January/February 2008

Jonathan Butler: The Simple Life

Jonathan Butler’s optimistic music belies a dirt-poor childhood growing up in a South Africa segregated by apartheid. Live in South Africa, a new CD and DVD package, presents a sense of the resulting inner turmoil, mixed with dogged resolve, that paved the way to his status as an icon in his country and successful musician outside of it. Looking back, the 46-year-old Butler says today, the driving forces that led to his overcoming apartheid—the formal policy of racial separation and economic discrimination finally dismantled in 1993—were family, faith and abundant talent.

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Courtesy of Rendezvous Entertainment

Jonathan Butler

“When we were kids, our parents never talked about the ANC [African National Congress] or Nelson Mandela,” he says. Butler was raised as the youngest child in a large family. They lived in a house patched together by corrugated tin and cardboard, in the “coloreds only” township of Athlone near Cape Town. “They never talked about struggles so we never knew what was happening.”

Butler’s extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents was more concerned about making sure there was food on the table. But one day, when young Butler was 6, he sang around a campfire—he later learned to play guitar on a gutbucket one-string his father built with a floor-polish can and a tomato crate—and started a process toward becoming a musician that no government policy could deny. After traveling around South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in bands fronted by older brothers and friends, he was noticed by now-famed mogul Clive Calder, a Johannesburg native who formed Bullet Records and would go on to create Jive Records. At 12, Butler became a sensation with an early Burt Bacharach song originally recorded by the Drifters called “Please Stay.” It earned him the distinction of being the first black artist to be played on white-controlled radio in South Africa.

“I was like a little Michael Jackson in South Africa,” Butler recalls. “I couldn’t walk down the streets without screaming fans trying to tear my hair out and my clothes off.” The hits kept coming, but so did a recognition that came from being listed as “Cape Town Coloured” on his passport due to his bushman and Portuguese lineage. “I was the number one artist in the country, but I couldn’t go into a five-star hotel. I couldn’t go into a restaurant where white people were eating. That made me despondent and discouraged about the country I grew up in. I was treated like an illegal in my own country.”

Shortly after he turned 19, however, a life-changing transformation made government, music and adoration secondary: Butler was saved. “I was getting high with friends and heading off on a bad road,” he admits. “But I met a young man, a loving and great person. He saw through the cracks and saw the good person in me. Christ set me free before I was told by a government that I was free.”

That influential friendship produced another benefit—the young man who introduced Butler to religion had a sister who became Butler’s wife: Barenese Beaton. (The union produced three children: Ezra, a former college football star at the University of Nevada-Reno, expected to be drafted by the pros; Randy, who recently presented the Butlers with their first grandson; and Jodie, an aspiring singer who performs on Live in South Africa.)

At age 22, Butler left South Africa for London, at Calder’s request, to expand his recording career. “England became home,” says Butler, “and it was where I wanted to raise a family, in an environment where we weren’t subjected to color and could become free thinkers.” Although he didn’t become a superstar—partly due to his focus on contemporary jazz instrumentals mixed in with original vocals—he became a staple on adult contemporary and, later, smooth-jazz radio stations with hits like “Lies” and “Sarah, Sarah.”

In his 30s, Butler moved his family to Chappaqua, N.Y., north of Manhattan. Their first winter convinced them to move to Southern California, where they have remained since. Ironically, after being told as a youngster where he could live and where he wasn’t welcome, Butler’s home sits securely inside a private, gated community called Bell Canyon.

Butler is now settled comfortably into his life as a smooth-jazz artist—he’s signed to Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment—and Christian-music regular (his 2006 project Gospel Goes Classical with Juanita Bynum is still a top seller on the gospel charts). But it’s his Live in South Africa that Butler is most proud of these days. The CD comes from a live performance at a small club in Johannesburg and features several songs from Butler’s early days, including “7th Avenue” (named for the street he grew up on in Athlone) and “Afrika.” The DVD includes glimpses of Butler’s return to Athlone and to Robben Island, the prison that held Nelson Mandela and other political dissidents during apartheid. There’s a discussion included with Butler and Ahmed Kathrada, an ANC member who served 26 years on Robbens Island alongside Mandela. Butler is blown away when he learns that Kathrada followed his career while imprisoned.

Inevitably, people ask Butler if he’d ever return for good to a country where his status is secure as a native son who made many proud. “I’d never say never, but it’s a different dynamic now with my family and career. But I love the simplicity. If you can eat and have family and close friends, that’s contentment for them. We work so hard in America to make money and achieve. When I go to South Africa, I see that life is not that complex.”

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