Sammy Hartman: from child prodigy to maestro . . . to deserved legend

Sammy Hartman . . . tributes flowed on the passing of a gifted musician who played for most of South Africa’s top artists.

11 March 2023

Pianist Sammy Hartman, who was buried today, had a standard introduction when compere Al Hendricks announced the backing band for the Golden City Dixies performers: “Ladies and gentleman, on piano and our musical director . . . the Li’l Genius, Sammy Hartman!”

He was only in his teens but already his talent was recognised and he was running the show, backing performers twice his age. That was in the mid-’60s.   A few years later, the Li’l Genius was being introduced as “Our Maestro”.

Neither epithet was out of place.  Those were my early memories of the much loved and respected musician who died earlier this week at the age of 74 after a long illness.  It brought to end a stage career that started back in the early ’60s and saw him backing most of the top artists in South Africa and a few international stars.

A clip from The Post featuring a teenage Sammy Hartman. (Click on photo to read)

To say that young Sammy was musically gifted would be an understatement. As a child, he was an angelic soprano and part of the Cape Town Boys Choir.  At the age of 10, his skills were already recognised and he was awarded a scholarship to study at the College of Music in Rosebank.

His studies only lasted a year before he was roped in to the Golden City Dixies and working with the likes of Roy Petersen, Gobi Martin, Vivian Kensley and Ronnie Madonsella.  When the Dixies folded at the beginning of the ’70s, Sammy became one of the most sought-after pianists on the circuit. He played for numerous quality bands, including briefly for Pacific Express, and pulled in patrons at expensive venues around the country with his own groups.

Social media was flooded this week with tributes to the talented Hartman, many of them from household names who had worked with him from the early days.

Singer Sophia Foster was one of many who spent their formative years in the Dixies as an artist performing with Sammy having her back. She says those memories will live with her forever.

“I met the Hartman family way back in the ’60s,” she recalls. “They were like a clan, close- knit, strict, disciplined, dignified, and behind them, wooden spoon in hand, was Ma Hartman, the heart of this big and talented family.   She was the cook of the Dixies and nobody dared to cross or backchat her.

Sophia Foster

“We were on tour every year for six months, living in close proximity, so everyone knew your business. One year the company was, all of a sudden, a-buzz with religious discussions, which was rare. Sammy had this book in hand, entitled Jehovas Witness, and so he started quoting some of the rules. If my memory serves me correctly: no birthday celebrations, no blood transfusions, no Christmas celebrations.

“Sammy and his family [his sister Roslyn was also part of the Dixies as a dancer], lived by these rules even it meant leaving a gig because he stuck to his principles. He was the most dignified muso I knew.  There were no girlfriends, no vices, no swearing. Ma Hartman made sure that he was not influenced by everything happening around him. I never heard him raise his voice or swear at anybody.

“There was one very amusing incident on tour that I will remember forever . . . there was a whistler called Davy Claasens who injured his fingers and so couldn’t whistle. No problem for our musical whiz kid – Davy got through his performance using Sammy’s hands. Now that was a rare and unforgettable moment that became the topic of gespot en verspot jokes.

“He also found my impersonation of American singer Al Jolson highly amusing. Every time I did it, it cracked him up.

“But it is his discipline and professionalism that I will remember him most by.

“RIP my brother, no more pain. Thank you for sharing your talent with me in my Friendship and Gratitude Concert. What an honour.”

Veteran entertainer Terry Fortune is another who has known and worked with Sammy for more than 50 years. In the last 12 months, the two had been collaborating closely with the much-in-demand “Oldies Concerts” that have been entertaining senior citizens around the Cape region. He also worked Sammy when they did the Sun Circuit on the border of South Africa during the apartheid years.

Terry Fortune

“Sammy worked with me in putting the whole concept of the oldies shows together,” Terry said. “We initiated it and it will always be a significant part of my long working relationship with Sammy. He was the show’s musical director.

“With our troupe of “oldie” performers, including among others Zelda Benjamin, Leslie Kleinsmith, Sophia Foster, Sylvia Mdunyelwa and Sammy’s wife Sharon, we did the big gigs at The Baxter, Artscape and Kirstenbosch Gardens as well as 25 aged care facilities around the Peninsula.

“Sammy was hugely respected by all musicians. He was very precise.  Things had to be done correctly. Quite often he would point out to an artist when they went wrong, and most of them, no matter how experienced, would bow to his knowledge. His was always the voice of reason when things got a bit testy.

“There are so many memories I will have of Sammy but what will always stand out, is his commitment to music and to the oldies project because he thought it was so relevant. It was also something that provided work and income for artists which pleased us both immensely.

“I will forever remember a musician who had the most educated ear for a sound. Any artist could come to him with a new sound, give Sammy a taste of it, and the next thing Sammy would be laying down the tune.  Today’s musicians are trained to read and play what is in front of them.  Sammy could do that pretty well too but his educated ear was in a class of its own.”

Although Leslie Kleinsmith also knew Sammy from way back in the day, he only really worked with him in the later years when they did upmarket dinner spots.

“When I did work with him, he was the ultimate professional and a pretty hard taskmaster when it came to getting things right. He could be pretty feisty when he wanted things done correctly,” Leslie.

Leslie Kleinsmith

“But the one thing I will remember most, was his commitment to his faith. On Tuesday nights when he had involvement with his church, I had to find another pianist to fill in for the night. He wouldn’t bend on that principle.

“When I think of Sammy and the memories I have of him, it will always be associated with one tune – With A Song In My Heart. When we were performing at these his classy spots, he would lean over and whisper: ‘Hey, let’s do my favourite, huh?  But let’s put a little swing into it’.”

Sammy Hartman was truly a class act, from the first time I saw him with the Dixies back in the mid-Sixties, to a few years ago when he was performing at Pigalles in Sea Point. For years I have tried to profile Sammy for this blog but always, in a very nice way, he fobbed me off.  Go well, Maestro.  See you on the other side.

PIctures above of, left, a young Sammy Hartman with the Four Sounds, Cliff and Basil Moses and Billy Bowers and, right, with a group featuring Lionel Beukes, Winston Mankunku, Kader Khan, Ezra Ngcukana, Nazir Kapdi and Darryl Andrews.



  1. Thanks Warren. Sammy was too shy for the music business. He is one of the greats from a generation of jazzos that I regret never getting to the studio. Not that I did not invited to come in and record. RIP Sammy Hartman.


  2. I was really shocked to hear about Sammy’s illness. I wanted to interview him about his musical career and his time with the Dixies. I worked with him in the Dixies in 1971. The photograph I had taken with me then featured Vivian Kensley, Rosalind Hartman (his sister). His mother and Sammy in his prime. RIP Sammy


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