Koos Kombuis tracks down SA music legends for Rolling Stone in the series 'Wish You Were Here'. In this edition Kombuis meets up music industry legend Benjy Mudie.
We are about the same age, Benjy! Though I don't remember meeting you personally back in the good old days of Shifty Records and Voëlvry – my memory is sketchy anyway – I suspect you were the cool-looking dude that sold records and tapes in that massive music store where I used to hang out in Hillbrow in the seventies. Any truth in this vague recollection?
I moved to Hillbrow in 1972, fresh from the East Rand. I worked for a while running a record stall in the Flea Market then went on to manage one of the biggest record stores, opposite Highpoint, and stayed there until 1976 when I joined the then fledgling WEA Records. Working in the store during rock's heyday was a gas...playing music all day, hanging with muso's, fans, girls, hippies and all the denizens of Hillbrow, smoking funny cigarettes, watching bands at night, drinking beer and getting laid - what a life! And I got paid for this!
While researching your history as a music industry icon, I was surprised to find out that you have something in common with Charlize Theron – like her, you grew up in Benoni! Interesting thing is, where the hell in Benoni did you manage to get hold of Jimi Hendrix's music? Apparently, he was your first influence, and the reason you developed an obsession with rock. Wasn't that type of stuff illegal in Benoni when you were 13?
My family moved to Benoni in '62 from Dundee, Scotland. Being from a cross bred Scottish/Irish, devoutly Catholic family I was despatched to the local convent in the high hopes that I would become a priest, which probably accounts for how I turned out -The Pope's loss and rock 'n' roll's gain! Fell in love with Donovan, Canned Heat, The Who, snotty Stones and psych Beatles on LM Radio. I used to bunk school to go to Melody's Record Bar to listen to everything that I could get my ears on, from Ravi Shankar, Sun Ra and Vanilla Fudge to The Blues Magoo's, John Williams and The Pretty Things. They used to have all the latest imports there so every spare moment was spent with those pink headphones on. My 'lightswitch' moment was when I picked up a copy of Are You Experienced... all thoughts of academia, archaeology (my first love) went out the window, and music became my mistress forever. PS: got nabbed swiping a copy of My Generation from the local OK Bazaars.
Apart from that misdemeanour, you are obviously an honest person – as you say yourself on Twitter, "a man who hates music cannot be trusted" – yet you have been involved with the music industry as A&R manager, Idols judge, record label owner, etc., for a number of years. How do you survive in an industry which is known for its cut-throat competition and corruption?
This may be longwinded but here we go: After not cracking it as a budding guitarist and a marginally better bassist in various rock bands, I ventured into the business of music and discovered that I had a talent for spotting emerging artists and music. The industry back then was very staid, old-fashioned and myopic so as a young music fanatic I thought that I could make a difference by trying to change the dynamic of the relationship of the artist and label from one of master/serf to one of mutual respect and creative interaction. I survive by staying true to my mantra of 'artist and music first'- without artists and their music there would be no industry, no radio, no nothing and the world would be a poorer place.
You played a major role in the career of Elvis Blue, thereby raising the standard of music associated with Idol winners. Are there any other young stars on the horizon? How do you feel about the quality of local music right now?
I think that Elvis Blue winning Season 6 was a major sea change in how Idols was viewed by the broader music community. First and foremost he was a real musician who had done the hard yards plying his craft for the past 10 years. Secondly he took an active hand in writing some of the material for the album. Last year, both the winner, David van Vuuren, and the runner up, Mark Haze, were both working musicians. So the point is that the dynamic has changed with more and more real musicians entering the competition. That said, for me, the time-honoured tradition of paying one's dues on the road (with its accompanying blood, sweat and tears) to being a successful original musician is still the way to go. As for new stars on the horison this country is truly blessed with an overabundance of great new artists and music. My favourite at the moment, and one that I have just signed, is Paige MacMahon - a 19 year old black acoustic guitarist with the most incredible fresh voice. A bit of a throwback to Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman with a touch of soul!
Thanks, Benjy, and I hope you don't get caught shoplifting again!