Even in the world of pop stardom, Jonathan Butler’s kinky habits raise eyebrows. For kicks, the 26-year-old singer likes to mow the lawn and tend the garden outside his modest London cottage. Sometimes, succumbing to wretched excess, he’ll trim the neighbor’s shrubs as well. Unsated, he might head for the local market, where his idea of a big splurge is to buy two loaves of bread when only one is needed. Bizarre habits indeed; yet the reason Butler relishes the mild life becomes clear when he talks about South Africa, where he grew up hungry in a cardboard shanty shared with his parents and 16 siblings. “It’s incredible,” he says of his change of fortune. “All of this is so hard to believe.”
Already a star in Africa and England, Butler has been winning raves in this country since July, when he debuted as the opening act for Whitney Houston, playing for crowds of 20,000 and 30,000 a night. A jazz guitarist and melodic pop singer in the George Benson mold, Butler has a hit album in Jonathan Butler, an ambitious two-record set that features five of his instrumental as well as 11 vocal tracks, including the singles “Lies” and “Holding On.” Although he enjoys the success, Butler is still a little uncomfortable about all the attention. “I was so embarrassed,” he says of stopping traffic on Hollywood Boulevard during a video shoot. “People were looking at me and pointing. I just wanted to run and hide. I felt ridiculous. It’s hard to get into this pop-idol thing.”
Still, it sure beats apartheid-style rock ‘n’ roll. “In South Africa we had to perform our entire show in front of a censor board,” says Butler, who left in 1984. “If they didn’t like certain things, they would be taken out. I hated the struggle I had to go through just to make music. Sometimes I had to have permits.”
In contrast, he found the opportunities available in America almost daunting. “There are no creative barriers,” he marvels. “The craziest thing about the U.S. is all the choices you have. There are so many things to watch on television. You even have choices about hamburgers. I asked for one, and they asked if I wanted a jumbo, a cheese, a Spanish, a fried, a broiled. I just wanted a regular hamburger.”
Years ago a hamburger would have been a luxury. In the shantytown of Athlone, outside prosperous, white Cape Town, Butler’s family sometimes had to borrow money to buy food and drinking water. “We had no shoes and holes in our pants, and we were sent to school without lunch because we had no food,” says Butler, whose late father, Abraham, was a musician. To stave off the pain, he and his nine brothers and seven sisters would try to laugh about their circumstances. “We’d say, ‘Well, guys, this is one of those nights,’ and we’d just crack up. If we had stopped laughing, then we would have had problems.”
While other families sold “illegal liquor or had illegal brothels,” Butler says that his family “were known as singers.” To make money, his mother, Elizabeth, organized a family choral group starring Jonathan. In 1968 he won a talent contest that brought him a $25-a-week job with a musical troupe that toured South Africa, Libya and Zaire. By age 13, Butler was a local pop star whose covers of “Please Stay” and “I Love How You Love Me” were pan-African hits. He became a born-again Christian in 1982 and two years later moved to London, where he recorded his first album, Introducing Jonathan Butler, in 1986.
Butler shares his quiet London home with his wife, Barenese, 24, a former Port Elizabeth kindergarten teacher, and their daughter, Randi, 3. The couple met at a dinner party in 1981 and, kept apart by his work, courted by telephone. for seven months. “We talked of marriage every day,” he says. “Finally I decided I better go see this girl again, because I had forgotten what she looked like—beautiful.” They married in 1982.
Permitted to return to South Africa, where his family remains, Butler says his most recent visit, last Christmas, was “terrible. People are getting poorer. People are being detained and shot dead. At Christmas people were mourning. It was a sad time.” He sends his mother money and is planning to build her a house. Despite Butler’s dismay about his country’s plight, his music is usually apolitical. “My being here in London is a political statement in itself,” he says. “I can’t walk around bitter all the time.”
Neither can he forget completely. “I think about the people in my country every day,” he says, “the struggle and the pain of just wanting to live their lives, in peace, without restraints.”