From South African Shanty to Center Stage of the World
By Jonathan Widran
A couple dozen shows into this spring and summer's big Jazz Attack tour with Rick Braun, Peter White and Richard Elliot, Jonathan Butler is enjoying a few days of much needed rest and relaxation at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach with his wife, Barenese. While all the guys are having fun sharing a wonderful musical camaraderie, it's the charismatic Butler who's popping on and offstage like an otherworldly force of nature and consistently stealing the show.
Although the beloved singer/guitarist has been titillating audiences with classic crowd pleasers like “Sara Sara,” he's also wowing them with some incredible new tunes from his two latest albums, his just-released Rendezvous debut Jonathan and a gospel date called The Worship Project. Even without words, the jubilant instrumental “Mandela Bay” comes off like a five-minute rush of autobiography, celebrating life beyond the hardship of his youth in Capetown, South Africa.
Performing recently on a stage at the Ritz Carlton near the rolling cliffs of Half Moon Bay, Butler must feel light years away from the three bedroom shack he shared with his parents, 12 siblings and another 13 nieces and nephews while growing up. Yet this song perfectly reflects his sense of wonder at his early discovery of his unique gift of music. He remembers the feeling he had when he picked up the first guitar handcrafted for him by his father, who was also a guitar and banjo player. His fingers had to avoid all the nails that held it together.
From the time he was 3, he was playing music to support his family, and by age 7 he was out on tour, performing and staying in a tent with a group of local families who formed a road show band called the Golden City Dixies. He went to a formal school for a few years but likes to say he has learned so much more from the proverbial school of hard knocks, and, of course, the place that's still familiar to him, the road.
“I feel like I've spent most of my life touring, but that's the life I know best,” he says. “Yet as much joy as the music has brought me, I still remember what it was like growing up with dark skin in a country torn by Apartheid. My album Story of Life was a singer-songwriter album about some of these experiences, and I share the optimism of that on some of the instrumental songs from the new one.
“Truly, though, I am grateful for my humble upbringing in South Africa because that has made me really appreciate everything in my life and each person and moment as something special,” Butler adds. “I can look back and remember when we had nothing, and everything I am able to do now was just a crazy dream. I know what it's like to succeed through hard sweat and tears, and I don't take a moment of it for granted.”
Unlike most of his pop-jazz record-ings, Jonathan is heavily tilted towards acoustic guitar instrumentals. Yet smooth jazz radio has been playing the heck out of the album's first single, his passionate vocal cover of James Taylor's classic “Fire and Rain,” which made it a logical choice to include in the show. He also identifies perfectly with the spiritual survival theme of the song.
An even happier surprise for the always spiritually focused musician is the way audiences from Columbia, Maryland to Newport Beach and San Diego have been responding to his original gospel tune “Falling in Love with Jesus,” from last year's The Worship Project. Having the opportunity to record that album was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and he's enjoyed sharing it with audiences who come to hear his pop songs.
“I knew that ‘Fire and Rain' would go over well because everyone, including myself, loves James Taylor,” Butler adds, “But it's astonishing that people are coming up after the show, thanking me for singing the gospel song, asking where they can find the CD. But if I think about it, from their perspective, ‘Sara Sara' and ‘Falling in Love with Jesus' are coming from the same creative well inside me. Each of the guys on the tour adds their own little flavor to the show, and we share a lot of songs with each other. And people know that part of mine is being open, but not preachy, about my faith. If you can't be the same person outside church that you are inside, you're fooling yourself.”
Considering that in recent years he has found the smooth jazz format somewhat resistant to playing his original vocal tracks, Butler finds the acceptance of “Fire and Rain” a bit ironic. His last secular album, Surrender, came out on Warner Bros. in 2002, and after leaving the label after just one project, he threw himself into the Worship CD. When Dave Koz, one of three partners who founded Rendezvous, approached Butler about joining the growing indie company, Butler immediately went into what he calls “my instrumental mode.”
“Radio plays a lot of great oldies but not much original vocal material,” he says. “So I put my head in the space to write guitar instrumentals, and that gave me a chance to look again at the guitar and how wonderful it is. It's always been a major part of who I am, so writing more of those songs isn't something totally out of the blue. The Jonathan album has a nice mix, and I like the other main vocal track ‘Baby Love' a lot. So then, I was all ready to hear my guitar tunes on the radio, and suddenly ‘Fire and Rain' gets all the attention! I was cracking up, scratching my head, pleased but a little confused. In a way, having them accept me as a vocalist is like a rebirth and a resurgence of the real me.”
Despite the seeming whirlwind of his creative and touring life, Butler has learned when to shut things down long enough to focus on the true crown achievement of his life––his family. Although two of his children, 20-year-old daughter Randy and 20-year-old son Ezra are off at college––Randy studying fashion in Tampa, Ezra playing football at the University of Nevada Reno––Butler remains a devoted family man who keeps in constant touch. When Barenese (his wife of 23 years), Jodie (age 16, an aspiring singer who performs background vocals on Jonathan's “Spirit of Our Nation”) and the others are home, the family loves hanging out together, having meals together and sharing opinions on religion, politics and social issues.
“Even with two kids away, we're a close-knit unit that loves being together as much as possible,” says Butler. “Whatever struggles you face with your kids during their hard teen years, I have always believed that you don't stop talking. I'm really encouraging Jodie with her singing because I believe she really has a gift. All the struggles my family has been through and I have been through personally have shaped me and given me character. Believe me, they know where I come from and how hard I've worked to give them this life, and I remind them of the importance of gratitude in all things. Everything in the past has made us stronger so we can handle the things that lay ahead.”
Butler's website can be accessed on the Internet at www.jonathanbutler.com.
Butler's career has produced more than 25 recordings which have been released throughout various parts of the world. Below is a partial discography.
Introducing Jonathan Butler
|| Jonathan Butler
|| Breaking Away
||More Than Friends
||Heal Our Land
||Head to Head
||Do You Love Me?
||Story of Life
||The Worship Project
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