packing out venues across the country, their fans were legion. They had passionate followers who straddled South Africa’s abhorrent colour spectrum. Naturally the police didn’t like to see adulation for a black band coming from young white women wanting autographs – on “cool” places on their body!
“It wasn’t cool to be seen signing some lady’s tits,” Steve said. “And the cops were always around. One time, Blondie had the pen pulled out of his hand. The cop said, ‘you can’t do that’.
“It was ridiculous, they would follow us everywhere. They made sure we stayed in our rooms, made sure we didn’t mix, and stuff like that. But they couldn’t stop it. It became more of a problem for them than it was for us actually.”
One of the achievements Steve is immensely proud of is the group being awarded a gold disc for sales of For Your Precious Love. What pisses him off about it is the fact that they don’t have the gold disc. “Somebody overseas has it and refuses to talk to us. I can’t understand how it got into his possession.”
There is still a steady trickle of CD sales of the Soulfire and Burning Fire albums but it never translates into royalties – it never did according to Steve.
“Even now we still don’t get royalties. All our stuff has been re-released. There are some original songs that I have never received publishing royalties for. I buy stock and sell it at my gigs. It’s easier than having fights with record companies about royalties.”
He has his health issues and has to manage his activities carefully but he still cherishes hopes of The Flames getting together to “wrap things up”, like maybe a 50th Anniversary For Your Precious Love Tour.
“That would make total sense to me. Of course there are difficulties associated with that. Rashid Lombard took about three years to get us together for the Cape Town Jazz Festival. But it was such a beautiful experience. For starters, Ricky tours about 11 months of the year with Bonnie Raitt and Blondie is on the road with Brian Wilson.
“Hopefully one day it can happen, and also that the three of us can get together and resolve something about our locked up albums.”
Happy birthday, Steve! In the words of the inimitable Bob Dylan: “May you stay forever young”.
Material on this blog is copyrighted. Permission has to be obtained to re-publish.
The many moods of Steve Fataar on stage