23 December 2019
The Golden City Dixies holds a special place in the history of black entertainment in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town. The variety group nurtured or inspired some of the great names that lit up our stages – Jonathan Butler, Zayn Adams, Taliep Petersen to name a few..
The “golden” period of the Dixies, for most in Cape Town, was from around the mid ’60s to the early ’70s when variety spectaculars pulled in full houses all over.
But their history goes back a little further, to the ’50s when their homegrown “vaudeville-style” acts set the benchmark for imitators down the track. It culminated with a ground-breaking overseas tour by a group of black entertainers that took them to England, Ireland and ultimately Sweden.
This year (what’s left of it) is the 60th anniversary of that momentous tour event in 1959 that ended with 10 of the 21-strong group of entertainers opting to seek political asylum in Sweden to escape the oppressive apartheid regime.
In April 1959, the black Johannesburg magazine, Zonk, announced the imminent departure of the first black entertainers to leave our shores. Among those named in the party were singers Elizabeth Julius and Corinne Harris, Danny Williams, Omar Majiet, Ronnie Madonsella, Graham Tainton, Peter Radise, Brian Isaacs, Yusuf Williams, pianist Arthur Gillies, guitarist Kenny Jephtha, saxophonists Harold Jefta and drummer Gamby George.
After mixed reviews in London and a smash season in , the Golden City Dixies headed for Sweden where this all-black outfit was something of a novelty for the Scandinavians.
Their journey came to a sensational climax when, after numerous financial setbacks, they decided to end the tour and head home. But, 10 decided they were not ever going back. Sweden offered them sanctuary.
I tracked down one of those 10, keyboardist Arthur Gillies, to the town of Stavanger in Norway where he has lived for more than 50 years.
Arthur will be 85 next May but he still has crystal-clear memories of the decision that changed his life.
“It was a tough one for me, for all of us,” he said. “We were going to turn our backs on our loved ones. We were sure we would never see them again.”
Arthur became Dixie performer quite by chance. In the mid ’50s he had already made a name for himself in the white clubs around Cape Town playing jazz with the likes of Kenny Jephtha, saxophonist Harold Jefta and bassist Johnny du Toit.
The Dixies were playing farewell concerts before departing when the pianist, a certain Dollar Brand, pulled out to pursue a solo career.
“Harold persuaded me to sign up, much against my will. What the Dixies offered on stage wasn’t really my music. I am a jazz pianist. But I relented.”
The London leg of the tour did not bring the rave reviews they were seeking. “The critics put us down. Yet, we never gave up. The best part of the tour was in Ireland where we played to full houses for four weeks at the Royal Theatre in Dublin.
“By the time the Dixies got to Sweden we already had had quite a few bad experiences. We were ripped off by some of the people who ran the shows. They thought we were illiterates from South Africa.”
Arthur said that after the other Dixies left to go back home, those who stayed behind put together their own little show and played a couple of gigs.
“We were billed as The Black Show,” Arthur says. “We were quite popular but there were still people who ripped us off. They never gave us a fair deal even though we were attracting a lot of people to the shows. We just knew we couldn’t go on like that.
“Things also started to go wrong within the group. There were arguments because everyone wanted to do his or her own thing. Brian wanted to sing his Elvis Presley stuff. Eventually he and Chetty went on to do their own thing. I just felt I needed to go on my own because I wasn’t comfortable playing the music they wanted to play. Everybody went there separate ways. We were good friends but we just could not get on as a group. I just wanted to be a jazz musician and they wanted me to play stuff that, to be honest, I hated.
“Harold went to music school in a small village and made a success of it. I tried to go to music school when I got Norway. I never got the hang of but the professor told me ‘just do your thing, you have a beautiful ear for it’. “
Notwithstanding the unfortunate ending to the “trip of a lifetime”, Arthur still cherishes those memories of his time with the Dixies. He loved the silky voice of Elizabeth Julius.
“She sang beautifully and her rendition of Autumn Concerto was a showstopper.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the “stateless” Dixies. Brian (Bruima) Isaacs teamed up with Ronald Chetty to do shows on the road. Harold Jefta started making name for himself as a jazzman and Arthur went into the recording studio to do an album featuring Elizabeth Julius and Yusuf Williams.
However, it was Danny Williams, the crooner who sold newspapers as a boy in Port Elizabeth, who really struck gold.
“Danny Williams was the one who got really lucky,” Arthur says. “Somebody heard him sing in that beautiful Johnny Mathis style and he was offered a contract to go back to London to perform. He made it big and had an international hit with the song Moon River.”
Once the group broke up, Arthur started doing solo gigs playing light jazz in cafés, bars and supper clubs. He, along with the others who stayed behind, was granted asylum by the Swedish Government. He did gigs in Sweden and Denmark for a while and then a promoter offered him a contract in Norway.
“I told him I could not leave because I had political asylum documents that restricted my movements. The Swedish Aliens Passport that protected me as long as I was in Sweden. I could be sent back.”
A work permit was arranged and he landed regular gigs as a solo artist in Norway.
“Then I met a man who owned a piano factory in Stavanger in Norway and he offered me permanent work. The next thing I knew I was applying for political asylum again, but this time for Norway.
“That was in the mid-’60s and I have been in Stavanger ever since, playing jazz in the style of renowned pianist Errol Garner. If I may so myself, I’m pretty famous in this town, I couldn’t rob a bank here!”
For more than 30 years, Arthur remained in exile, scared that if he ever went home to his parents, he would be locked up. How he managed to go back eventually is something he will never forget and it came courtesy of the great Nelson Mandela.
“In 1992, when Mandela came to Norway with de Klerk to be awarded their Nobel Peace prize, I had the honour of playing at the SA embassy in Oslo. When I was introduced to Mandela, he said, ‘you’re a South African, you play beautifully’.
“I told him I hadn’t been back for 30 years; I couldn’t go to my father’s funeral, I hadn’t seen my mother, and she was going to be 100.
“He was surprised and angry. ‘My son’, he said to me, ‘you go back to South Africa tomorrow and if anybody hassles you at the airport, they must answer to me!’.
“I went back later that year and there were still ‘boere’ behind the counter. They looked at my Norwegian passport that said I was born in Cape Town. He took it away and I thought ‘here the kak begins’. Five minutes later a big boer comes back and says, ‘Arthur Gillies, the piano player!! Welcome home, your family is waiting for you’. “
Now Arthur goes back to Cape Town almost every year and has played several gigs on his visits. “I played the Green Dolphin with the late Basil Moses on bass and Maurice Gawronsky on drums. It was beautiful.”
Although he has been out of the country for 60 years, Arthur still has very clear memories of growing up in Royal Road in Maitland. He lived not very far from another famous local pianist, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim).
“Dollar came to my house to practise on the grand piano we bought in 1957. We grew up together. He was very introvert-ish. He used to come over to us in his big boots and a big jug of wine. He was that type. We were not really good friends. I knew my ability and he knew his ability. I can’t be Dollar Brand and he can’t be me.”
Although Arthur says he taught himself to play I the piano, his mother did try to get him to have formal music lessons.
“My mother sent me to a music place in Salt River to learn notes and I was only there a couple of days when the teacher told my mother, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t use Arthur because he is disturbing the class playing boogie woogie’. My mother said, ‘just stay home’.
After finishing his school at Kensington High and St Columba’s Arthur needed to find a job.
“Work was scarce, but I was still very interested in the piano. My mother suggested I go the music store, Polliaks, where they had music workshops. She took me to the boss, Mr Cohen. He said, ‘sorry, but this is only for whites, we can’t teach coloureds’.
“He said he could employ me as a cleaning boy. My mother was aghast but I said I’ll take it. He did not know how well I could play the piano and was blown away by my competence. He got me a lot of private gigs playing Cavallaro and Charlie Kunz stuff.
“In the old days, there was no such thing as rock ‘n roll. I played a lot of boogie-woogie. I just taught myself, I listened to records. I listened to Oscar Petersen and Errol Garner, listened to their styles, how they do it.”
Arthur’s first group was a trio, with Mike Abrahams on bass and Norman Flint on drums. I actually taught Mike to play the bass. He couldn’t play the right notes and I couldn’t read music. I used to write the notes for him, like E flat, and so on. He became a brilliant bass player. I couldn’t play with other bass players. He played to the key, which I liked.”
Arthur played in Darryl’s nightclub then afterwards with Kenny Jephtha in Maxims. ”Kenny was the band leader but we couldn’t get on. I wanted to play my style and Kenny wanted to play his. I used to make a lot of mistakes playing with him.
“One day after a gig, we were in his car taking me home, he turned to me and said, ‘Arthur, I don’t want you playing in my band anymore’. I was so happy.”
In those early years in the ’50s Arthur had regular gigs in popular “coloured” venues like the Naaz and Ambassadors. “That’s where we grew up, sort of, with Tony Schilder.
“I also played with Alf Wylie’s langarm band. I liked it, you know. It was like an adventure for me. The band was playing wrong notes, but gham liked it. I also taught Ikey Gamba’s langarm guys a lot of tricks in playing. I couldn’t read music but I knew more than them.
Arthur’s love affair with jazz started when he joined Harold Jephtha’s quartet. “That was about 1954-55. I was already a be-bop player doing Bob Tyler stuff. Harold was totally into jazz giant Charlie Parker’s style. It was nice to play with Harold and Johnny Du toit on bass.
“Before that I was playing in the style of pianist Carmen Cavallaro style, light music for supper club patrons. I loved that. The people also loved it because it was something different. I’m not sorry I copied that style. It was beautiful.”
Arthur still keeps in touch with Harold who also lives in Sweden but he has lost touch with the other Dixies
“”It’s only Harold, Brian, Graham, Corinne and myself that I know are still around. From my side, there has never really be any regrets a out leaving the Dixies in Sweden.
“I have a good life here in Stavanger in Norway. I have a few health issues now and need doctor’s clearance to travel. Occasionally I take on a gig, but mostly I make my way to a pub in the afternoon. If I’m lucky and there’s a piano in it, I can play may favourite Error Garner tune, Misty – then my wallet can take a holiday!”
They were pioneers, the travelling Golden City Dixies of 1959. Harold Jephtha, Graham Tainton and Brian Isaacs are still in Sweden, Corinne Harris is in Germany.
Photo Gallery: Arthur Gillies with his daughters Jeanette and Marianne; Arthur today; Arthuer the early showman and Arthur outside his home in Maitland. (click on picture rto enlarge image)