Joe Mogotsi: Singer and songwriter who expressed the soulful cry of township jazz

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans is the favourite to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing