Dolly Rathebe was born in Randfontein (west of Krugersdorp) in South Africa but grew up in Sophiatown, which she describes as having been "a wonderful place". She was discovered around 1948 after singing at a picnic in Johannesburg. A talent scout from Gallo approached her and it was not long before she became a star.
She rose to fame in 1949, aged 19, when she appeared as a nightclub singer in the British-produced movie Jim Comes To Jo'burg - the first film to portray urban Africans in a positive light.
When Alf Herbert's African Jazz and Variety show opened in 1954, Dolly appeared and stayed as Herbert's main attraction for many years. She became an international star when she sang with the Afro-jazz group, the Elite Swingsters in 1964.
After Sophiatown was flattened by the Apartheid government in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rathebe found it more and more difficult to perform, especially after an 8pm curfew was imposed. She moved with her family to Cape Town township, and to survive, ran a shebeen for many years.
In 1989, she re-united with the Elite Swingsters to perform in a film that was set in 1950s Johannesburg. The group stayed together, issuing a new album, Woza, in 1991. This was followed by two more albums, A Call for Peace (1995) and Siya Gida/We Dance (1997).
She funded the construction of a multi-purpose hall at Sofasonke village near Klipgat, north of Pretoria. The hall is named Meriting kwaDolly, which means "Dolly's Retreat".
In 2003, at the age of 75, Dolly appeared in a Johannesburg show, Sof'Town, A Celebration!, where she sang "Randfontein", the story of a drunk miner returning home to find his wife in bed with another man, who is then beaten and chased out.
She was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for her excellent contribution to music and the performing arts and commitment to the ideals of justice, freedom and democracy in 2004.
Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September 2004 from a stroke.
- Shola Adenekan, "Dolly Rathebe - South Africa's first internationally renowned black diva", The Guardian, 28 September 2004.
- "Dolly Rathebe". S A Government. 2004-11-10. Retrieved 2007-04-23.