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Claire Johnston

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The Mango Groove star on success, being 17 and having underpants thrown at her.

Claire Johnston of Mango GrooveWhen three-year-old Claire Johnston arrived in South Africa from the UK, she knew she was home. The sights, sounds and people of Africa helped form this great home-grown talent into one of South Africa’s foremost female singers and a major part of the success and longevity of Mango Groove.

There’s no place like South Africa to live. This country gets hold of you totally. I’ve often been asked why I stay here when I also have a British passport. They assume it’s better over there. This only comes from people who haven’t travelled.

When you find what you love doing — go for it. I just loved singing and performing. I grew up listening to my mother’s music — the crooners and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, which did influence me.

Before my parents split up when I was seven and my dad returned to England, I’d sing songs from The Great Gatsby for his friends. And they applauded — I loved the
applause. Then I found an advert in the paper asking for little girls for the musical Annie. This was perfect for me because I could sing, dance and act — I got the part and loved every minute.

I was a shy 17-year-old when I joined Mango Groove, still with university ahead.

I didn’t know then that I’d still be with the group 25 years later. And what a mix of people — me at 17 and Mickey Vilakazi at 64. I loved the contrast and the fact that our music spoke to everyone.

There was also the R60 I received for my first gig. I thought I’d really made it. I didn’t know then that I would end up marrying John Leyden, one of the founder
members of the group. I was terrified of him at first and thought he was arrogant —then I found out he was just shy.

Things aren’t always how they seem. Until I joined Mango Groove, the only black South Africans I’d been exposed to had worked in our house or garden. In those
days we played to segregated audiences and then came change, or so we thought. We were playing in George in the early 1990s to a large crowd. Looking down on the
audience from the stage we couldn’t believe what we saw. You could have split the audience down the middle with a knife — whites on one side and blacks on the other.

It’s hard to stay serious for long. We always find so much to laugh about. At a concert in Port Elizabeth someone threw a large pair of men’s underpants at me — which landed right on my head. That was totally the end of the song — we corpsed.

You have to accept what comes and roll with the punches. By 1990 we were doing really well when we had two American record companies approach us. One was
owned by Seymour Stein, who discovered Madonna. But our record company decided to go with Atlantic Records because they were offering an advance.

It was a gamble — and in the end we picked the wrong straw. Take all the advice and help you can get when you’re starting out. When I look at many young people starting out in the music industry today I get frustrated when I see them trying to imitate other singers.

Although I have to say I did go for a mixture of Ella Fitzgerald and Debbie Harry . . . Find your own voice and, on the business side, be smart.

There are a lot of people around with very little talent but who have the smarts and they’re eager to take ownership of youngsters.

It’s so easy to get carried away with stardom. You can have one moment of wonderful, glorious success and you feel the sky’s the limit and then bam, a slap across the face brings you back to reality.

For a while we were being managed by Queen’s manager. I could see Mango Groove on the cover of Time Magazine with me right in front. But when we released our next album overseas it didn’t go down well and the whole thing unravelled — we were brought down to earth with a bump.

Always look forward. It’s never too late — unless you’ve totally disgraced yourself. It’s great to make people happy. The other day I went into a shop where a lady told me she and her husband had their first dance to our music. I’m lucky to be part of something so positive.

 

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