Musician Jonathan Butler

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South African musician talks about his faith in God, his beloved home of Cape Town and even plays a few tracks for Tavis.

Jonathan Butler's story centers on overcoming incredible odds. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, the youngest of 12 children, he was singing and playing guitar by age 7. By age 10, he was performing in villages making money to help support his family. As a teen, he landed a deal with a London-based label and, in the early '80s, left apartheid behind and moved to the U.K. Now living in Southern California, the multi-Grammy nominee writes and produces most of his own music and has had successes in pop, R&B, jazz and gospel formats.


Jonathan Butler: I like holding it.
Tavis: Yes, he’s grabbing it. (Laughter)
Butler: I think I like holding it.
Tavis: Yeah, I like when he holds it, too, and I love how you play it.
Butler: I can block the six-pack. (Laughter)
Tavis: Block his six-pack.
Butler: I can block the six-pack right now.
Tavis: So as you figured out by now, our guest tonight, bam, Jonathan Butler, an acclaimed musician from South Africa whose unique brand of jazz has made him a popular fixture in the music business all around the globe. His latest CD is called “So Strong.” Before we get to that, though, here now a small sample of Jonathan Butler, live in concert.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Butler: Really good to see you.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Butler: I’m doing great. Better now. I just don’t have your tie, but I’m –
Tavis: Oh, please, you’re fine. See what happens when we run into each other in airports?
Butler: Yeah. I love it. I’m sitting there eating my salad, I look across, and there you are. Invite you to the show and Sheila E grabs you.
Tavis: Oh, was that embarrassing or what?
Butler: No, you were on your knees. That’s what cracked me up. You were literally singing the song. (Laughter) And it was freezing out there.
Tavis: So what Jonathan is – this is an inside story. So I see Jonathan Butler, as he mentioned, in an airport. He’s on tour with Dave Koz and Sheila E and Jonathan says, “Come to the show tonight.” So I finished my speech, whatever, went to the show, and somehow I end up being called onto the stage in the middle of their show by Sheila E, who wants me to since Prince’s “Kiss” while she plays just drums.
So Sheila E in this live concert is playing drums, I’m singing “Kiss” by Prince. How I got there, I do not know. (Laughter) But I have you to blame for inviting me to that show. I survived it but I hope I didn’t embarrass myself –
Butler: Yeah, Sheila, you never know with Sheila what she’s going to do.
Tavis: I hope I didn’t embarrass myself too bad. I would have loved to come on the stage to sing “Falling in Love with Jesus” with you.
Butler: Oh, man.
Tavis: Can you give us some of that now?
Butler: Yeah.
Tavis: Just a little bit, just a little bit.
[Live musical performance]
Tavis: (Laughs) I love this song, man.
Butler: Thank you.
Tavis: I love that song.
Butler: Thank you.
Tavis: I was online not long ago just messing around, came across – I know the song, of course, I’ve been loving it for years – but I came across the song and I thought I would just, you know, see what it was. I clicked on a couple of YouTube videos, and there’s a video – you may have seen this – a video of Stevie Wonder.
Butler: Oh, that –
Tavis: There’s a video of – you’ve seen this video? There’s a video of Stevie singing this song and before he sings it he says, “I want to sing a little song for you now,” and he said, “I wish -” this is Stevie saying, one of the greatest songwriters of all time –
Butler: Of all time.
Tavis: Of all time, saying –
Butler: In my life.
Tavis: – “I wish I had written this song. I can’t take credit for it. Jonathan Butler beat me to it, but I wish I had written this song.” And Stevie killed that thing, man.
Butler: Oh, my goodness, I tell you, I was picking up a friend of mine from South Africa from Burbank Airport again and just got into the States and drove him to my house, drove up to the driveway, opened the front door, took his luggage, I was about to go up the stairs to take him to his room upstairs, and the phone rings and a friend of mine in L.A. says, “Jonathan, turn on the television right now. Turn it on to TBN.” So I turn on the television and Stevie –
Tavis: And you saw this?
Butler: – mentions this whole thing. (Laughter) And my friend from South Africa is standing like I planned this whole thing. (Laughter) Like I set him up. “I know some people, man, you better watch me. I’m someone.” And I just cracked up.
He goes, “My goodness.” You know Stevie has been a mentor to me growing up in South Africa. I truly think he’s been probably the only person I can tell you just like songwriting, he made me realize that I can write a song. I want it to be original because this guy was doing – he was writing his own stuff and in South Africa for me it was like, wow. That was Berkley; he was like Berkley for me.
Tavis: Every time I see you in concert, which I do, as you know, as often as I can, you are so unapologetic, so un-shy, not shy, about breaking off two or three gospel tracks in the middle of all your other stuff. All your jazz, all your R&B, your pop, and you just – it’s so much a part of who you are that your fans have gotten accustomed to hearing you do this no matter who you’re with.
Butler: Yes. Well, I got saved 30 years ago, just before I got married, and it was life-transforming for me because I come from a family, I’m the baby of 12, and chaos and poverty and it wasn’t like I grew up in church.
Tavis: Cape Town or Joburg?
Butler: Cape Town, yeah.
Tavis: Cape Town, yeah, yeah.
Butler: Growing up in show business, that day was such an unbelievable experience for me and that I kind of cling to the Lord. I just really – because I was always away from my family since I’m seven years old, so I had someone else to cling to, and it just sort of – as you said, God is a part of my life. I’m part of – I’m connected, so.
I always felt in the beginning of my conversion and my relationship with the Lord I was a little shy to let people know, because they wanted to hear “Sarah, Sarah” and “Lies,” and the audience was different. I’m 49 in October, so it was a kind of younger audience, and I was in my twenties, and I was a little shy.
But something happened. When the anointing came on me it was like I felt I had the boldness just to declare God wherever I go.
Tavis: It’s amazing, when you mention that you were born in Cape Town, I remember the first time I went it Cape Town – every time I go back, for that matter, I am consistently blown away by the fact that of all the places in the world that I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a few places, the only place I would ever want to live – this is me personally – outside of the U.S. –
Robinson: Is my home town.
Tavis: – is your home town.
Butler: Yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: I am in love with Cape Town.
Butler: Isn’t it beautiful?
Tavis: Oh, it’s the most beautiful place. Every time I go there, I think that apartheid just threatened to – did, in fact, ruin this for so long.
Butler: Yeah, it was a cloud –
Tavis: But the place is so beautiful.
Butler: There was a cloud over South Africa for many, many –
Tavis: A dark cloud.
Butler: – a dark cloud over South Africa for many years.
Tavis: But it’s such a beautiful place.
Butler: Yeah. I’m learning to – I’m rediscovering my city, I’m rediscovering my country. Every opportunity I get to go back I go into the mountains, I go to the wine regions, I go to (unintelligible).
Tavis: You vowed for a while to never go back and play there.
Butler: Yeah, I didn’t want to go play there. When I moved to England I said, “I will never go play in South Africa unless I’m playing for a multiracial audience,” because growing up I was playing for Whites one night, then I had to play for Blacks in the townships. The country was in such a political state, man, I’d never seen uprising like that before.
I just said, “I will not play until I can go back home one day and see my countrymen celebrating with me.
Tavis: Well, they celebrate you now. You go to South Africa now, when I go there now and I say Jonathan Butler’s a friend of mine, they just roll out the red carpet. (Laughter) I do know Jonathan Butler. I’m going to start taking a picture of me and you.
Butler: For real. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know Jonathan.
Butler: Oh, man, it’s really humbling.
Tavis: They love you there.
Butler: It’s really humbling. Honestly, if you saw where Seventh Avenue was and just the life I grew up in, it’s really humbling for me.
Tavis: Tell me about “So Strong,” the new project.
Butler: This record, I can’t even believe that it’s so much fun and it’s full of good vibes, good feeling and it’s optimistic. It happened during a time when my buddy Wayman passed away.
Tavis: Wayman Tisdale, yeah.
Butler: Yeah, Wayman Tisdale passed away, my mother passed away and my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Thank God she’s a cancer survivor. I just got signed to Mack Avenue so I had to come up with something, and somehow, these songs were laying in my archives somewhere on my hard drives, and I started just sitting in the room waiting for these things to happen.
I co-wrote a bunch of songs with a good friend of mine, and I started seeing my wife and my kids really enjoying the music, and my grandchild was really digging it. So I figured I wanted to keep the record positive and not live – because God’s done an amazing thing, just my wife, she’s completely healed.
Tavis: When I saw you in the airport I had not picked up the CD at that time, although I have all your stuff. But that night at the show, when I heard you sing this one song I ran out the next day and got the record.
Butler: “You’ve Got to Believe in Something.”
Tavis: How’d you know? (Laughter) How did you know? When you sang that song that night, I said, “I’ve got to get -” I went right to the record store the next day.
Butler: Yeah, because everybody’s – the lyric says people talk about the weather like it’s always going to rain, and I’m a very optimistic guy, I’m a very positive guy. I just always believe that we’ve got to come through stuff, it’s going to be okay, and this song – it’s funny, that was easy to write.
Some of the love songs were a little bit harder because I’ve got to know what – I have to talk about the baby, how does she want to – how does she feel, does she want a rose, or – but writing something “You’ve Got to Believe in Something,” it just stood out for me.
Tavis: It’s a great track.
Butler: Thank you.
Tavis: A lot of good stuff on this new project. “So Strong” is the name of the new CD. A great track on there called “So Strong,” “Make Room for Me,” and “You’ve Got to Believe in Something.” It’s the latest from Jonathan Butler, a wonderful, wonderful piece, Jonathan. I’m always glad to see you.
Butler: Me too, me too.
Tavis: If running into each other in airports means you come up on the show more often, (laughter) let’s meet at LAX next week.
Butler: Let’s leave a spare guitar somewhere in the studio so we can get this “Falling in Love with Jesus” going.
Tavis: Can I beg you to play me out with something?
Butler: Yeah.
Tavis: Let me tell folk thanks for watching the show tonight.
[Live musical performance]
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm