MIKE STEWART BAND

Circa:  
Home town:  Bulawayo
Members:

  • Mike Stewart – Guitar
  • Rory McKenzie – Bass
  • Keith Austin – Vocals & keyboards
  • Craig James – Drums
mike-stewart-band-palace-hotel
The MIKE STEWART BAND at the Palace Hotel in Bulawayo. Left – Right: Craig James (Drums & vocals), Mike Stewart (Guitar & vocals), Rory McKenzie (Bass & Vocals) and Keith Austin (Keys & vocals)

Mike Stewart in his own words:

In April 1974 (originally from the United Kingdom via South Africa) I landed in Bulawayo for the first time, and, after unloading my personal effects at the flat where I’d be staying, I was taken to the Las Vegas club to meet the resident band.

They were called Shalima, and I discovered they were not only very good musicians, but also good fun people. I must apologise, because all these years later I only remember Peter Price on drums, Rory McKenzie on keyboards and Brian Angles on bass – possibly because they were the three guys who backed me (and also because I went on to work with both Rory and Brian in bands at different times in the future). They were great, and with their help my show worked well.

In the first few evenings I met two regular customers who I want to pay tribute to – Charlie and Ivy Trollope, and we quickly formed an instinctively warm friendship. They went out of their way to show me around, and after a few days they invited me to move out of the flat provided by the club, in favour of staying with them in their home.  This I did, and they and their two young daughters, Candice and Lindsey, quickly became like family to me. The hospitality I experienced there made me feel like I had come to where I supposed to be, and although there was talk of terrorist activity being on the increase, I nevertheless felt I had come home.

In the course of my three week contract there I also met, dated and fell in love with a Bulawayo girl, and at that point any lingering thought of returning to Britain and onto the world cruise disappeared completely.

At the end of this short contract, I returned to South Africa, first to Durban for a short stint compering in the Crazy Horse Night Club at the Beach Hotel, and then to the Markham Hotel in Port Elizabeth. My Rhodesian girlfriend was able to come and stay with me for periods of time, and our relationship developed.

In August 1974 I was asked to join the Peter Adams Band playing guitar at the Van Donck Restaurant in what was then the Heerengracht Hotel in Cape Town. It was a three month contract, and a huge departure for me – going from upfront, in-your-face cabaret, to a five star restaurant in which you had to play at a whisper and couldn’t even speak to the audience – until around 10 o’clock when they had finished their main courses.

The only notable experiences I had while there was meeting and chatting to Roger Moore, who was staying in the hotel while filming one of the James Bond films in which he starred. He came in a few times and each time invited me to his table during the band’s breaks, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company, banter and good conversation.

One day during late morning band practice, David McCallum (famed in  his role as the ‘The Man From Uncle’ and later Ducky in ‘NCIS’), walked into the restaurant to ask us to stop playing because they were filming one floor below in the MD’s office and the sound was coming straight through the ceiling! He was very apologetic and charming, and he invited the band to come down and watch the filming. For the next hour he acted as our unofficial guide, explaining exactly what was happening in some detail.  It was a very interesting experience, especially when one actor repeatedly forgot his lines, resulting in the director spitting his dummy out in front of the actors, crew and ourselves! While playing there I also met actor/comedian Terry Scott and Wilfred Hyde-White – both British actors who I’d grown up watching on TV and film since I was a child.

But apart from those few highlights the job for me was an unmitigated disaster. The entire environment was wrong for me at that time, and without doubt I was definitely wrong for it! After three painful months I was asked to leave, and, although I was now on the other side of the world and out of work for the first time in nearly five years, I was relieved to be out of that suffocating environment.

In the next few weeks, thanks to Cape Town agent, Martin Drake of Selroy Music, I was able to play a few solo gigs around Cape Town.  A Dutch band called Smash, who were touring South Africa, then asked if I’d be interested in joining them on bass and lead vocals. Talk about going back to my roots! I didn’t own a bass guitar any longer, but they carried a full bass rig with them, so it was easy for me to jump in.

In February 1975 we worked a three month contract at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, Durban – Sol Kerzner’s very first hotel. He usually stayed there whenever he was in Durban, and he always invited us to his table for drinks and a chat. I’d been told he was difficult and a hard taskmaster to his employees, but to us he was gracious, sociable and very friendly.

At the end of that contract we went back to Cape Town to again play – horror of horrors for me – at the Heerengracht Hotel! This time though it was in the more relaxed steak house, bar and dance venue in the basement, (sorry I can’t remember the name) and it worked out quite well.

By now my Rhodesian girlfriend had moved down permanently, and she took a job as a ramp model in a fashion house, which she loved.

I stayed in Smash for about a year, playing in Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria. They were very different to most bands I’d played in and known. Among other quirks they had the European continental style of fading out songs instead of arranging endings, and one of the first things I did was to explain that outside of Europe that was just not accepted. After that we gelled nicely, playing a Philly-style of funky music with a good brass section. It was a real challenge for me to co-ordinate the elaborate funky bass lines with the lead vocal. Hard work but I loved it!

I went back to solo work in early 1976. There were no such things as backtracks in those days, unless you had made a record and asked the studio to give you a tape copy of the song(s) you’d just recorded, minus the lead vocal and any instrument you wanted to play live. I wasn’t in that luxurious position and midi hadn’t yet been developed, so I devised a method of making my own.

I was doing a three-month residency at the Summerstrand Holiday Inn in Port Elizabeth. I’d bought a bass guitar while playing in Smash, and now I bought two Revox reel-to-reel tape machines and a few second-hand microphones. I was mates with most of the bands in town, and I asked a couple of drummers I was friendly with if they’d mind me recording myself on their kit when the venue was closed- if the management were okay with it.

One of the venues kindly agreed, and so, after I’d finished playing at my gig, I’d drive over to this club and set up microphones around the kit through my mixer. Through trial and error I eventually found something close to an acceptable drum mix, and I’d then record myself playing. I had to imagine the song in my head, count it in, and play the song without any kind of guide, just silently humming it my head. Over a period of a couple of weeks I recorded drums to every song in my repertoire, and now it was time to add bass guitar.

In my room I’d set up both reel-to-reel machines with the drums fed from the first machine into the left stereo channel of the second one. I plugged the bass into the right channel, and as the second machine recorded the drums onto the left channel I’d record the bass part into the right.  This bit was quick and quite easy, so after maybe a week I was fully self-contained with my own bass and drum backing tracks at a time when nobody else had anything remotely comparable.

After the Port Elizabeth Holiday Inn contract I was booked to play at the Elizabeth Hotel in Sea Point, Cape Town – a great old seafront venue that sadly was knocked down a year or so later to make way for new development. I started playing there, and everything was working really well with my new backtracks allowing me the same musical freedom to play lead breaks etc that I was used to having in bands.

My girlfriend was invited to do a photo shoot at the biggest horse-racing event on Cape Town’s calendar, the Metropolitan. It was planned that she would wear a dress that was specially designed and created for the event and which would be open at the sides both above and below the waist, held together by a tiny join on either side at the hip. It was designed specifically to create the illusion that she wasn’t wearing any underwear, and as it turned out it was so successful that punters laid unofficial bets on whether she was wearing pants or not. The fact was that the pants were built into the dress, and connected to it at the tiny hip joins.

The next day her picture was all over the front page of the Sunday Times, along with the story that people were wagering on her modesty (or otherwise). Three days later there was a knock on the door of our flat and it was the South African Police.

We didn’t know it, but the South African and Rhodesian governments had made an agreement that Rhodesians would no longer be allowed to go to SA on indefinitely extended holidays or work visits because some were doing it to avoid military call- up.  Rhodesians – male and female – were, therefore, restricted to a maximum stay of two weeks. It came out that somebody at the Department of the Interior had recognised her from the Sunday Times picture as a Rhodesian national, and discovered she had (unknowingly) overstayed her two-week maximum visit to SA. She was given 24 hours to leave, and the next day I had to take her to the airport and put her on a plane back to Bulawayo.

I now had a decision to make. The woman that I wanted to share my life with had been forced to leave SA, so what reason did I have for still being there? I called the agent, Martin Drake – and told him that as much as I didn’t want to let anyone down I’d be disloyal to her if I just carried on working now that she had been made to leave. I felt that the right thing to do was to follow her to Bulawayo so that together we could figure out what our next step should be.

Martin was very understanding and supportive of my predicament. Different musos and performers had different opinions about Martin, but I always found him to be a very good guy, and to some extent a friend. He called the owner of the Elizabeth and explained my situation, offering to put another solo entertainer in my place.  Eventually it was agreed, the owner paid me pro rata for the work I had already done, and I was released from my contract.

Martin then asked if I’d be interested in doing two weeks cabaret at the Rhodes Room in Bulawayo’s only five star hotel, The Southern Sun hotel (owned by the South African hotel group of the same name, but independently run). I’d be opening for an old friend, the superb comedian/musician (sadly now passed) Cy Saks. I had a week in which to get there, and I agreed.

So began my trek from Cape Town to Bulawayo in the old VW Minibus I’d bought a few months earlier. All went well until I reached the Rhodesian border post at Beitbridge. Rhodesian customs refused to allow me to bring my equipment in unless I paid a cash deposit, which would be returned when I removed the equipment from the country. I didn’t have the crazy amount they were demanding, and so I was stuck.

A phone call to Martin resolved the issue. He contacted the Southern Sun Hotel management, and they lodged a bond with the customs office in Bulawayo to ensure that I wouldn’t sell the equipment while I was there. I was then cleared to do the final part of the drive.

I arrived safely the same day, and the next morning I went to the hotel for band call with the resident band, who would be backing me. The double bill worked really well – it was a good balance of comedy and music, and for me it was not only good fun working with Cy – for me one of the funniest and most gifted people on the planet – but breathing space to decide what came next.

The Southern Sun Hotel was literally a stone’s throw from the Las Vegas club where I’d previously worked in 1974, and I knew some of the band members who were now playing there. I naturally went to say hello, and met the new owner of the club, Bobby Fraser – himself a product of the British cabaret circuit, and a well-known name in the North-East where I had been based – and where he was from.

The next evening Bobby came over to watch the show, and at the end he asked me what my plans were. He said his band was breaking up and some members were returning to South Africa, while others wanted to stay. He said that if I was interested he would take over the customs bond for my equipment, I could form a band with the existing singer Eugene Havenga and a local drummer named Ivan Frost. We would just need to find a bass player to finish the line-up. I accepted, but we couldn’t find a bass player, so I suggested that I teach Eugene to play bass, and we would work as a three-piece. Bobby Fraser was ecstatic at the idea, because it would save him money, and we put the band together, also backing him on the cabaret floor.

Musically the band worked really well. Eugene was (and still is) a superb singer and intelligent musician, and Ivan was a very good drummer and singer. It was really good being back in Bulawayo, and I was very quickly made to feel part of the community. I made many friends, and felt truly at home.  Unfortunately, due to increasing friction between myself and the club’s management, after four months I left the venue.

Just outside Bulawayo, in the suburb of Richmond, was a country motel called the Glass Castle. It had been bought by Filabusi emerald mine owner John Hulley, and I’d heard he was looking to start live music there. We negotiated a deal in which I would play there solo (WITH my recorded bass and drum backtracks of course!!!) four sessions a week on an ongoing basis. My girlfriend would work as an assistant manager and barmaid, we would be given a chalet at the motel, and he would take over the customs bond on my equipment.

The war was by now becoming more intense and we were worried that people might not be comfortable driving the eleven kilometres from town at night for fear of terrorist attack.  Our fears proved groundless and business quickly increased.  I enjoyed it there, and it was then that I applied for Rhodesian Permanent Residence. When that was granted the bond on my equipment was immediately lifted. I didn’t, however, ever feel that this venue was going to be anything other than a short-term arrangement, and after six months, I again felt the need to try something else.

I played for a little while at the Hotel Rio, but it wasn’t an atmosphere that I felt had potential, and I wondered whether a move to Salisbury was perhaps in order. I didn’t know anyone there, but I was confident I could get established.

I then got a call from Bobby Fraser asking me to meet him for a drink and a chat.  I duly met him at the Palace Hotel bar in town the next day. He had by now sold the Las Vegas club and was working as a car salesman. He started off by apologising for the tension that had arisen between us at his Las Vegas club and explaining why that had been the case.  Despite this background we succeeded to having a reasonably constructive conversation.

He then showed me into the hotel ballroom, which was quite a nice room for entertainment, and asked me if I’d be interested in going into a business arrangement with him to do a regular Friday Ladies Night there. The format was a tried and tested one which I’d had experience of in other places – the early part of the evening would only be open to women. He would perform the cabaret show and I would run the band. We’d have games and little competitions, give prizes to the ladies, and the band would play for them to dance to. Later the guys would be allowed in, confident in the knowledge that it would be full of semi-inebriated partying women. We would pay wages to band members and security/door staff, and split the profit down the middle. He knew the hotel owner Mike Burslem, and they had agreed that we would take the door takings while Mike would naturally have the food and drink profits.

It sounded like a good deal all round, and despite my reservations about entering a new business arrangement with Fraser, I felt the proposal had really good potential and so, having agreed, we put it into action. We found a drummer and bass player, started rehearsing in the ballroom, and opened a few weeks later. I honestly don’t remember the name of the original drummer because he quickly had military duties that pulled him away, and I needed to find someone else. The bass player was a well-known local musician called Themba. Good bass player, but very quiet and didn’t sing lead vocals.

A very big guy named Craig James then approached me saying he was a drummer, he’d just finished his two-year basic stint in the army, and now that he was back in town he was looking for something to do. He was a really good drummer with a very strong voice for both lead and harmony vocals, and he was a perfect fit. Then I was introduced to Keith Austin, who was a good keyboard player and singer, and I was able to get him into the line-up too. At some point Themba left, and Rory McKenzie was on hand to take over on bass. It was a strong line-up, we were able to tackle just about anything that we felt would work for our audience, and we went from strength-to-strength.

A few months later Bobby Fraser decided to take his leave and we had to re-design the format of the Ladies’ Night. Mike Burslem persuaded me to use my cabaret background to take over the cabaret show, and, as I now had so many strong and versatile voices in the band to share the vocal load, I felt I was able to take it on. I invested in a disco setup, employed a DJ to run it, and started playing in the garden every Sunday afternoon.  The Mike Stewart Band was born and The Palace Hotel was on the entertainment map.

A short while later my two-year new-immigrant national service exemption period expired and my call-up papers arrived. My only worry was that army duties would destroy the band and the business we’d built up at the Palace, which was going stronger than ever and now provided a living to quite a few people.

Mike Burslem suggested that I call the department of Military Manpower and tell them of my concerns. This I did, and the gentleman told me  he’d be at my attestation and I should remind him of our telephone conversation. He would then arrange for me to be enlisted into the BSAP Reserve rather than the army, as they could be more flexible with my call-up requirements.

It went as he described, and I was taken into Purple Section, Police Reserve, based at the Bulawayo Drill Hall. I had to go out of town for a two week basic training course at Marula near the Botswana border, but from that point my duties could be assigned around my business. I then discovered that Purple Section was run by small business owners for this very purpose, because if they had to close in order to go on call-ups both their businesses and the economy would be adversely affected.  The band handled the Ladies Night in my absence, and I came back two weeks later to find the business still in one piece. Thank you guys!!!

A few months later I was approached by a music teacher from Townsend School in Bulawayo, Peter Creswell. He told me he was putting together a stage production of the movie Grease and it would be performed at the Bulawayo Large City Hall. He was looking for a musical director to handle the music, rehearse the band members and principal singers, and audition and train a vocal backing group. I would be playing guitar and piano in the show and sing some of the songs which didn’t involve central characters.

It was quite an undertaking which would involve months of rehearsal – and the show would only run for a week, but I bought into it, helped with auditions for the leading parts, and got to work. All of the principals were really talented, and it was a pleasure working with them, By the time the show took to the stage we were firmly committed to each other and to making the production a huge success. The show ran in early 1979, was a total sell-out, and received really good critical reviews. Again the band covered for me at the Palace, so everything was going well.

A few months later we repeated the production, this time for a week at the Seven Arts Theatre in Salisbury, followed by a week at the Palace Theatre, Bulawayo – right next to the Palace Hotel. Again both runs went extremely well.

A short while before the Salisbury run I got a call from Nick Picard, a well-known Salisbury guitarist asking if I could use him for the week in Salisbury. I knew him by reputation, cleared it with the producer, and we worked well together, particularly on songs in which I was playing piano, and therefore had no guitar. I really liked and respected Nick, and I was so sorry to hear he had passed away a few years ago.

Also during that week in Salisbury I was introduced to Martin Norris, at that time part owner of Shed Productions recording studio along with partner Steve Roskilly. He asked me if I was up to doing some vocal sessions during the day for television and radio adverts, and I agreed. I remember I sang a jingle for Lyons Maid ice cream along with a lovely female opera singer. We sang each vocal part together, and built up a lovely multi-track choir together on the ad.

A while later Martin asked me to go back to Salisbury to record another advert, this time for Bata Shoes. The ad ran on TV, radio and movie houses for well over a year with an actor lip-syncing on screen to my voice. Many people remember the ad for the final scene which was shot from the top floor of the Monomotapa Hotel, looking out at the parkland behind the hotel in which a hundred or so extras all formed the word ‘BATA’ with their bodies at the end of the song.  It was cleverly done getting all the extras in position forming the word, then filming them slowly walking backwards at carefully pre-selected tangents to positions off camera. The film was then reversed and sped up to make it look as if they’d all walked into precise positions to form it.

Life for the Mike Stewart Band at the Palace Hotel suddenly came to an abrupt end in mid-1979 when we learnt that Mike Burslem had taken his own life.  The result of this tragedy meant that the hotel closed immediately, as Mike’s family wanted to be as far away from the site of Mike’s death as possible, and of course the band’s tenure there was at an end.

In the meantime the Las Vegas club had closed. Bobby Fraser had sold it to another club owner, and eventually the deal had gone sour. Consequently it stood empty for a long period.  A group of investors approached me saying they wanted to re-open it as a high class restaurant and night club, and asked if we would be interested in first helping get their liquor and entertainment licence by playing for the inspectors, and then performing there six nights a week.

Rory McKenzie had now moved on, and we decided to stay as a three-piece. Keith Austin would move onto bass guitar and vocals, I would play guitar and both electric and acoustic piano and vocals, and of course Craig James on drums and vocals. We already had an extensive pop/rock/dance/party repertoire, to which we added an opening set of laid-back sophisticated dining music. Vocally we were strong, and it was a lot of fun arranging and singing close harmonies in the songs. My disco would keep the music going in the breaks, and it would be a late night venue.

In late 1979 the venue duly opened as the Executive Club, but it was apparent from the beginning that the management were very inexperienced, and made many mistakes. Food service was very slow, and there were lots of complaints.  Nevertheless it gradually became busier, we kept the dance floor full, and it started to make money.

Then one night it all fell apart.  This was occasioned by a series of disturbances during the course of the evening, precipitated by a wealthy Greek businessman and his friends for a meal drinking too much and, recklessly, throwing and smashing dinner plates on, and around, the dance floor.  It was after shards of crockery had continually struck the band members, and appeals from the musicians had fallen on management’s deaf ears, that I took the band off the stage for the final time.  It was a difficult decision to make as we wanted the club to prosper, however, the behaviour of the guests was beyond the pale.  In the absence of any management control, we could not continue to perform.

By this stage the club had been in total musical silence for about half an hour. Many other customers had witnessed the entire event being played out. One by one they came up to us to say they didn’t blame us for walking off, and that they were disgusted at how we were being treated. Many said they refused to spend any more money in the club, and literally by the dozen they paid their bills and left.  A short while later the club was empty and silent. The offending Greek had been among the last to leave, but now at 10:30 on a Saturday night – the most financially vital night of the week – the club was deserted!

I don’t want to labour what happened next. Bear in mind we were all doing military service, fighting in a civil war – and all of us to some extent were suffering the tensions of war. All that needs to be said is that there was a very quick explosion of violence that ended with the manager needing twenty seven stitches in his face and head. They don’t make microphone stands like that any more……..

Needless to say, that was the end of our time at the Executive Club.

Politically the country was in turmoil. The Lancaster House Agreement a few months earlier had resulted in a ceasefire, the terrorists/freedom fighters (depending which side you were on) had gone to Assembly Points around the country to surrender their weapons, and a Commonwealth Peacekeeping Force had entered the country to keep the two sides apart. My police unit had been confined to base, and a contingent of British policemen were stationed there, looking totally out of place in their noddy helmets!

Plans were underway in Bulawayo for the first Zimbabwe International Trade Fair at the Bulawayo Showgrounds, and I was again approached by Peter Creswell, the producer of the Grease stage show. He wanted to put together a variety show in the showground amphitheatre and asked if I’d be interested in running it with him, with my band opening the show, providing musical backing to the artists, and devising a finale in which all the acts and the band would participate together. I agreed in principle, and he started making enquiries as to whom he could get to front the show.

He wanted a high-profile name from Salisbury who was “politically-neutral”  but, lacking a budget to fly someone in from outside the country, it turned out to be an impossible task.  He realised he’d have to re-think his headline act, and once again the mantle ended up on my shoulders. He reasoned that as the majority of the audience would be from the Matabeleland area and I was well-known there, we should call it the Mike Stewart Show, and an enlarged multi-racial band would be the centre piece of the show, featuring a list of guest artists.

I realised he was only taking the simplest and least expensive option, but I went along with it and we took on a brass section to make the sound bigger and visually more impressive. It worked out well. The brass fitted in nicely, I arranged quite an elaborate overture of international hits which were popular in the country at the time, the acts which Peter Creswell employed were talented and professional, and we had a very nice multi-racial feel to the whole show.

At roughly the same time the first internationally-recognised Zimbabwe election was taking place, and like most white Rhodesians we were hoping and praying for the leader of the Executive Council, Bishop Abel Muzorewa to win. We felt that the country could heal and go forward if the two exiled leaders of Zanu-PF – Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were defeated at the polls.

But it wasn’t to be. Amid accusations of collusion with the British government and alleged concrete proof (which was never allowed to be tested) that the election was rigged in favour of Mugabe, the tyrant was elected as leader of the new internationally recognised Zimbabwe – and my girlfriend and I made the sad decision to leave.