The Flames’ Blondie Chaplin of 50 years ago at the Luxurama, and as he is today performing on the world stage.
For your precious love, I’d climb the highest mountain
I’d even go out as far as trying to swim the deepest sea
Now listen and maybe Blondie will give you a better understanding
Of what I’m trying to say.
5 March 2017
Fifty years ago the hottest act across South Africa was Durban band The Flames. Two big-selling albums in Burning Soul and Soul Fire and a monster hit with a song called For Your Precious Love.
The group broke up around 1972 after they went overseas to have a crack at the international scene. Each went their own way, some to bigger and better things.
But, in South Africa, the name of The Flames has endured, thanks largely to a plaintive love tune that just won’t die.
That song is For Your Precious Love and was essentially a cover version of American soul singer Oscar Toney Jnr’s minor hit. No one in South Africa remembers Oscar Toney Jnr.
Just how special The Flames’ version has been can be gauged by the fact that on Valentine’s Day recently, a South African radio station polled the best love song of all time. For Your Precious Love beat Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love hands down.
In Cape Town, the song was big. H-U-G-E!
It was written and recorded by US singer Jerry Butler in 1958. The Flames’ version features an intro speech by group leader Steve Fataar before segue-ing into the singing bit with the line “Now listen and maybe Blondie will give you a better understanding of what I’m trying to say”.
Blondie? Blondie who? Blondie Chaplin that’s who. According to most people it is the young singer’s soulful, raw, searing voice that has been tugging at the heartstrings of listeners for just on 50 years.
Blondie Chaplin was the guitarist and singer in The Flames along with Steve Fataar and his siblings Brother Fataar (bass) and a very young Ricky Fataar (drums).
Steve Fataar, now in his 70s, has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in South Africa in recent years and has a high profile on social media.
Ricky Fataar has played with a number of top international acts since leaving SA all that many years ago and is the drummer for singer Bonny Raitt. Brother Fataar died in the 70s in Holland.
But Blondie Chaplin, who is Blondie Chaplin? Well, if you’ve kept abreast of South Africans doing well overseas, you will have known that Blondie has played with some of the biggest names in modern popular music – the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, The Band.
It’s all there on the Internet. Google it. But there ain’t much on Blondie’s early years in South Africa and where his career really started.
This interview is all about those early years of a music legend of South Africa.
I tracked Blondie down to his home in Los Angeles and as an entrée told him about the Valentine’s Day success of For Your Precious Love. He had no idea.
“That’s pretty bizarre, that’s amazing, just fantastic,” he said.
“I’m quite happy that the South African fans from then and still around now still relate to that song and it’s a very proud thing in my heart. Look, when I sang that song it was just two takes and you can tell it’s a young guy singing.
“If you had asked me then, would this song last 50 years, I would have said: ‘you’re outta your fuckin’ mind’.
Blondie was born Terence William Chaplin in Durban in 1951 (he’ll be 66 in July) and grew up in the Melbourne Flats that was a breeding ground for up-and-coming musicians and bands.
The “Blondie” handle came at a tender age when his friends likened his playing style on the soccer field to that of a top soccer player at that time, Blondie Campbell, who played for Aces United. It stuck.
“You can say my musical career really started in the Melbourne Flats. I played with a couple of bands based in the flats, including the Wild Things. That’s when I started getting recognised at school and crap like that.”
What did he achieve at school? “Schooling? That’s funny. Schooling has been out on the road, you know what I mean. I was out of school at 13. I was doing gigs at midnight at the age of 12. The teachers used to come and see me play and get lekker dronk.
“I was obviously under-age and playing in licensed joints like the Himalaya and the Kilimanjaro. When the alcohol board guys came in, I would hide behind the drum kit until they finished the inspection and left.
“I was doing that at a lot of venues. It was great fun, those gigs, I’ll never ever forget those places.”
In the early years, Blondie played guitar and sang with the Wild Things, which included Joe Fynn who now lives in Cape Town.
“At that stage, aged about 12, I was doing songs like P.J Proby’s I Apologise, and old R&B stuff like The Orlons, Little Richard ( Lucille), . . . the 78 rpm record era.”
Although Blondie’s dad played the banjo in a band, he never learnt to play at the feet of his father.
“No, he never taught me, that’s one of my big regrets. I wish he had sat me down at the time. I wish I could have learnt some banjo from him. He showed me other stuff and music and songs though. He did teach me the joys of music.
“There was a guy in the Melbourne Rd flats called Clemmie Clemens, I think. He taught me Tell Me What I’d Say. That was the first thing I ever learnt to play.
“I used to watch the guys in the flats, sitting on the back stairs, getting lekker goofed and singing to the heavens. They didn’t like me watching them because would be doing other kak.
“Little by little, I picked up things and we started to play in the flats. People thought I had an alright voice and I started being ‘invited’ to sit on the stage at gigs and helping out when the older guys were too goofed to deliver.
“My mom used to go nuts; she didn’t like me to hang out with them. But hey, everybody was into music. Durban was a very musical town.”
Blondie also had spells with the Chayn Gang (Jack Momple’s Durban band), the Kittens and the Wild Cats before the Fataars came calling.
“Everybody knew The Flames. They had already been on the road and well known in Cape Town when I joined them. Ricky was only 10.
“The Wild Cats played at a few venues around Durban and at lot of those gigs we would open the show for the Flames. Baby Duval was their singer. At some point they wanted me to sing with them.
“My mom wasn’t too happy because I was going on the road but dad was cool. He was a musician. He was the one who gave Steve power of attorney when we left SA. She was worried that I would be far away and no family member would be around to take care of my needs. That was pretty hard to get her to agree.
“I was a pretty shy guy but I was keen. I loved music and The Flames were, like, I couldn’t think of another band, in apartheid South Africa that was touring at that time.” [I remind him of the Invaders and it brings back memories of their friendship].
Being a member of South Africa’s top group at the time, brought with it adulation but the tender years brought with it some problems too. Authorities wanted him at school.
“The local truant officer was my uncle and he wasn’t too nice to me. He caught me a couple of times until my mom straightened him out because he was a little bit heavy-handed.
“I’m sure there were other issues, but if there were, they were all digging us singing and playing. Nobody gave us any kak in a funny way.”
At their peak in South Africa, around 1967-70, when they released the Burning Soul (’67) and Soulfire (’68) albums, The Flames were essentially a soul-R&B influenced band.
“We were always big on the Temptations and that soul stuff. When we went to London we were doing a lot of it. But we were always open to the other side of rock as well, whether it was Beatles, Stones or the more rock-influenced stuff as we got older.
“As a group, we were pretty tight. We were committed and practised every day. That’s what made us a good band.
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“We introduced the sitar to our music and Ricky played it at our farewell Luxurama gig in Cape Town. It was nice to have a different mood with the sitar and give it a different twang. That was an eye-opener for us, let alone other people.”
The late Sixties were exciting times for The Flames in South Africa. They played to packed houses across the country and their records were radio chart-toppers in all sections of the community. Black and white.
It was a time of flower power, hippies, getting stoned and free love. But it was also apartheid South Africa, and white girls idolising black guys . . . not under Afrikaner rule.
Blondie recalls: “White female fans used to follow us quite often. When we played Jo’burg City Hall about seven or eight squad cars would escort us to the outskirts of Jo’burg – and I’ll use this word so that you would know exactly what I mean – so that nobody would ‘fraternise’.
“And when we were on the road heading to Cape Town, there were not many places to stop and have food at that time.
“Oh yeah, there were cafes and if you went to the café, you went to the back and then nobody would come straight away to take your order or anything like that, and we would just have to hang hol, so to speak.
“We would have to wait until we got to Cape Town where we would get some decent food.”
Blondie tells of the time The Flames called in at a late-night diner after a gig in Durban to get a bite. They used the separate area to order the takeaway meal and came to the attention of the police driving past.
“They told us we were loitering. We pleaded with them along the lines “asseblief meneer, we’re just so hungry, we just played, we’re just getting a burger and we’ll be gone.
“He said ‘OK, I’m coming around in about 5-10min and if you’re still there we’re going to take you to the Smith Street police station’.
“Well, nobody had taken our order by the time they came back and we were taken to the police station.
“Our manager had to come by and plead our case. We kept telling them, ‘you can check our story, you know who we are’.
“They just wanted to fuck with us.”
Maybe they thought there was a bit of “Durban poison” around, I say jokingly. Were The Flames into it?
“At that time we had a few friends who did it. I was still pretty young at the time. The Flames did what we liked to do as human beings, regardless of what the authorities said.”
As big a name as the group was at the time, with all the packed out concerts and huge record sales, Blondie doesn’t recall there being much money to show for it.
“We earned some money, but sharks were all around at that time and I’m sure some of those sharks are still sitting off the coast of Durban and biting people. They bit us.
“You get a lot of those kinda things happening. Not that you accept it. That money was supposed to set us up in London.”
For the group, leaving South Africa at the top of their game and in their comfort was a big decision. Blondie says the Group Areas Act was “tightening up and starting to kick our arse, Meneer Pik Botha and whoever was in charge at the time. It was just getting a little too stroppy for us.
“London was a big gamble. We didn’t know anything; we just wanted to give ourselves a shot. We had played everywhere we could possibly play in South Africa. We knew we could fall flat on our face but we had to try. That was all there was to it.
“Was it easy in London? It was kak in London. When we left Cape Town, it must have been 88 Fahrenheit. When we got to the White Cliffs of Dover, it was about 30 degrees. We all went, ‘shit, is this what we left for?’
“No, it wasn’t easy. When we got there, we were quarantined on the boat. Everybody got off, we couldn’t. We didn’t know we had to have work permits. We had all our amps and our PA gear. We didn’t know we had to get papers to be allowed in.
“So we sat on the ship for about four, five days with nowhere to go and an Irish guy who had a flask of whiskey to keep us company.”
Did he drink at that age? “Hey c’mon, we were thrust into an adult world very fast. It’s not like we were big drinkers. We were so depressed to be in this room; we thought they were going to send us back because we didn’t ‘t have papers.
“Luckily, somebody put something in the papers about these impoverished South Africans getting a chance at life. They let us in and we had to report every Friday to the local constable, who reported to the Home Office and then we were in.
“I really can’t remember what we did in England. Some charity gig Princess Margaret was at. I’m a little foggy about where we played but we were just trying to survive.”
Since the Flames broke up all that many years ago, Blondie has created a reputation for himself that sees his name mentioned in the same breath with some of the top jazz-rock musicians. He toured extensively with the Rolling Stones and is still on the road with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
So what chance then of hooking up with Steve and Ricky again and giving his South African fans a reprise, 50 years on, of For Your Precious Love?
“The last time I sang it was at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival a few years ago and I could have done it better,” he laughs
“I wanna come back and do some singing with Steve and Ricky. We’ll see what happens, what the future holds. I’m getting ready to go on the road soon over here with Brian Wilson again but I’d love to do stuff there.”
Blondie has many fond memories of Cape Town and particularly liked playing at the Luxurama and the Kismet in Athlone. The Lux gigs, he says, was the pinnacle. He likes visiting but says there is never enough time to catch up with everyone.
“The Colony too in Cape Town (a very popular white nightclub in the late Sixties) was good fun. They snuck us in there for jam sessions.”
Blondie is more reflective these days. He doesn’t know when he is going to stop playing, not as long he still enjoys it.
“I’m busy finishing a CD of my own compositions and hope to have it out in a couple of months. Then there’s the tour with Brian Wilson that will take in the southern states on America’s east coast and Europe after that.”
Will the CD reflect his “roots” music? “I’m very rhythmic. There’s a lot of Zulu influence in me, I used to speak it reasonably well. I play a rhythm guitar, piano and stuff like that, still the same influences from the Durban days and the soul singing. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, they were my influences and that’s what I can remember still. It’s still in me. You don’t really forget.
“You can go through the changes, rock, blues, but you don’t forget what you started with. What ignited you first, usually it is the same influences and the same feelings.”
“The older you get, the more you reflect on your memories. I think of those days when my dad used to take me to the City Hall in Durban to see the Golden City Dixies stars for a sixpence. The talent that was on that show, like Zane Adams, was something else.
“I used to watch Ronnie Madonsella. He was a great jazz singer. I learnt so much as a kid just listening to him. He was unique. If he had been overseas, he would have done just fine.
“There’s so much talent in South Africa that just never got out to see the light of day. In that respect, I’m very lucky to have been able to look around. That show featured some of the best talent; it made me want to sing.
“Steve, Ricky and I have good memories and we still get along, we still talk to one another. I look at Ricky and I think, ‘what happened, when did we become ou ballies’.”
For Terence William Chaplin things couldn’t have panned out better but he feels there are few things that would round it off.
Like a book. “I’d like to do that, just documenting the journey from here to there and relating to my family. There’s much to tell.”
“And maybe one last tour with Steve and Ricky. Well, if somebody could get some maacha (and if you understand that word, you’re a black South African child of the Sixties) together and organise it, it would be great.”
Maybe, just maybe we’ll see the poster banners, the social media ads and the TV announcements next year celebrating the 50 years of For Your Precious Love (it was released in 1968): THE FLAMES REUNION – THE 50 YEARS FOR YOUR PRECIOUS LOVE TOUR.
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