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Jerry Shanahan

It’s a sad comment on the fickleness of musical fame and fortune but only a diminishing number of older, predominantly Afrikaans-speaking South Africans are now likely to recall the name, Jerry Shanahan.  However, this self-styled ‘King Of The Hawaiian Guitar’ was one of the country’s more singularly talented musicians in the 1950s and 60s as well as one of the busiest, recording a score of albums under his own name and racking up credits as an accompanist that eventually encompassed hundreds of sessions.

Today, Hawaiian music itself has largely been forgotten but it once commanded a large and avid following, and not only in South Africa. From the time of the First World War up through the 1970s, the Hawaiian style truly enjoyed an international renown; indeed, it was probably the very first example of what would now be called ‘world music’.  By the early 1920s, imported Hawaiian recordings were already being sold in large quantities in South Africa and by the following decade, a number of local musicians had mastered the rudiments of the guitar technique.  Two of them, Henry Jansen and David J. Strauss, even made a number of excellent Hawaiian style recordings in the 1930s and 40s for Gallo’s Singer label and its associated Decca imprint.

In its most traditional form, the music of the Hawaiian Islands, like much indigenous African music, was sung (and danced) to a drummed accompaniment.  Then, during the 19th century, Christian missionaries introduced western harmonies and Portuguese sailors brought the precursor of the four-stringed ukulele, an ideal instrument for providing chunky, chord-based rhythm patterns.  By the early years of the 20th century, a new style of Hawaiian song was being formulated that combined ‘island melodies’ with English lyrics.  These popular ditties were usually saturated with exotic references to ‘swaying palms’, ‘tropical moonlight’, ‘paradise’ and the like, and no doubt it was this commercially romantic image that subsequently accounted for much of the music’s wide appeal.

But the most important Hawaiian musical innovations were centered on the guitar, an instrument originally introduced to the islands by Mexican cowboys.  These were what gave the style its harder, ‘bluesy’ edge, thereby preventing it, at least some of the time, from descending into the purely mawkish.  The Hawaiians were apparently the first to play the instrument using various ‘open tunings’, re-setting the strings to automatically produce a harmonious chord when strummed instead of the discord produced with the conventional tuning.  This they combined with their ‘slide’ technique – the guitar was played face-up on the lap and instead of using fingers to fret the strings and create different chords, a solid metal bar was moved up and down the neck giving a glissando effect.  In the hands of a skilled player, it was thus possible to extract a wide range of unique chords, depending on the particular tuning and whether the slide was placed at ninety degrees or at an angle to the strings above the fret board.  Furthermore, highly inventive and emotive, single-note melody lines whose impact depended, as in jazz, on the use of semi-tones could also be played.  (In both instances, the use of both hands to dampen certain strings while simultaneously plucking and pitching others was a difficult but necessary component of the technique.)

The musical possibilities of this ‘steel guitar’ style (so-called because of the steel slide bar) were further increased when the first electric Hawaiian guitars appeared in the early 1930s (these were, in fact, the first electric guitars of any type), allowing individual notes and chords to be sustained for a much longer duration.  The invention of the pedal steel guitar in the 1950s was the final refinement.  By activating various foot pedals and knee levers, the pitch of one or several strings was altered to create different chords or melodic effects.  But although this instrument provided a defining characteristic of much American country music from the late 50s onwards, it was never especially popular with Hawaiian-style musicians.

In South Africa, of all the many musicians who tried to master the modern-era Hawaiian steel guitar, only Jerry Shanahan succeeded in matching the efforts of the best international talents.  Born Jeremiah Josiah Shanahan in the Fordsburg suburb of Johannesburg on September 12, 1927, he was, despite his Irish-sounding name, raised in a totally Afrikaans-speaking environment.  (An unconfirmed piece of family history tells of an Irish Republican grandfather coming to the country to fight for the Boers during the 1899-1902 war and then marrying into an Afrikaans family, but seeing as his son, Jerry’s father, was born in South Africa in 1891, some of the story’s details do not quite fall into place.)

Jerry suffered an unhappy and traumatic childhood and probably because of this, he now finds it virtually impossible to remember anything of his first twelve or so years beyond a general recollection of insecurity and foreboding.  His father died “of a nervous condition” when he was eleven, followed by his mother a year later.  Jerry and his older brother and sister were then taken in by his half sister (from his late mother’s first marriage) and her husband.  Not long afterwards, together with their own two children, his stepparents moved their newly enlarged family a few miles north to Westdene.

Jerry remembers that they were very poor.  The family’s only regular income was earned through his stepfather’s low paying job delivering packaged consignments around the city by lorry for the South African Railways.  In order to make ends meet, he supplemented his wages with a garden produce business and some occasional woodcutting.  Jerry supplied most of the raw labour, being forced to “work like a slave.”  To make matters worse, his stepfather, a hulking giant of a man with “the biggest hands I’ve ever seen”, soon revealed himself to be a psychotic brute with a vicious and erratic temper.  (Jerry says he never saw him smile.)  Jerry’s recollections of family meals are particularly chilling: a total silence was imposed by the stepfather who kept a thick leather strap close by his side with which he lashed his wife and children for various real or imagined offences, sometimes catching young Jerry right across the face.

When he was fifteen, Jerry decided he’d had enough.  Just after completing his standard seven at Rossmore High School, he followed the footsteps of his brother and sister and ran away from home.   He soon found a job as a ‘pointsman’ on the municipal trams for £2-12 per week and after a few months was promoted to a position as a bus conductor eventually making £16 per week, a very good wage in the early 1940s.  He worked for the municipality for another 3-1/2 years and during some of that time, lived with an aunt in Fordsburg together with his brother and sister.  This perhaps gave his life a little of the warmth that had been so conspicuously lacking before.

But the psychological scars of an insecure and abusive childhood had already been inflicted.  Jerry admits to having a mean streak in his teens and twenties and remembers being only too ready to climb into a fistfight under any pretext.  At a later point in his life, he was placed under observation at Tara Mental Hospital while the psychiatrists tried to find out “what was wrong with me.”  Jerry was also continually prone to frequent bouts of ill health and a variety of physical complaints, a lifelong affliction.  Despite his having now outlived most of his musician contemporaries (whose hard drinking lifestyles have taken a heavy toll), Jerry is usually want to remark how those few survivors will be surprised to hear that he, too, is still alive because “I was always so sick during those years.”

Jerry only started to play music after he left home.  He first found a guitar with a smashed body, the result of a fight, and salvaged the neck, attaching an empty paraffin tin and some clothesline wire to create a working facsimile on which to learn.  Not long afterwards, he made propitious discovery.  He was attending a small party, making music along with two friends playing a banjo and concertina, when he happened to pick up a car engine valve that was lying about and ran the round stem up and down the strings of his guitar.  So this was how the sliding effect was achieved on the Henry Jansen records that his stepfather used to play at home!
The seed had now been planted.  Through hit and miss experimentation (there were no Hawaiian-style instruction manuals to be had), and also by seeking out and imitating the recordings of Hawaiian guitar greats such as Sol Hoopii, Andy Iona and especially Dick McIntire (whom he still rates as my “all-time favourite”), Jerry eventually managed to figure out the various open tunings and learned also how to handle the bar and damping techniques.  In fact, he was a genius at it, a fact that was reinforced when, after playing for only a year or so, he attempted to take lessons from Henry Jansen himself.  The older man asked Jerry to “audition” for him again and again, then eventually confessed that there was nothing he could teach Jerry, in fact Jerry could teach him!  Much the same thing happened when Jerry tried to get lessons from Charlie Macrow, another musician who was also considered to be one of the best South Africans on the instrument at the time.  (Macrow offered Jerry a “deal”: he would teach Jerry to read music if Jerry showed him his Hawaiian techniques but Jerry wasn’t interested.)

Before long, Jerry was playing professionally.  Hawaiian guitars were a popular addition to the new Afrikaans ‘light music’ bands that began appearing in the early 1940s, so there was no lack of opportunity for someone who could play the instrument.  Jerry began gigging and broadcasting with the band led, alternatively, by Callie Burger and Hansie Van Loggerenburg but soon left because of disagreements over money.  He then joined another band run by accordionist Sam Petzer.  Jerry stayed with Petzer for about a year and made his first recordings with him for Trutone in (about) 1948.  However, Jerry wanted to play Hawaiian music, not ‘boeremusiek’, so he decided to form his own band.   Jerry Shanahan And His Aloha Hawaiians were soon doing variety shows at ‘bioscopes’ (cinemas) where they sometimes shared the stage with Al Debbo and Frederick Burgers, nationally famous comedians who were then both at the height of their popularity.  Still later, Jerry was a regular attraction at the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow.  One night, he overheard a member of a visiting British dance band who were playing on the same bill make a remark to one of his compatriots, “You should hear this ‘boertjie’ play Hawaiian – there’s no one in England who can touch him!”

Jerry was living a carefree bachelor life at this point.  He was working days installing shelving for the post office, the “nicest job I ever had” because of the “camaraderie” but one that paid poorly.  (Somewhat later, he drove a lorry for a few years.)  He “moved around”, taking accommodation in a number of Johannesburg’s predominantly Afrikaans western suburbs including one stint at the boarding house run by accordionist-keyboard player Flippie Van Vuuren’s mother in Brixton.  (Jazz guitarist Jannie – later Johnnie – Fourie was resident there at the same time.)  And his nights were devoted to music making, much of it in the company of a small group of close friends that included guitarist Bill Caldecott and bassist Vic Wiehahn.

But also about this time, Jerry began to be afflicted with severe stage fright.  He found he could no longer play before an audience without being totally overcome by an unfathomable fear.  “They [the audience] mustn’t be quiet. They mustn’t focus attention on me.  When they start dancing, if they’re not looking at me, the fear goes away.  And I can’t fight it because I don’t know what it is.”  He was convinced he was going to die on stage and even now likens the feeling he got when mounting the few steps up to the stage as that of a man going to his execution.

This did not spell the end of Jerry’s music career but it increasingly restricted his activities to the recording studio.  Even there, he could sometimes unexpectedly be overcome with the jitters but far less frequently.  Fortunately, there was plenty of studio work to be had and at one time he even boasted a five-year studio contract with Troubadour Records.  In addition to making his own Hawaiian albums as well as the occasional guitar instrumental record  (“I can play a bit of guitar and banjo”), Jerry was used by every studio in the business as an accompanist to a long list of vocalists that included Charles Jacobie, Min Shaw, Lance James, Santa Vorster and Frans, Sannie and Anita Briel.  The product of one of these sessions, Billy Forrest’s cover of “Miller’s Cave”, won a Sarie Award in 1962.  It was the closest Jerry would come to any official industry recognition of his talents.

His fellow musicians found it difficult to understand that someone so obviously gifted was crippled by such crushing self-doubt and insecurities.  But even the competitive banter inside the studio could unsettle Jerry’s frail ego.  One of his frequently repeated reminiscences concerns a day when he was doing a session for Dan Hill at Gallo.  Hill shouted at Jerry for making a mistake, calling him a “fucking egghead.”   This would hardly have bothered most session man (Hill had a reputation for being impatient, but his bark was known to be worse than his bite).  However, Jerry’s friend, Regardo ‘Ricky’ Bornman, who was playing guitar, must have registered his discomfort and felt compelled to come to Jerry’s defense.

“Hey, Dan, can I ask you a question?”

“Ya, what is it?”

“Can you play the Hawaiian guitar?”

“What sort of a fucking stupid question is that?  You know I can’t!”

“Well, I’ve tried to play it but I can’t ‘cause it’s a helluva difficult instrument but Jerry   here is a genius at it!”

Jerry’s musical hero at this point was steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, an American who was considered the best in the world on the instrument at the time.  Much like his South African counterpart, he made solo Hawaiian recordings but was also a consummate studio musician who recorded with a variety of country vocalists including Hank Williams.  Shanahan approvingly quotes a story where Byrd was asked if he could read music.  The reply was, “not enough to spoil my playing.”  By his own reckoning, Jerry says he can read “a little but I’m not a good sight reader.”  However, he obviously had a fine theoretical grasp of music, a necessity for understanding the workings of the six different open tunings that he used, as well as a naturally talented ‘ear’.  Even more importantly, Shanahan possessed an innate melodic sense.   He was an excellent composer and eventually authored several hundred songs.

Jerry Byrd played an electric steel guitar that incorporated three sets of strings into one body allowing him to simultaneously play in three different tunings.  As it was impossible to purchase such an instrument in South Africa, Shanahan set about building his own.  The first was enough of a success that Jerry was soon being asked to build more of them.  Eventually, he had a small side business building Hawaiian guitars which he sold under the trade names ‘Aloha’, ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Jerry En Lani’.

Yet, sad to say, despite all this musical activity, which at times also included teaching music, Jerry Shanahan was never entirely able to make a living at it.  “The vocalists made all the money”, he says.  Session musicians were not that well paid.  His inability to do live gigs also closed off another important source of potential income.  As a result, Jerry always had to keep a day job.  He married late, at 36, but soon ended up with five sons to feed and it was battle to make ends meet.  For many years, Jerry worked as a bricklayer.  “I’d be building somewhere and a telegram would come telling me I was needed at the studio.  Sometimes, they just used to send a cab and I’d go down without even having a chance to clean up.  My fingers used to be bleeding and the guys wanted to know how I could play like that.”

Jerry also continued to be plagued by ill health.  His story about recording the ‘Draai En Swaai In Hawaii’ album for EMI, an intended collaborative effort with guitarist Gerrie De Vos, is typical.  On the morning of the session, he phoned producer Nico Carstens to say that he was feeling too sick to play.  Nico prevailed on Jerry to come down anyway as the studio and the session musicians were already booked and waiting.  Reinforced with a “few nips” of brandy, Jerry managed to lay down six tracks but by lunchtime, he was again feeling so bad that he returned home, leaving De Vos and the session men to finish off the rest.

In 1971, Jerry Shanahan suffered two heart attacks in a space of two weeks.  His doctor advised him to quit playing music (“the strain was too much”) and for the most part he has.  Jerry did two final recording sessions, one for organist Ken Espen and another for vocalist Virginia Lee, both after their pleas that he temporarily renege on his retirement.  Since then, he has only played the occasional small gig.  Perhaps, the stage fright is less of a problem these days but with the old generation of guitarists having mostly passed away, it’s difficult to find competent accompanists.

Jerry is now divorced but he continues to live in the Brixton house he has owned for the past forty-one years.  A faded sign outside still advertises Hawaiian guitar lessons; sadly, few people nowadays are interested.  The international popularity of Hawaiian music waned in the 1970s, and in South Africa it is seldom heard on the radio and has largely disappeared from the music shops.

Today, Jerry takes solace in religion and is a devout member of the Old Apostolic Church Of Africa (“the only true apostolic church”, as he hastens to affirm).  Despite his occasional protestations that he is now “more interested in God than music”, Jerry’s assistance was essential in compiling this collection highlighting 27 of his finest solo instrumental pieces.  Backed by what were then the country’s finest session musicians, these recordings have been culled from Jerry’s numerous solo albums, all long out of print, including one issued under the pseudonym of Andre Rossouw (‘En ‘N Hawaiise Luim’ on Juveel LSJ 262).

Our selection encompasses a variety of musical sources that we hope will serve to showcase the versatility of the Hawaiian guitar and Jerry’s approach to it.  In addition to the more purely Hawaiian pieces such as Andy Iona and Dick McIntire’s ‘Kuu Ipo’ or Jerry’s own ‘Beautiful Waikiki, there are standards (‘Blue Moon’), an Afrikaans light music piece (Danie Bosman’s ‘In Die Skadu Van Ou Tafelberg’), a little jazz (‘Till The End Of The World’) and even two country-style boogies (‘Twaalfsnaar Boogie’).  Jerry’s playing, with its almost outré chording and liquid solo lines, is always melodic and soulful but there’s also an underlying toughness to it.  He never descends into the kind of clichéd sentimentality that can so easily take this style into the throwaway realm of cocktail or background music.

Jerry Shanahan was not only the ‘South African King Of The Hawaiian Guitar’, but a world-class master of this most distinctive and difficult instrument.  It’s a great shame that the country is unlikely to hear his like again.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 3:39 pm

    Jerry Shanahan passed away today the 12th August 2011 @ 8:00 am in the Chartlot Mekeke Hospital. He had two major heart attacts last night. He will be missed by his son’s Jerry, Charles,Andy ShanahAn and his daughter -in-law’s and 7 grand kids. We love you Jerry RIP

  2. J.H.Naude permalink
    August 13, 2011 9:25 pm

    It Is a real sad day . of A GREAT MUSICIAN that passed my way and touched so many hearts with his exceptional,one of akind man playing
    the Hawain Guitar ,the way he ONLY could.He was a quiet honest and God fearing man that has brought delight to many ….
    REST IN PEACE ,JERRY .your memories will be a Great Treasure that will never fade ,as your wonderfull smile and nature ,that was a indicative of you .
    When I walked in to your house yesterday the 11th ,I saw the portate on the wall ,and said to His children .”that is the way I knew him all his years
    jan Naude
    011 472 0293/082 928 2260

  3. September 20, 2011 11:47 am

    Jerry, thank you for being such a close and true friend. I shall miss our long talks and musical get togethers. You brought inspiration to so many through your kindness, thoughtfulness and musical genius. I shall always remember you with love. Valerie

  4. ColdWarKid permalink
    May 15, 2013 11:23 pm

    My great aunt new Jerry and before he passed he gave her one of his guitars and said “look after it for me” and two weeks ago I started learning guitar on that guitar very honored to be able to use a piece of South African musical history.

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