Lionel Petersen: superb entertainer, ticked all the boxes – and then some

22 July 2022

Singer Lionel Petersen was laid to rest today bringing to an end to a remarkable career but leaving behind an incredible legacy that will forever be the mark of the man.

He ticks so many boxes.  Great pop singer  . . . tick.   Great gospel singer and preacher . . . tick.  Great stage performer . . . tick.  Outstanding human being . . . tick. The many tributes and condolences to his wife Val and the family on social media bore testimony to that.

South Africa’s first superstar, Richard Jon Smith, thought he was “world class” when he first saw him in the Sixties. Winston Campbell who gave Lionel his first big break with the Pretoria group, The Miracles, said he could sing anything from blues to opera; and gospel performer Trevor Sampson said he is “recognized as a father figure and mentor in the SA gospel music field; there has never been another one with a vocal range like his

Gospel singer Jonathan Butler, as a teenybopper star in the Seventies, was a “huiskind” in Lionel’s home and says Lionel and wife Val were absolute role models in showing him what a stable family life was and it was a time of his life that he would never forget.

Lionel died last week, 14 July, aged 74, after enduring a lengthy illness that saw both his legs amputated.

Lionel Petersen’s career stretches back into the mid-Sixties in the Johannesburg area when, as a teenager, he was part of a pop group called The Thunderballs.  It ended with him being acknowledged as one of the top gospel performers in the country drawing congregations of thousands where he ministered.

In between, around the ’70s, he recorded a string of solo pop hits with songs like Come Back Liza and Private Number that made him a household name across the country.  In 1974, he was voted the best male singer at the Sarie Awards, the first black artist to be recognised by South Africa’s equivalent to the US Grammy Awards.

A young Lionel Petersen.

In the Seventies, he was part of the hugely successful Richard Jon Smith nation-wide tour that smashed box-office records. Apart from Lionel and RJS, the show also featured teenybopper stars Jonathan Butler and Little Ronnie Joyce. The show marked a seminal moment in the country’s entertainment history in that it showed performers of colour could be hailed as superstars in their field.

Lionel was also the lead singer for a while with top groups, The Invaders and Harari and was involved with The Winners Project which celebrated the huge success of soccer champions Kaizer Chiefs in 1984 and spawned the hit song, We Are Number One.

Around 1987, Lionel became a born again Christian and joined the Rhema Bible Church in Johannesburg. As a pastor, he was recognised as one of Africa’s best known ambassadors of praise and worship and led to him establishing the Lionel Petersen Academy of Worship to groom the next cohort of praise and worship ambassadors

Some of the people who walked the road with Lionel during his stellar career were keen to acknowledge his achievements and to celebrate his life.

Richard Jon Smith, pop superstar turned gospel performer

“The music scene was buzzing in Cape Town in 1965 when I was in a band called the Shindig 5.  Of course, we didn’t know much about the rest of the country.  We travelled to Johannesburg for the first time in 1967 to see what was happening in their music scene and to broaden our horizons. We went to a club called The Matador where I first saw and met Lionel who was singing for a local group called The Miracles.

“I was knocked out by his singing and the group’s performance.  It was like listening to a record playing . . . they were so professional. Lionel did fantastic gimmicks and movements with the mic stand, wowing the crowd.  He was world-class then – definitely in my eyes.   It was a stand-out moment for me.

“We met up later when we toured together on my RJS Show.   He was even better then, very versatile as an R&B singer, a balladeer and of course a pop singer.

“Then there was a new season, he entered the gospel music ministry.  The crossing over was so natural.  This is where he belonged spiritually, and Lionel sang the gospel.   We both served the Lord but never performed together at gospel events.

“On the social scene, Lionel and his wife Val always remained our friends, sharing many yummy ‘soul food’ meals when we visited South Africa. We are godparents to their son Lyndon.

“Lionel’s pop songs, Try A Little Love, Private Number and Come Back Liza will always be among my favourite songs.  And among his gospel tracks, I find his song, Peace, so wonderful with his vocal ability and anointing.”

Four of the best entertainers to grace our stages in the ’70s . . . Richard Jon Smith, Ronnie Joyce, Jonathan Butler, and Lionel Petersen.

Jonathan Butler, pop, jazz and gospel performer

“From the age of 12 or 13 years old, I recall living at Lionel’s home with their two sons, Bev and Lyndon as well as Ronnie Joyce. The four of us shared a room. Through my teenage years, growing up in their home was my safe space.

“Lionel also had a day job doing glass-blowing. I saw in Lionel what it was like to be a provider for his family. He was a strong brother who I looked up to. Val made a home for Ronnie and I. And I grew up loving family and always wanted my own when I grew up. Because there was stability.  I loved when we toured together . . . Lionel, Richard, Ronnie Sophia Foster, The Rockets. It was a time in my life I will never forget ever.

“Something that was a beautiful revelation to me was that Lionel was a Born Again child of the King and during those years, when we toured going through rough schedules, I didn’t know. When I became a Born Again child of God, everything had changed in my life and I began to see and know Lionel, Ronnie, Molly [Barron, drummer with The Rockets]and so many of us accepted Christ.

“My last tour with Lionel and Ronnie was one of my all-time favourite round-the-table discussions. Not to mention Richard John Smith and Glenda Smith who were my older brothers and sisters. Looking back helps put things in great perspective. And so, I am at peace with God, knowing our brother . . . what he sang about, knew about and what he was about . . . Heaven-bound.”

Winston Campbell, founder and leader of The Miracles

“I first heard Lionel sing with the Thunderballs in 1966 in Newclare, Johannesburg. I was studying at the Rand College of Education and Lionel was at Coronationville Secondary School in 1966. Lionel made such a great impression on me, and I asked him to come and sing for my band in Pretoria, The Miracles.

“We performed all over in Pretoria, Nelspruit etcetera. When we performed at the Purple Marmalade in 1969, in Hillbrow, record producer Grahame Begg, who spotted us, liked the band so much that he asked us to record with his label. We recorded the Time Of The Season album at the EMI Recording studio.

“Lionel was the lead singer on our big hit, Tell It Like It Is. Fortunately, everybody in the band could sing, and we did the harmonies, we specialised in singing harmonies. Lionel was a unique, terrific singer.

“He was also a versatile crooner. He could sing anything from rock to blues to opera.  Lionel loved his music with such a strong passion. He was not just a great singer, but also a very skilled and talented performer and entertainer. He always gave his best, was a committed musician, and it was very easy to work with him.”

Trevor Sampson, leading South African gospel performer

“Lionel is recognised as a father figure and mentor in the SA gospel music field. There has never been another one with a vocal range like his.  I performed with him very often.

“I was already at it for 10 years when Lionel became born again. In fact, he used to get the spill-over of the bookings I could not handle when he started out

“He was confident yet, at times nervous as this new stage was not about him having to woo the crowds, but to engage them into a worship experience. At his peak, he was fierce about his convictions, powerful in his delivery of The Message, and not ashamed of who he had become and represented.

“There were many highlights which I have personally witnessed: participating in Reinhard Bonnke’s 34,000-seater tent; a reconciliation tour around SA with 35 top gospel artists of various cultures in 25 stadium events over 30 days; March for Jesus events in the ’90s; his feature as Song Leader for a live worship recording with Hosanna Integrity 1992; and his tenure as Song Leader at Rhema Bible Church.

“If it were not for the faith he had in the Lord Jesus Christ, he would have been gone long ago. Not only did he have faith, but was a great encourager to so many people around the world.

“His legacy will be to stay focussed on the calling on your life, never put yourself up for sale, but to spend yourself on others. He will be remembered not only for the great vocalist he was, but the great father, faithful friend and God-fearing man he was.

[Editor’s note: As a journalist covering entertainment in Cape Town, I got to know Lionel quite well and saw him perform many times.  He was the consummate entertainer and ever the gentleman.  He made my job much easier and enjoyable. It was a privilege knowing him.]

Lionel’s life will be celebrated at a service at Rhema Bible Church North in Randburg at 11am today. It will be streamed live.

Click on pictures to enlarge.











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