Singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler

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The acclaimed South African singer-songwriter-guitarist talks about his time away from the spotlight and performs songs from his holiday CD.

Jonathan Butler's story centers on overcoming incredible odds. Born in Cape Town, the youngest of 12 children, he was singing and playing guitar by age 7. By age 10, he was performing in villages to help support his family. As a teen, he landed a deal with a London-based label, and his music was played on white South African stations. He left apartheid behind in the early 1980s and moved to the U.K. Now living in Southern California, the multiple Grammy nominee has had success in several genres. He's recorded his first holiday CD and also recently launched a foundation in South Africa, focusing on music and art education as an intervention for substance abuse.


Tavis: Grammy nominee Jonathan Butler has always used music to bring people together, performing first in his native South Africa during the height of apartheid, a move to the UK began his international career.

His latest CD is called “Merry Christmas to You.” I am pleased to say that in just a few minutes, when I stop talking, he’s going to perform not one, but two songs from the new project – “O, Holy Night” and “Little Drummer Boy.” Jonathan Butler, always, sir, an honor to have you on this set.

Jonathan Butler: Man, it’s always good to see you. It’s always good to talk to you.

Tavis: You doing well?

Butler: Very well, man.

Tavis: Yeah. You been to South Africa lately?

Butler: Tavis, I’ve been home so much.

Tavis: Right.

Butler: It’s been an incredible – I’ve been to Maputo, hosted safaris. I take Americans to see my country, enlighten them about South Africa. I launched my foundation, the Jonathan Butler Foundation, while I was out there. It’s been a crazy time of traveling, but it’s been awesome.

Tavis: The work of the foundation is focused on what, specifically?

Butler: It’s focused on music education, music therapy, and also drug abuse prevention. In our townships in our areas, there’s a new drug called tik that are killing the young people in South Africa.

We have the government, local government from Johannesburg, the lottery, partnered with us. So we have about almost 100 children now, and teachers in the classrooms in schools and stuff like that.

So I’ll be spending more time at home, going into the townships, talking about my drug experience, and talking about music, which is – and all of that stuff. So it’s an awesome project that we’ve been able to finally launch after, like, 20 years of trying.

Tavis: Two things before I move on. I thought I heard you use the phrase, when I asked about the work of the foundation, one of the missions was music therapy?

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: What do you mean when you say “music therapy?”

Butler: The school, Tshwane School of Music, is in Pretoria, and it’s one of the most, like, it’s one of the oldest townships. It’s a township that would never have been recognized, even noticed.

A lot of the kids are from broken homes, are from really devastating areas, and we have found that music therapy is another way of helping the children cope and work through some of the issues.

I’ve had music that helped me through my issues just living alone without my parents on the road with adults. So we have really professionals that are in that capacity to help with the music therapy.

Believe me when I tell you Cape Town and Johannesburg and Eldorado Park, Soweto, Langa, (unintelligible), there’s a lot going on that we don’t hear on the news. But kids are being killed, kids are losing their lives.

Kids are murdering their parents because of these drug situations. We have issues with drug lords taking over communities. So I’ve partnered with a wonderful couple, Freddy and Beth Arendse, and they’ve been working in the townships for years and years with the local government. So we are doing – it’s actually moving forward right now.

Tavis: I’ve been reading about this, and I’m so glad that you’re doing the work that you’re doing there. But every time I read stories like this it breaks my heart, because you think of all that your countrymen and women went through to break the spine of apartheid.

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: Now, not unlike our inner cities, to be battling another war, another demon –

Butler: Absolutely.

Tavis: – called drugs, it’s just, it’s just you can’t catch a break.

Butler: No, I stood in Langa with the guests from my safari. We’ve done it for three years now. I took the guests into Langa Township and into where the miners, the immigrants, used to come and work in South Africa.

There’s about – we had 20 people in one room. That was the size of the room that at least 20, at least four families were living. So if you see four beds in the room, that’s four families. That represents four families.

Tavis: Yeah, not four people, four families.

Butler: Four families represented in there. It’s become – there’s economical – not apartheid, but there’s a whole nother struggle. That is there’s so much wealth in South Africa, and yet there’s so much poverty.

Tavis: Well, that’s economic apartheid.

Butler: It’s economic apartheid.

Tavis: I saw you caught yourself and I understand why –

Butler: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Tavis: But that’s exactly what it is, though.

Butler: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Even in South Africa, the rich have gotten richer, and poor people are still struggling.

Butler: Absolutely.

Tavis: It’s a young democracy now. We don’t have an excuse here in the United States.

Butler: But we still deal with colored, Black, and whites in South Africa, and that is, the colored community is a culture. It is a way of life, it is a – it’s a term that America doesn’t use, yeah.

But for me, having lived here and raising my children in America, when I come to America, I’m Black. When I go to South Africa, I’m colored. So it’s a whole weird way, and yet I found music, and my relationship in Christ has made me a new creation.

So therefore, I kind of look beyond that and try to speak for everything and for everyone, as opposed to just hey, I’m doing this for the colored community, I’m just representing this.

Tavis: I’m laughing on the inside, because I’m afraid to ask what they call you in London, like, the midway point. (Laughter) You’re Black here, you’re colored there – what are you in London? (Laughter)

Butler: I don’t even know when I’m in London. I say this, I say – I have a British passport, so I say I’m British, but not English. That’s what I call – I say, “Well, I’m British, not English.”

Tavis: Fair enough.

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: The other thing I wanted to ask about was about your – I know you’re going to perform a little bit later. We’ll talk about the record in a second. But pick that – would you mind picking your guitar up?

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: When you walked in – I want just Jonathan to see this – my Jonathan. I have another Jonathan.

Butler: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: I’ve got a friend named Jonathan Butler and a director named Jonathan X. But I want – when you walked in and I saw this guitar – I’m glad Jonathan’s shooting it – that thing is beautiful. I’ve never seen – the design of it, I’ve never seen –

Butler: This guy (unintelligible) –

Tavis: This is wood.

Butler: This is African teak. It’s a rare guitar because it’s all allen keys. I can take each part apart and put it back together, and it looks like a banjo. It’s African teak wood and it’s spruce, Canadian spruce.

He’s a South African builder and I really think this guy is one of the premier builders in South Africa. He came to my hotel room and he said, “Listen, I built you a left-hand guitar. You want to try it?

So he put the amp up there and I plugged it in, and I was like – (playing guitar). I just fell in love with it. He built me two, and so I’m kind of like promoting my buddy’s guitars from South Africa. There’s some great builders there.

Tavis: It sounds good.

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: It looks great and it sounds good.

Butler: I feel like if I dress bad, at least the people can talk about my guitar. (Laughter) If I sound bad, the guitar’s the one they talk about all the time.

Tavis: Yeah, see, his outfit wasn’t hitting, but the guitar was gorgeous.

Butler: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the guitar’s killing, man. (Laughter) That’s what my father used to say. “Son, polish your shoes, because if you sound terrible, at least your shoes shine.”

Tavis: Your shoes shine, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Butler: Your shoes shine, yeah.

Tavis: All right, so let me switch to the new project, “Merry Christmas to You.” Again, I’m always fascinated by artists who at various points in their careers decide they want to do a Christmas CD. What motivated you doing this at this point in your life?

Butler: Well, our friend, Dave Koz –

Tavis: Dave Koz.

Butler: – I’ve been on the road with him for 10 years doing his Christmas shows.

Tavis: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Butler: I was always the only artist after the show was over sitting at the CD signing table with no Christmas record. (Laughter) Everybody would ask me, “Where’s your -” I’ll sing “O Holy Night,” I’ll sing “Drummer Boy.”

So this, to me, this is kind of like a record-breaking CD, because it’s the first record in my whole career that I did in one week. I got off the cruise ship and I started the record on Saturday and I finished it on a Saturday.

I was like, “I’ve never made a record so quickly.” Because the songs were – I wanted to make the songs simple and I wanted to keep it personal and make it about the voice and the guitar.

You’ll hear it when I play it for you, or when you check out the CD. It’s mostly me and my guitar. The voice and the guitar. It’s not like strings or – there’s a couple of songs that have production on it, like Dave Koz plays on it and Rick Braun and my friends play on it, but it’s mostly intimate.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. When I got the project I heard that, and I’m anxious to hear these two tracks tonight live; I’ve already heard the CD. But it’s what I love most about you, and I think what your hardcore fans like me love most about you, is that you can make it work with a lot of production, but you can also make it work with just your voice.

Just this acoustic sound. That’s what makes it so beautiful – that you are just as good stripped down as you are with all the production. That’s a wonderful gift.

Butler: I think 51 years old and 20, 30 records later, I figured, I think I also like when I’m sitting at home and I’m playing. I like the simple – just the stripped-down stuff as opposed to – my band is real small.

I don’t have horns; I don’t have two keyboard players. I don’t use tracks. A lot of artists use tracks with their shows so they can sound full. I think people kind of – when I go to James Taylor, I’d like to just hear him just go – “Fine Rain.”

Tavis: I (unintelligible).

Butler: Just on the guitar, that’s it. (Laughter)

Tavis: Everybody watches this show knows I’m the biggest James Taylor fan in the world.

Butler: Likewise, likewise. “Fine Rain” is like –

Tavis: I love JT.

Butler: I play it all the time (unintelligible).

Tavis: Can I put you on the spot?

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: Just – well, I’m putting you on the spot, but it’s also – you could perceive this as a warm-up for the two songs you’re about to do.

Butler: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: Just to make this point about how beautiful you are stripped down, would you play just a little bit of “Falling in Love with Jesus?”

Butler: Sure, sure, sure.

[Live musical performance]

Tavis: (Laughter) This is why I love you, man. This is why. Just hit it right on the spot, and make it sound so sweet. At our church, Stevie Wonder, a friend of both of ours, Stevie was at our church not long ago, and people saw him come in, of course, and the pastor asked Stevie if he wouldn’t mind coming up and sing a little some-some.

Butler: Yeah.

Tavis: Stevie came up and said in front of the whole church, “I wish I had written this song.” (Laughter) He said, “I love this song. It’s been in my spirit.”

Butler: Oh my God.

Tavis: He – you can go to YouTube and see it.

Butler: I do.

Tavis: You’ve seen it on YouTube?

Butler: You know –

Tavis: He killed that thing, man.

Butler: I had to tell my church –

Tavis: But he loves your song.

Butler: I had to tell my church, I go to the Dream Center downtown, and I had to tell the pastors – Stevie sang it there. So I had to get up and say, “I know you’ve heard Stevie Wonder sing the song, but I wrote it.” (Laughter)

I said, “I’ve been singing his songs for the rest of my life.” “My Cherie Amour,” and “For Once, My Life -”

Tavis: But you owed Stevie something there.

Butler: Yeah. I said come on –

Tavis: You’ve been singing his stuff. You owed him at least one track.

Butler: I know, I said – it’s such an honor, man. I sing like this and I feel like this because Stevie has really inspired me. Earl Klugh and Benson and Stevie and Donny Hathaway, those are the people that just really inspired me. Great (unintelligible).

Tavis: What inspired you, how did you get inspired to choose the tracks on the new Christmas CD?

Butler: Well “Drummer Boy,” I always do that live, and I do it very stripped down with the Cajon. I sit on a drum and I beat the drum, like I used to do as a kid. I wanted to make it more South African, chant-type, and give it a different flavor.

It’s been done in so many ways. Then I felt like all the songs needed to have a little touch of home. That’s my identity. I feel like I need to always bring that through the music.

It’s like this is a – even the Donny Hathaway song, “This Christmas,” I kind of did a different twist. The other thing is I didn’t really think about how I sounded. I thought, listen, people got to hear you roar, people got to hear you when you’re hoarse.

Just let it come out instead of trying to – there’s so many records, it’s like perfect. The artists always try to sing perfect, every line, every syllable. I just wanted to bring a little bit of home flavor to this album, and –

Tavis: Well, unless you’re having a spectacular week, you’re not going to be pitch-perfect every day in seven days.

Butler: No.

Tavis: Not when you do it in seven days. That’s a lot of (laughter) pitch-perfect in seven days.

Butler: Yeah, because what I did, I just plugged this guitar in the one channel and I plugged the vocal in the other channel, and I panned it left and right so I don’t bleed into each other, and I just rolled the tape.

I sang from start to finish, and when I was done I was, okay, take one. Next song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” next song. I just kind of did that as a page, page, page, page.

Then by Saturday I was done, and I told my record company president, I said, “Listen, I want to send you something to listen to. Tell me what you think.” He called me a couple of days later and said, “Man, ‘First Noel,’ man, that’s like – man, okay, I’ll pay for it.”

I said, “Thank God, thank God,” because I was like, “I’ll put it out on YouTube if you’re not going to pay for it.” But the label really supported it, and I’m really blessed, man.

There’s a couple of pictures on there from, you see a picture of my wife when we were engaged, and 30 years later.

Tavis: You’ve got a beautiful family and a beautiful story.

Butler: Thank you, man.

Tavis: I’m so glad that you are doing well and that your countrymen are going to be all right as well.

Butler: Yeah. I’m telling you, it’s – I’m so proud, man. I think eventually I need to have a little room in Cape Town so I can go home and just – it’s because out there. It really inspires me out there.

Tavis: One of my favorite cities in the whole world.

Butler: You visit a lot?

Tavis: Oh, I could live in Cape Town.

Butler: I know.

Tavis: If they ever kick me out of here, which is possible. (Laughter) If I keep starting trouble.

Butler: I don’t think so.

Tavis: It’s possible. Yeah, you don’t know.

Butler: Oh, if you start trouble.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I might be in Cape Town. (Laughter) The new project from my friend Jonathan Butler is called “Merry Christmas to You,” and we are fortunate tonight – blessed, in fact – to have – well, we’ve already had one song. We got a little bit of “Falling in Love with Jesus.”

Butler: A little.

Tavis: But now he’s really going to set it off with two songs from the new project. Jonathan, congratulations.

Butler: Man, thank you, man.

Tavis: We look forward to hearing you in just a moment.

Butler: Thank you. You got it.

Tavis: Jonathan Butler live in just a second – stay with us.

We conclude our holiday show tonight with Jonathan Butler singing “O Holy Night” and “Little Drummer Boy” from his new project, “Merry Christmas to You.”

Thanks for watching, enjoy, and as always, keep the faith.

[Live musical performance]

[Cheering, applause]

Butler: Thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 24, 2014 at 10:24 pm