Those were the days

Last time Tom Jones was in town, Soweto was simmering and it was uncool to play SA. MARIAMcCLOY looks back at the tours of that time

A GOLD Rolls Royce and women throwing their panties at him - that’s what Adele Lucas, who worked publicity for Southern Sun at the time, remembers of Tom Jones’s 1976 South African tour. Someone else recalls a tight white jumpsuit that rode so high anyone wearing it “would have had to wear a sock to create any semblance of manhood”.
Hey, hairy chests and gold chains were all the rage back then.

Two decades later and Tom’s back, surprisingly down to earth, reclining in a luxury hotel suite in Johannesburg. Whether it’s because people still like his music or because nowadays cheesy equals cool, his fans are still swooning.

After something of a lull, singing over Art of Noise’s remix of Prince’s Kiss got him back in the top 40 and on to MTV. He’s done The Simpsons, Tim Burton used his tunes in Edward Scissorhands and cast him to play himself in Mars Attacks! - the man must have something going on.

Even though he hasn’t got a clue about any South African music, he knows more about current artists than most 56-year-olds. New jack swing innovator Teddy Riley and U2’s producer were involved in his last album The Lead and How to Swing It.

1976 is the year most South Africans associate with the student uprisings, but as it turns out stars as varied as Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Engelbert Humperdinck visited sunny SA around about that time and a bit later. They performed at the Colosseum and the Empire in Jo’burg before doing Durban or Cape Town. Jones is quick to point out that he would not have come here if his audiences weren’t mixed and that back home he avoided a British Musicians Union ban by showing press- clippings illustrating that his audiences were apparently multi-racial.

Back then, rude shows were a bit of a no-no (after all, Cliff Richard’s gospel shows were a firm favourite). According to publicist David Wilson, Ms Millie Jackson certainly showed everyone a thing or two when she got dragged off stage by police, who regarded her act as “blasphemous vulgarity.” He reckons she knew what to expect in South Africa so decided to have some fun. He remembers her saying things like,“Hey you in the front row, how often d’ya do it?” She also composed a song especially for the censors: a charming ditty comprising a series of “fucks”.

Performing Arts Workers Equity’s Dan Robbertse says the boycott and blacklisting system (administrated by the United Nations (UN) special committee on apartheid) was more succesful in terms of limiting cultural and educational TV and film material, but it was “difficult to police people.”

In 1976 Jones’s three black backing singers had trouble finding a hotel until authorities granted them “honorary white status”. To him, SA’s separatism was “a government thing”. He refers to his mixed audiences in SA, but not many others who were present remember the audience being overtly multi-racial - especially considering people couldn’t even go to the movies together until the late 1980s.

In 1984, Divine - who his manager Bernard Jay says was not a drag queen but “character actor; sometime disco star” was invited to the country to perform at the opening of Jo’burg nightclub Zips. They agreed to come as long as they got air tickets, a holiday and a racially mixed club staff and audience. He says they knew about apartheid and that Divine was outspoken about it.

Two years later, on tour in Copenhagen, the hall Divine was to perform in was stinkbombed and they were met by people protesting his SA performance. They got a UN letter telling them they would be blacklisted unless they justified their actions. The UN accepted their explanation that it was not a paid performance, that they did not get work permits and that the audience was mixed. And if this had not been the case? “I think the threat was they would recommend Divine was not given a work permit to play in other countries in the future.”

Ironically many of the artists who did come here when it was politically uncool were black: Isaac Hayes, The Temptations, The Main Ingredient,The Seekers and Chick Correa. Singer Lovelace Watkins had it better than Sidney Poitier, who came to film Zulu. Poitier had to stay on a farm out of town because there was no accommodation for black people. Watkins was guest of honour at a women’s group banquet, and the Sunday Express’s picture of him dancing with a white woman nearly lost the hotel its licence.

Similarly, American boxer John Tate’s romp with blonde beauty Mercedes Cornfeld resulted in him being threatened with deportation.

Then the mid-Eighties’ tightening of the boycott and worldwide coverage of apartheid resulted in a dearth of tours. It must have been a question of which artists chose to know what was up. Lucas says some artists expected lions in the street (one wonders, then, what the hell they understood of the political situation), in contrast to people like Quincey Jones who was “well aware of the apartheid thing ... he wouldn’t put a foot here”. Unlike Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Bill Hailey, Chubby Checker, Richard Claydermann, Max Bygraves, Percy Sledge and Suzie Quatro.

Harsher penalties for artists performing here didn’t stop George Benson, Cher, Queen, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Gaynor, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and Elton John from performing at Sun City - oh, I forgot, Sun City wasn’t in South Africa. Like Robbertse says, an artist’s conscience ultimately determined whether they came to SA or not.

Tom Jones plays in the Sun City Superbowl on April 4, 5 and 6

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