Jack Lerole

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Aaron "Big Voice" Jack Lerole (c. 1940 - 12 March 2003) was a South African penny whistle player and singer, a leading performer in the kwela style of music in the 1950s, and best remembered in the UK as the leader of 'Elias and His Zig Zag Jive Flutes', who had an international hit in 1958 with "Tom Hark". Lerole was also notable in later years for his association with Dave Matthews Band.

Biography[edit]

Lerole grew up in the Alexandra township near Johannesburg, and in his early teens performed on the whistle as a street musician with his brother Elias Lerole. They were joined by David Ramosa and Zeph Nkabinde, and to counter gang attacks carried tomahawks with them when they played. Unlike earlier kwela groups, they added guitar and vocal harmonies to the penny whistle sound. The group went under various names, including the Alex Shamba Boys, Alexandra Black Mambazo, and Elias and His Zig Zag Jive Flutes. (A 'jive flute' being a penny whistle.)

In 1956, they were signed by EMI South Africa's 'black music' producer Rupert Bopape, and recorded a number of tunes including "Tom Hark" - either a mishearing of "Tomahawk", or a play on words by the record label. The tune (which was based on a 1927 melody by Herbert Farjeon for I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales) was picked up in the UK and used as the theme music for a TV show, The Killing Stones. It was released as a single, and rose to number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in April 1958,[1] eventually selling an estimated three million copies worldwide. It was subsequently covered by various artists including Millie Small in 1964, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames (also 1964), and The Piranhas in 1980. Much later, in 2009, Lerole's version of the tune was used for the opening credits to Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. The song is also a popular fanfare for English football clubs.

Although it introduced South African township music to an international audience, it was only fairly popular in the country itself, and the musicians received no financial reward from its success. In South Africa, the group became best known as Alexandra Black Mambazo, and began playing dance halls around the Johannesburg area. They developed vocal as well as instrumental routines, and Lerole developed a deep rasping voice, becoming the first "groaner". However, the forced groaning put extreme pressure on his voice and his vocal cords ended being damaged permanently. His bandmate Zeph Nkabinde eventually became a groaner, but it was Zeph's younger brother Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde that became the most famous groaner of them all.

In 1963 Lerole left the group, and started recording solo as "Big Voice Jack". His breakthrough as a solo performer was the single, "Blues Ngaphansi", which made him a national star. As the "mbaqanga" style developed, he took up the saxophone in place of the penny whistle, and his popularity was overtaken by younger singers. He continued to record, however, and produced such hits as "Cherry Beat", "Big Voice Jack", "Tully La Fluter" and "Bongo Twang Jive". He flitted from company to company, rejoining his old producer Rupert Bopape now at Gallo Africa's Mavuthela Music Company along the way (for two years - 1966 to 1968). During the 1970s, he experienced a revival and toured in a leading role with several South African musical productions. He also became a founding member of the group Mango Groove in the mid-1980s.

In the early 1990s, South African-born producer Chris du Plessis made a documentary film, The Whistlers, about the music, and as a result the original members of Alex Black Mambazo reunited to perform in clubs. Brad Holmes, owner of the Bassline club, became their manager, and in 1997 introduced them to South African-born rock star Dave Matthews when he toured the country with his band. In turn, Matthews invited Lerole to play at Foxboro Stadium and Giants Stadium during the Dave Matthews Band Summer Tour of 1998. An album, Colours And Moods, was recorded during a concert at the Bassline in Johannesburg in 1998.

Lerole died in Soweto of throat cancer in 2003.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 182. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 

External links[edit]