South African rock legend has it that I first heard Lesley Rae on a car trip to Durban when a hitchhiker that had cadged a lift with me gave me a cassette with 2 songs on it. I was so blown away that I stopped the car and called a number on the tape cover and signed her ... Where these legends come from I have no idea, it's a great story but not true ... well, the part about being blown away is true!
The real tale of my long and intricate relationship with Lesley started sometime in 1980 when producer Tully McCully sent me a tape containing "The Spaniard" and "Grips of emotion" – 2 songs by a new Stellenbosch singer-songwriter that he was working with in the studio. I was a young budding A&R man at WEA Records, flush from some success with boogie rockers Baxtop and had worked with Tully the previous year on psych-rock reprobates Falling Mirror. He told me that he was having problems finding a label home for the project and in fact had been turned down by most local record companies. Although I was mainly a unrepentant rock fan (I still am), and my 'ears' were turned that way, I also had a soft spot for female singer- songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Carole King and the like. To say that I was stunned by what I heard was, and still is, an understatement, and I begged, cajoled and finally threatened the powers that be in the company to let me sign Lesley ... to their eternal credit they did (although there was a half joking 'your job is on the line').
The story of Lesley's meteoric rise to superstardom in the early 80's, her struggles with the industry machine, love/hate/love relationship with both the media and live performances and her incredible multiple award winning comeback in 1994 are well documented in the liner notes for the "Conspirare - Best of" release. She went on to make a string of stunning albums in the years to come but I have always had a soft spot for the first two albums ... not only because they were so groundbreaking and ultimately commercially successful, but also that they, in a sense, 'made' me as a successful A&R man so thanks for that Les!
As I sit here writing this piece and listening to the songs for the first time in many years I am experiencing the same sense of awe and wonderment as I did in 1980. The first thing that struck me was ... the voice. I had never heard anyone sing with so much passion, her voice enticing, swooping, slurring and caressing the words with no thought to pop convention ... looping around the music like an exotic unknown instrument. And the songs? Despite being totally different to anything else on radio at that time, dare I say it sounding quite 'kooky' and eclectic, the songs were little vignettes set to music that I felt had broad appeal if given the airplay. Thankfully pop radio in the early 80's was still willing to play something that was considered off the wall.
Lesley Rae Dowling continues to write, record and perform her own wonderful music without any commercial or critical concern, that is the hallmark of a true artist. In my opinion she remains one of the most unique singers in modern music.
Cape Town, March 2006