Special team behind the MaBrr magic

Brenda and Blondie. (Joe Sefale, Sunday Times)

Brenda and Blondie. (Joe Sefale, Sunday Times)

It was an unlikely audition that would be unimaginable to a pop idol. But it was one that led to the birth, 30 years ago, of South Africa’s first township pop hit —Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special

When Melvyn Matthews, a small-time singer and composer, left his Port Elizabeth home town in 1982 in search of showbiz fame and fortune in Johannesburg, little did he think he’d be asked to prove his vocal prowess on the streets of the City of Gold.

But that’s what happened when he met Blondie Makhene. Matthews, now 54, recalls: “I’d had an audition with Infinity, an R&B group from my home town, but I didn’t make it, so I decided to go and try my luck in Johannesburg.
One of Infinity’s founders and my homeboy, Al Etto, was already doing well in Johannesburg as a talent scout and producer.”

As an excited Matthews waited for his idol outside the old Gallo building on Kerk Street he imagined that Makhene, producer and one half of the famous 1970s duo Blondie & Pappa, would invite him to some studio for an audition. “But he took me completely by surprise when he told me to sing there and then.”

Blondie Makhene
Matthews’ rendition of the self-penned and aptly titled I Must Be Out of My Mind impressed Makhene, now 57, who tells his version of the story. “I told him to sing his lungs out right there on the city streets and I immediately knew that he had something special.” 

What Makhene didn’t know at the time was that Matthews was also a gifted songwriter and it was their subsequent teaming up in a songwriter/producer combination that led to the birth of a South African pop classic, shot Brenda Fassie to fame and practically invented the township pop genre as we know it.

“In 1983 the South African music scene was going through a dry spell,” recalls Makhene. “South African talent was in abundance, but American hits had a strong hold on us. We performed and recorded American cover versions while we were trying to find our musical identity in the pop arena.”

Back then, the fraternal duo of Blondie & Pappa held sway as the aristocrats of township disco and soul. Their backing band — collectively known as the Family — included exceptionally talented instrumentalists Rufus Klaas (guitar), Dumisani Ngobeni (keyboards), Desmond Malotana (keyboards), Fats Mlangeni (drums) and Blondie’s brother, Cliff Makhene (bass).

The backing vocalists were the Makhene sisters — Phyllis and Pam. When Pam left the band, Makhene needed a replacement. Ngobeni, who later became Fassie’s lover, told him about a schoolgirl vocal sensation from Langa, Cape Town, who lived with producer Hendrick “Koloi” Lebona.

Makhene went to meet her. “I went to Bra Kara’s [Lebona’s] home with the aim of recruiting her into our band. She was barefoot, unkempt and her front teeth were missing. But when she started singing, her voice was out of this world.”

The Limelight
Fassie had already tasted the limelight when she sang with Joy — the all-girl trio of Paradise Road fame — after one of their singers, Anneline Malebo, went on maternity leave. But her guardian wanted her to concentrate on her school books instead of entertaining dreams of pop stardom. But with the entrance of Blondie & Pappa’s band, her destiny as the future queen of township pop was sealed.

The diminutive dynamo embarked on extensive nationwide tours with Blondie & Pappa, at the time the hottest, happening act in local show business.“We wanted to release an album that would include the music of Blondie & Pappa, the Family and Spankk [the brothers’ siblings] based on songs we performed during these national tours,” Makhene said. The result was a six-track collaboration album titled Super Fly. It included the soulful dance hit Oh What a Night and two Melvyn Matthews compositions, Weekend Special and Life Is Going On

Matthews’s two songs — co-produced by Makhene and Malcolm Watson — were subsequently released as a maxi single titled Weekend Special by Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes in February 1983. “When we got Melvyn’s songs and I helped him produce Life Is Going On, we knew that we had lit a stick of dynamite,” says Makhene. Still, he maintains, contrary to popular newspaper narratives, it was not an instant success.

“Brenda was an exceptionally talented singer. She had a broad vocal range and could imitate all the great singers we knew. But she didn’t have her own unique style. So we gave her a Donna Summer album for inspiration, to help her find her own voice. The idea was to transform Brenda the singer into Brenda Fassie the star.”

It wasn’t easy, says Blondie. “We had a tough time convincing EMI executives that this was the future South African pop star because, quite frankly, she was lacking in the looks department. They wanted the role for my sister Pam, but I insisted that Brenda was the one with the talent and genuine star quality. We managed to convince the executives to pay for her dentures and my wife took care of her image and wardrobe.”

But even after this was achieved and the music was recorded, Weekend Special took time to catch on with the South African public. 

“People were still into American music,” says Makhene. “The challenge was to sell South African music to locals. So in the winter of 1983 we went on an aggressive marketing campaign of the Brenda Fassie brand. We took her to the townships where she performed Weekend Special on top of tables in the shebeens. The patrons loved her and within a month the townships were buzzing with talk of the new singing dynamo.”

Achievements
In the spring of 1983, Weekend Special had received enough promotion in township shebeens to catch the attention of DJs, achieving multi-platinum status (sales in excess of 200 000 copies) as the fastest selling single of that year.

Since then it has enjoyed a variety of cover versions and remixes — notably by the American singer Van Gibbs, whose version that was recorded in New York’s Right Track Studios played for eight weeks in the United States’s Top 100 Billboard charts. It also topped the charts in South America, Europe and Australia. In the United Kingdom it was remixed by Ian Levine and in 1986 it entered the Billboard Hot Black Singles charts.

As a full album, Weekend Special continues to sell well as a collector’s item and enjoys enduring popularity among a new generation of music lovers who were born years after its release. 

“I have been through a lot of difficulties paving my way to success,” Fassie told Bona magazine following the success of Weekend Special. “Now that I have reached this stage in my career, I’m not going to turn back. My ambition is to become a number one musician in this country and make a lot of money.”

Thirty years later, and seven years after the pop diva’s death, Matthews recalls the excitement of hearing his composition on the national airwaves. “I first heard Weekend Special on TV in August 1983. I was beside myself with joy and screamed with excitement.” 

Says Matthews: “The song tells the story of a woman who complains about being treated by her lover as second best, but she eventually relents and accepts that despite this life goes on.”

Matthews vividly remembers the atmosphere in the studio the day Weekend Special was recorded. “During rehearsals there was a feeling that something special was happening.

“Even top producer Tom Vuma and Peter Snyman — later to become Brenda’s long-time manager — came into the studio and listened. There was a lot of energy and freedom that went into the recording of Weekend Special,” he said.

Weekend Special’s impact was big. Its success gave us confidence and made us realise that if we took pride in our own music, we could be as good, if not better, than the Americans.” 

Matthews, who is still writing songs, has released several pop/soul albums with independent labels such as Shandel, Priority Records and Cool Spot. His latest album, Brand New Day, was released last year. But Weekend Special continues to eclipse all his musical endeavours and he remembers its birth and success with a mixture of a sense of achievement and bitterness. 

“I have never received the recognition I deserve as a composer. I’m regarded as one of the best singers among my peers but overall I remain unknown,” he says. 

Bassist David Mabaso (55), the only surviving member of the Big Dudes, says: “We set a trend and left a stamp with Weekend Special because we were committed to what we were doing. The song is a hard act to follow and has outlived its remixes and cover versions because it is a genuine township original.”

The Big Dudes
In 1982, Blondie recruited him into the Big Dudes. Mabaso recalls: “During rehearsal stages, the song was fast-paced but the slow bass line gave it its magic and lasting power.”

Mabaso penned a Fassie hit, I Wanna Be Single, which occupies second place on the eight-track version of the Weekend Special album released in the US. He is currently working on his debut solo album. “I have lots of musical ideas but it’s not easy to execute them when you spend most of your time working as a session artist. But I’m determined to make this album a reality.” 

The rest of the Big Dudes — all dead now — were gifted musicians. Queenstown-born Malotana played with Stompie Mavi’s Era in the 1970s and proved himself to be one of the best keyboard and synthesiser players around. Klaas from Randfontein was an incomparable guitarist and Mlangeni was known for his solid drumming. Ngobeni was an amazing pianist with a unique gift for transposing and structuring chords — an approach many of his peers have tried and failed to follow.

Weekend Special’s co-producer, Watson, says part of the song’s lasting magic was because it was performed live many times before it was recorded. “They [Brenda and the Big Dudes] had all the time to gauge the audience’s reaction during these performances. And when they went into the studio, they knew exactly what they were doing. In those days recorded songs had an average run of five minutes. Weekend Special ran for close to 15 minutes.”

“David Mabaso opened the song with an incredible bass-line groove. Few bassists could have pulled off an act like that. The song has clever, well-crafted arrangements that made it an instant hit.” 

Watson, who now runs the independent record label Cool Spot, in Melville, Johannesburg, adds that another factor that has contributed to Weekend Special’s status as a true South African classic is that it was recorded by highly skilled and competent engineers at EMI — a company with a track record for producing music of superior sound quality.

Lionel Myles, veteran radio DJ and one of the first to popularise the song, recalls fondly: “I first heard Weekend Special in [Brenda’s manager] Peter Snyman’s Joburg offices. I was working at Radio Thohoyandou in Venda and he had invited me to listen to the song. I remember telling him: ‘This is going to be one of South Africa’s biggest hits ever.’ What immediately impressed me about it was the message — that women are beautiful people who deserve our respect and should not be taken advantage of. And, of course, her unique voice said it all.”

The song inspired the title of Myles’ Top 20 radio slot, Weekend Special. “I really promoted the song and gave her the nickname MaBrr. The 1980s produced great songs like Stimela’s Whispers in the Deep. But Brenda’s song was the anthem of its times and that is why it’s still popular 30 years later.” 

Myles says he still plays Weekend Special on his breakfast show on Kofifi FM, a Johannesburg-based community radio station.

Ironically, the rise of Brenda and the Big Dudes marked the decline and eventual demise of Blondie & Pappa. In the early 1980s the brothers went their separate ways. Papa kept a low profile while Blondie continued to perform with his siblings as Spankk. He eventually went solo and is still musically active as a live performer, recording artist and top-notch producer of international acts such as Hugh Masekela.

For South African music-lovers, 1983 marked the beginning of a remarkable pop renaissance with a special song that started with an unusual audition on the pavements of downtown Johannesburg. 

In 1983, a 15-minute maxi single called Weekend Special exploded on to the music scene, busting genres and launching the career of one South Africa’s most sensational singing stars, Brenda Fassie. Thirty years on, Sam Mathe tracks down the surviving members of the elite band of musicians who made pop history.

It was an unlikely audition that would be unimaginable to a pop idol. But it was one that led to the birth, 30 years ago, of South Africa’s first township pop hit —Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special

When Melvyn Matthews, a small-time singer and composer, left his Port Elizabeth home town in 1982 in search of showbiz fame and fortune in Johannesburg, little did he think he’d be asked to prove his vocal prowess on the streets of the City of Gold.

But that’s what happened when he met Blondie Makhene. Matthews, now 54, recalls: “I’d had an audition with Infinity, an R&B group from my home town, but I didn’t make it, so I decided to go and try my luck in Johannesburg. One of Infinity’s founders and my homeboy, Al Etto, was already doing well in Johannesburg as a talent scout and producer.”

As an excited Matthews waited for his idol outside the old Gallo building on Kerk Street he imagined that Makhene, producer and one half of the famous 1970s duo Blondie & Pappa, would invite him to some studio for an audition. “But he took me completely by surprise when he told me to sing there and then.”

Blondie Makhene

Matthews’ rendition of the self-penned and aptly titled I Must Be Out of My Mind impressed Makhene, now 57, who tells his version of the story. “I told him to sing his lungs out right there on the city streets and I immediately knew that he had something special.” 

What Makhene didn’t know at the time was that Matthews was also a gifted songwriter and it was their subsequent teaming up in a songwriter/producer combination that led to the birth of a South African pop classic, shot Brenda Fassie to fame and practically invented the township pop genre as we know it.

“In 1983 the South African music scene was going through a dry spell,” recalls Makhene. “South African talent was in abundance, but American hits had a strong hold on us. We performed and recorded American cover versions while we were trying to find our musical identity in the pop arena.”

Back then, the fraternal duo of Blondie & Pappa held sway as the aristocrats of township disco and soul. Their backing band — collectively known as the Family — included exceptionally talented instrumentalists Rufus Klaas (guitar), Dumisani Ngobeni (keyboards), Desmond Malotana (keyboards), Fats Mlangeni (drums) and Blondie’s brother, Cliff Makhene (bass).

The backing vocalists were the Makhene sisters — Phyllis and Pam. When Pam left the band, Makhene needed a replacement. Ngobeni, who later became Fassie’s lover, told him about a schoolgirl vocal sensation from Langa, Cape Town, who lived with producer Hendrick “Koloi” Lebona.

Makhene went to meet her. “I went to Bra Kara’s [Lebona’s] home with the aim of recruiting her into our band. She was barefoot, unkempt and her front teeth were missing. But when she started singing, her voice was out of this world.”

The Limelight
Fassie had already tasted the limelight when she sang with Joy — the all-girl trio of Paradise Road fame — after one of their singers, Anneline Malebo, went on maternity leave. But her guardian wanted her to concentrate on her school books instead of entertaining dreams of pop stardom. But with the entrance of Blondie & Pappa’s band, her destiny as the future queen of township pop was sealed.

The diminutive dynamo embarked on extensive nationwide tours with Blondie & Pappa, at the time the hottest, happening act in local show business.“We wanted to release an album that would include the music of Blondie & Pappa, the Family and Spankk [the brothers’ siblings] based on songs we performed during these national tours,” Makhene said. The result was a six-track collaboration album titled Super Fly. It included the soulful dance hit Oh What a Night and two Melvyn Matthews compositions, Iand Life Is Going On. 

Matthews’s two songs — co-produced by Makhene and Malcolm Watson — were subsequently released as a maxi single titled Weekend Specialby Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes in February 1983. “When we got Melvyn’s songs and I helped him produce Life Is Going On, we knew that we had lit a stick of dynamite,” says Makhene. Still, he maintains, contrary to popular newspaper narratives, it was not an instant success.

“Brenda was an exceptionally talented singer. She had a broad vocal range and could imitate all the great singers we knew. But she didn’t have her own unique style. So we gave her a Donna Summer album for inspiration, to help her find her own voice. The idea was to transform Brenda the singer into Brenda Fassie the star.”

It wasn’t easy, says Blondie. “We had a tough time convincing EMI executives that this was the future South African pop star because, quite frankly, she was lacking in the looks department. They wanted the role for my sister Pam, but I insisted that Brenda was the one with the talent and genuine star quality. We managed to convince the executives to pay for her dentures and my wife took care of her image and wardrobe.”

But even after this was achieved and the music was recorded, Weekend Special took time to catch on with the South African public. 

“People were still into American music,” says Makhene. “The challenge was to sell South African music to locals. So in the winter of 1983 we went on an aggressive marketing campaign of the Brenda Fassie brand. We took her to the townships where she performed Weekend Special on top of tables in the shebeens. The patrons loved her and within a month the townships were buzzing with talk of the new singing dynamo.”

Achievements
In the spring of 1983, Weekend Special had received enough promotion in township shebeens to catch the attention of DJs, achieving multi-platinum status (sales in excess of 200 000 copies) as the fastest selling single of that year.

Since then it has enjoyed a variety of cover versions and remixes — notably by the American singer Van Gibbs, whose version that was recorded in New York’s Right Track Studios played for eight weeks in the United States’s Top 100 Billboard charts. It also topped the charts in South America, Europe and Australia. In the United Kingdom it was remixed by Ian Levine and in 1986 it entered the Billboard Hot Black Singles charts.

As a full album, Weekend Special continues to sell well as a collector’s item and enjoys enduring popularity among a new generation of music lovers who were born years after its release. 

“I have been through a lot of difficulties paving my way to success,” Fassie told Bona magazine following the success of Weekend Special. “Now that I have reached this stage in my career, I’m not going to turn back. My ambition is to become a number one musician in this country and make a lot of money.”

Thirty years later, and seven years after the pop diva’s death, Matthews recalls the excitement of hearing his composition on the national airwaves. “I first heard Weekend Special on TV in August 1983. I was beside myself with joy and screamed with excitement.” 

Says Matthews: “The song tells the story of a woman who complains about being treated by her lover as second best, but she eventually relents and accepts that despite this life goes on.”

Matthews vividly remembers the atmosphere in the studio the day Weekend Special was recorded. “During rehearsals there was a feeling that something special was happening.

“Even top producer Tom Vuma and Peter Snyman — later to become Brenda’s long-time manager — came into the studio and listened. There was a lot of energy and freedom that went into the recording of Weekend Special,” he said.

"Weekend Special’s impact was big. Its success gave us confidence and made us realise that if we took pride in our own music, we could be as good, if not better, than the Americans.” 

Matthews, who is still writing songs, has released several pop/soul albums with independent labels such as Shandel, Priority Records and Cool Spot. His latest album, Brand New Day, was released last year. But Weekend Special continues to eclipse all his musical endeavours and he remembers its birth and success with a mixture of a sense of achievement and bitterness. 

“I have never received the recognition I deserve as a composer. I’m regarded as one of the best singers among my peers but overall I remain unknown,” he says. 

Bassist David Mabaso (55), the only surviving member of the Big Dudes, says: “We set a trend and left a stamp with Weekend Special because we were committed to what we were doing. The song is a hard act to follow and has outlived its remixes and cover versions because it is a genuine township original.”

The Big Dudes
In 1982, Blondie recruited him into the Big Dudes. Mabaso recalls: “During rehearsal stages, the song was fast-paced but the slow bass line gave it its magic and lasting power.”

Mabaso penned a Fassie hit, I Wanna Be Single, which occupies second place on the eight-track version of the Weekend Special album released in the US. He is currently working on his debut solo album. “I have lots of musical ideas but it’s not easy to execute them when you spend most of your time working as a session artist. But I’m determined to make this album a reality.” 

The rest of the Big Dudes — all dead now — were gifted musicians. Queenstown-born Malotana played with Stompie Mavi’s Era in the 1970s and proved himself to be one of the best keyboard and synthesiser players around. Klaas from Randfontein was an incomparable guitarist and Mlangeni was known for his solid drumming. Ngobeni was an amazing pianist with a unique gift for transposing and structuring chords — an approach many of his peers have tried and failed to follow.

Weekend Special’s co-producer, Watson, says part of the song’s lasting magic was because it was performed live many times before it was recorded. “They [Brenda and the Big Dudes] had all the time to gauge the audience’s reaction during these performances. And when they went into the studio, they knew exactly what they were doing. In those days recorded songs had an average run of five minutes. Weekend Special ran for close to 15 minutes.”

“David Mabaso opened the song with an incredible bass-line groove. Few bassists could have pulled off an act like that. The song has clever, well-crafted arrangements that made it an instant hit.” 

Watson, who now runs the independent record label Cool Spot, in Melville, Johannesburg, adds that another factor that has contributed to Weekend Special’s status as a true South African classic is that it was recorded by highly skilled and competent engineers at EMI — a company with a track record for producing music of superior sound quality.

Lionel Myles, veteran radio DJ and one of the first to popularise the song, recalls fondly: “I first heard Weekend Special in [Brenda’s manager] Peter Snyman’s Joburg offices. I was working at Radio Thohoyandou in Venda and he had invited me to listen to the song. I remember telling him: ‘This is going to be one of South Africa’s biggest hits ever.’ What immediately impressed me about it was the message — that women are beautiful people who deserve our respect and should not be taken advantage of. And, of course, her unique voice said it all.”

The song inspired the title of Myles’ Top 20 radio slot, Weekend Special. “I really promoted the song and gave her the nickname MaBrr. The 1980s produced great songs like Stimela’s Whispers in the Deep. But Brenda’s song was the anthem of its times and that is why it’s still popular 30 years later.” 

Myles says he still plays Weekend Special on his breakfast show on Kofifi FM, a Johannesburg-based community radio station.

Ironically, the rise of Brenda and the Big Dudes marked the decline and eventual demise of Blondie & Pappa. In the early 1980s the brothers went their separate ways. Papa kept a low profile while Blondie continued to perform with his siblings as Spankk. He eventually went solo and is still musically active as a live performer, recording artist and top-notch producer of international acts such as Hugh Masekela.

For South African music-lovers, 1983 marked the beginning of a remarkable pop renaissance with a special song that started with an unusual audition on the pavements of downtown Johannesburg. 

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