Joe Mogotsi was beyond doubt one of South Africa's greatest composers of song and vocal harmony – perhaps the defining aspect of an enormous talent never fully recognised. His ever-cheerful and humorous manner belied a determined spirit whose power was felt in the way he produced an amazingly high volume (as anyone who ever had a phone conversation with him will testify). His voice expressed the distinctive soulful cry of township jazz, informed by a variety of sources – from indigenous folk music to church choral singing; from marabi and mbaqanga to the close-harmony tradition of The Ink Spots.
On stage, Mogotsi never lost his Sophiatown showmanship – jiving dance moves and a hip dress sense, down to the immaculately preserved patent leather two-tone shoes bought decades ago in downtown Johannesburg. His 2002 autobiography, Mantindane: He Who Survives, is subtitled My Life with The Manhattan Brothers – and the story of his life is surely the story of this vocal supergroup, whose original members are still household names to older generations of South African music lovers worldwide.
Mogotsi described his birthplace, Pimville, as "a black township built to house the workers from factories and the great goldmines of Johannesburg". The Manhattan Brothers began singing there in the mid-1930s as schoolboys busking in the streets. The classic line-up consisted of Mogotsi plus Nathan Mdledle, Rufus Khoza and Ronnie Majola.
Over the following decades they took Southern Africa and its neighbouring territories by storm. They sang covers of US doo-wop numbers, original songs and popular South African hits such as Solomon Linda's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Along the way they nurtured new talents such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. While the charismatic lead vocalist Nathan "Dambuza" Mdledle fronted the group, Mogotsi was both the brains and the glue that quietly held them together, resolving disputes and calming egos.
Then, in the late 1950s, the musical King Kong was born, transferring to London's West End in early 1961. The cast included all four Manhattan Brothers, with Mogotsi playing Lucky, the gangster opposite Mdledle's lead role as a tragic boxer. When the show closed after a successful six-month run, the Brothers continued performing in cabaret while Mogotsi began to land key roles, including Showboat and a German production of Porgy and Bess.
Personal conflicts caused the demise of The Manhattan Brothers as an active group in the early 1970s. A disillusioned Mogotsi took on a job as head of security at an engineering firm. However, the Brothers were invited to perform for Nelson Mandela at a huge concert celebrating his recent release from prison at Wembley Stadium a few hundred yards from Mogotsi's front door step. Putting aside their differences the Brothers gave a performance of staggering emotional intensity.
Once again the Brothers became the centre of Mogotsi's life. He rejuvenated the line-up with fellow King Kong veterans Walter "Sansa" Loate and Josh "Sello" Makhene, as well as engaging myself on piano. He composed new songs and reworked older ones for performances such as the 80th anniversary of the founding of the ANC. In 2001, the Manhattan Brothers, backed by the Mbawula Big Band, opened the Celebrate South Africa concert in Trafalgar Square.
Along with his wife, Pearl Connor, Mogotsi was tireless in maintaining the legacy of the Manhattan Brothers. He and Pearl negotiated successfully – and distributed to the original Brothers – the settlement with Gallo Records over royalties never received under old apartheid business practices – a story he tells in the 1997 documentary Songs from the Golden City.
His voice can be heard to best effect on The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (1999), but conclusive proof of his creative longevity can be found on his last album, Inyembezi, released in 2006 when he was well into his 80s.
Joe Mogotsi, singer and songwriter: born Johannesburg 14 April 1924; married 1971 Pearl Connor (died 2005; two daughters, one stepdaughter, one stepson); died Johannesburg 19 May 2011.