Butler, Jonathan 1961–
Jonathan Butler 1961–
As a child, Jonathan Butler was a pop star in his native South Africa where, because he was black, he was refused service and lodging in many of the towns he played. He left the apartheid-entrenched country and went on to record a dozen solo albums and make more than 25 guest appearances on records by Marcus Miller, the Yellowjackets, and Dionne Warwick, among others. A prolific songwriter, he has written for pop artists including Patti LaBelle, Kenny Loggins, and Al Jarreau. Although he has been likened to such jazz guitarists as George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and John Scofield, Butler has shied away from such comparisons, calling himself in Guitar Player, a “singer who plays guitar.”
Born in South Africa, Butler grew up in the shantytown of Athlone, outside prosperous, white Cape Town. He lived in a cardboard shanty with his parents, nine brothers, and seven sisters. The children were often hungry and had holes in their shoes—food, water, and clothes for 17 children were in short supply. The youngest of the bunch, Butler claimed he and his siblings always tried to ease their suffering by cracking jokes and having a laugh. “If we had stopped laughing,” he said in an interview with People, “then we would have had problems.”
Butler’s late father, Abraham, was a musician and, while other shantytown families illegally trafficked in liquor or ran brothels, Butler’s mother, Elizabeth, had other ideas to make money. She organized a family singing group starring Jonathan, who first picked up a guitar at age six. Butler later won a talent contest and got a job—and a #25-a-week salary—with a musical troupe that toured South Africa, Libya, and Zaire.
Butler had reached pop star status by the time he was 13. He scored pan-African hits with his covers of “Please Stay” and “I Love How You Love Me,” and became the first black child on South African television, and the first black to win a SARY, the South African equivalent of a Grammy award. Though a star, Butler was still subjected to the South African apartheid system. He was forced to play separate concerts for whites and blacks, and was refused restaurant service and lodging in some of the towns he played. He was not allowed to use the bathrooms in some of the theaters he performed in.
Butler’s frustration with racist South African politics was compounded by the problems he saw with record industry there. He told USA Today, “It’s either traditional
Born 1961, in Cape Town, South Africa; married: Barenese, c. 1982; children: Randy, and Jodie.
Career: Musician, guitarist, introducing Jonathan Butler, Jive, 7 987; Jonathan Butler, Jive, 1987; Breaking Away, Jive, 1988; More Than Friends, Jive, 1988; Heal Our Land, Jive, 1990; Best of Jonathan Butler, Jive, 1993; Deliverance, Jive, 1990; Head to Head, Mercury, 1994; Do You Love Mei, N-Coded, 1997; Story of Life, N-Coded, 1999; The Source, N-Coded, 2000.
Addresses: Performing Right Society, Copyright House, 29/33 Berners St., London WIT 3AB.
music or it’s pop music, and I was experimenting with jazz, funk, gospel, and fusion all together…There was no room for that.” So Butler stopped recording for several years. During this time, he became a born-again Christian. British record label Jive then offered Butler a recording contract and, in 1985, he and his wife, Barenese, and their baby daughter moved to London. There, he recorded his first album, Introducing Jonathan Butler, in 1986.
Butler had made his name in Africa and England, but it was not until 1987, when he toured as pop star Whitney Houston’s opening act, that he was noticed in the United States, where he had released an all-instrumental album. Excited about the success of the tour, Butler told USA Today his goal had always been to find success in America. As a performer in South Africa, Butler was forced to perform his entire show before a censorship board who, if they did not approve of any part of the act, would force Butler to change it. “I hated the struggle I had to go through just to make music,” he told People. Once he arrived in the United States, he marveled at the opportunities before him. In America, “There are no creative barriers,” he added.
The exposure he received on Houston’s stadium tour—where he played to crowds of up to 30, 000 per concert—prepared him for the success of his second U.S. release, Jonathan Butler. Though People critic Ralph Novak pointed out a few flaws in Butler’s songwriting on the two-record release, he concluded “There is a powerful, charismatic quality to Butler’s performing.”
Critics, including Novak, compared Butler to such jazz guitarists as George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and John Scofield—comparisons Butler was uncomfortable with. “I’ve been given so many titles over the years: smooth jazz artist, rhythm and blues guitarist, fusion player—and I guess I’m all of those things,” Butler told Guitar Player. He respected the legendary jazz guitarists, he added, and acknowledged their work “stood the test of time,” but Butler felt his own influences were too varied—including African and pop rhythms—for him to be classified strictly as a jazz musician.
In 1986, Butler was permitted to return to South Africa, where his family still lived. The situation there had worsened since he left. He told People that “People are getting poorer. People are being detained and shot dead.” Some critics have cited a lack of political statements in Butler’s music. Though dedicated to his family and concerned with the plight of his native country, Butler’s songwriting remained largely apolitical. “My being here in London is a political statement in itself, “he told People.” I can’t walk around bitter all the time.”
A decade later, apartheid was abolished in South Africa, and Butler performed there for the first time in nearly 15 years. “I got disheartened by the whole situation and refused to play there,” he told USA Today. “But with the release of (Nelson) Mandela and our country being free, I’ve wanted to go back.” He played a series of shows in Cape Town, including one for Mandela and Britain’s Prince Charles. Butler found that economic conditions in his homeland remained dire, and integration not fully in force, but he noted that things were better than when he had left.
For his 2000 release, Story of Life, Butler achieved an “intimate, personal quality,” according to Matt Blackett of Guitar Player, by recording most of his guitar tracks in his home studio. Butler told Guitar Player that he hated trying to “recreate that original energy in a big, expensive studio.” Butler also used his voice more on this release than he had in the past. His former efforts, he said, were a balance of half guitar and half vocals. For the album, which told stories of his childhood in South Africa, Butler told Guitar Player that he sought a more “organic, honest-sounding” record.
Butler has written songs for artists including Patti LaBelle, Billy Ocean, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, and, ironically, George Benson. Butler admitted to Guitar Player that songwriting—whether for himself or for someone else—was sometimes a challenge. When stuck on a song, he said, he would set it aside and move on to something else. He would wait to “let the song tell me what it wants,” he said. “… I’m always waiting for the unpredictable.”
After 12 years in London, Butler moved with his family briefly to New York City, then to Los Angeles, a long way from his native South Africa. “It’s incredible,” he told People of his change of fortune. “All of this is so hard to believe.”
Introducing Jonathan Butler, Jive, 1987.
Jonathan Butler, Jive, 1987.
Breaking Away, Jive, 1988.
More Than Friends, Jive, 1988.
Heal Our Land, Jive, 1990.
Best of Jonathan Butler, Jive, 1993.
Deliverance, Jive, 1990.
Head to Head, Mercury, 1994.
Do You Love Me?, N-Coded, 1997.
Story of Life, N-Coded, 1999.
The Source, N-Coded, 2000.
Guitar Player, February 2000, p.37.
People, August 3, 1987, p.22; November 23, 1987, p.97.
USA Today, August 4, 1987, p. 4D; October 24, 1997, p.6D.
Washington Post, September 17, 1999, p. N17.