Johnny Clegg – ex-drummer of his “favourite cover band” Wonderboom remembers.
By Danny De Wet
Published Friday, 26 July 2019 09:00
"We miss you, Johnny ... your shoes are too big to ever be filled".
Our nation has lost the most influential cross-cultural musical icon South Africa has been blessed with.
On the day of his memorial, it is with a sad heart and happy memories that I recall many emotional moments as a Johnny Clegg fan in the audience and how our paths crossed in a professional capacity after Wonderboom (the band I spent thirteen years directing from the drum throne) recorded and released arrangement of his classic Juluka song “Africa” while signed to DGR.
Shortly after the release of the second Wonderboom album, as part of the pitch to his New York lawyer Jamie Roberts (who also represented INXS in the States), David Gresham had mentioned that the group had toured with Simple Minds and Live and personally handed him a copy of “Never Ever Ever”. Mr Roberts liked what he heard, there seemed to be some interest from other parties that he had played the CD to and he requested more material.
Most of the other compositions on hand were deemed way too indie or not radio-friendly enough and we needed to write “hits” or lose this fantastic opportunity. With enough strong songs on the table and the right industry players keen to possibly work with us, David told us that Jamie would set up a showcase gig in the Big Apple.
This raised the bar significantly and Cito, Martin, Wade and myself started writing and arranging new songs in earnest -the upside was that the band was working harder than ever before but there was a serious downside that came with the pressure. Every tune that we presented to the DGR team was scrutinised and held under the “will this be a top twenty hit, by New York standards?” magnifying glass.
As time went by, Jamie kept adding more interested parties and the pressure on David to deliver the additional material increased to desperate proportions. The band was submitting fewer songs every week because we were taking ourselves out of completing tunes, not wanting to waste precious time on anything that wasn’t a sure-fire chart-topper.
My previous outfit, the Electric Petals had played select covers live and even included “Rainy Day Women” by Dylan and The Beatles rarity “I Got A Feeling” on the ‘Polynation’ album. My new bandmates had made it clear from the start that they would never entertain playing anything unless it was written by one or more of the four of us and I respected that.
With that in mind, I came up with a compromise idea that I thought might take the pressure off for a while, hopefully also keeping Jamie on board to avoid losing this chance.
During my time in éVOID, I had played “Shadows” to thousands of people and experienced the response that happens when a truly great song is so good that people buy into it, whether they know the song well or are hearing it for the first time.
Because it hadn’t been released in the USA, we could do a version of Shadows and present it as part of our catalogue. I outlined that we need never play it live in South Africa and if it was the song that broke us internationally, our growing fan base would embrace it. The Boom was open to this and we started to have fun again, coming up with a rock arrangement of the Eighties hit. To keep the momentum up, I suggested another two SA classics and when I mooted putting a glam rock stomp groove to Juluka’s “Africa” and using a mbaqwanga beat as a foundation for Falling Mirror’s “Johnny Calls The Chemist”, Ziggy Adolph (legendary Gresham producer) opened a folder called “Danny’s Hare-brained Schemes!”
With Martin at the forefront, we arranged these tunes superbly and once Wade had put his unique bass stamp on them, the three SA covers sounded so exciting that they reignited the DGR team’s belief.
Vocally Cito ‘owned’ these tunes - he loved performing them and proudly declared “I still won’t do covers ... unless they’re South African!”
This led to us including the covers in concert setlists, recording a few more and releasing the best selling Wonderboom CD to date ... complete with the cheesy “Rewind” moniker.
All four band members weren’t ecstatic about the title, especially because we had a spectacular name that suited the artwork but we weren’t allowed to use it as the suits were afraid of possible repercussions. The cover features the four of us in bed under a bedspread that is the current South African Flag and I am sure readers will concur that this piece of Wonderboom art should have rightfully been called “Lucky Duvet”!
Look closely on the actual CD you will find that my determination to include it somehow was successful and in the small print it says “This album is not called Lucky Duvet”.
Three songs off “Rewind” got lots of radio airplay - ‘Africa’ and ‘Shadows’ were top ten hits with a Mandoza version of the Rabbit ballad, ‘Charlie’ reaching number one on 5FM. David, Johnny and the band also received a sizeable payment when ‘Africa’ was used as the music for a Pajero TV/Cinema advert around the beginning of the new millennium.
Wonderboom had opened for Johnny Clegg shortly after the band had formed and the first time we saw him after ‘Africa’ was out, occurred in an unlikely setting. Cito and I had been offered VIP tickets to the first WWE Wrestling event at the Dome in 2003.
My fellow bandmate is originally from the USA and played sport in his teens (yes folks, Cito played flank in the first team rugby squad at high school) so he was familiar with the superstars we mingling with but I had no clue who Rey Mysterio and John Cena were!
There were two faces that I did recognise were from the music industry (Attie Van Wyk being his wonderful generous self no doubt) - Barney Simon being in attendance wasn’t too much of a surprise but what the hell was Johnny Clegg doing there?
Once we got chatting to Le Zoulou Blanc, he explained that he had brought his teenage sons who were into wrestling and introduced us to them ... I should have saved time and asked Jesse for his autograph there and then!
As the conversation turned to ‘Africa’ Johnny thanked us for recording the track and when I asked him if he minded me inflicting a trashy ‘Suzi Quattro’ beat onto his ethnic classic, he said that as long as we kept doing versions of his songs, we were welcome to add any elements we wished to.
Then, with that phenomenal twinkle that we all loved beaming from his eye, Johnny added:
“... and every time another one of those royalty checks arrive, for some or other reason I seem to like your arrangement more.”
In Roddy, Jeanette and the team at Real Concerts, Mr Clegg enjoyed top-class management and throughout the years Johnny made sure that once you had interacted with him, one received a personalised signed copy of his latest release.
He captioned the CD I received whilst in the Electric Petals wishing us a ‘flowering success” but the autographed album that came after the WWE encounter was priceless – it said:
“To my favourite cover band!”