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Band plays on for music legend Benny Michel

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Former musical director Benny Michel, who will turn 100 this year, is a legend in his own lifetime.

Although he’s now battling health issues, his name will go down in history as synonymous with Jewish entertainment in the South African Jewish community.

“Benny lived for music, the functions, the people, and the buzz,” says Estelle Ash of her Johannesburg-based dad whose musical career spanned more than 50 years.

“Very few musicians alive of Benny’s era didn’t play in one of his bands. He was a legend,” says Les Markowitz, who played as a drummer in Michel’s band for three years, starting in 1969.

Performer and studio owner Jonathan Birin says, “He was like the front runner, the leader of our industry. If you could get Benny Michel to perform at your wedding, you were guaranteed to have a great wedding.”

Caterer Stan Smookler (aka “Stan the Good Shabbos Man”) says he worked with Michel at close to 100 functions. “He was a lovely guy. He had it hard,” Smookler says.

Michel, a self-taught musician, was born in a small shtetl in Lithuania on 1 October 1923. The eldest of his parent’s three children, he was stricken with polio when he was 11 weeks old.

“He firmly believes it was the socio-economic conditions in which he lived which contributed to him contracting poliomyelitis,” says Ash, who lives in Australia. Michel’s extended family of 17 occupied a mud-floored house which they shared with their cattle and goats. “But right until her death, Benny’s mother believed that he was the victim of the evil eye.”

In a desperate move to escape the Bolshevik uprising in 1927, the Michel family decided to emigrate to South Africa.

“They decided to come to ‘the land of gold’, and the family believed that the medical care in South Africa would be far better than in Lithuania,” Ash says. “The family arrived, and Benny spent the next 14 years in and out of hospital.”

To date, Michel has undergone more than 50 operations. “His whole life he was at war with his disability,” Ash says. “Due to his disability, he achieved so much and strived for perfection. He once said that perhaps in a bizarre way his affliction was a good thing because it often lifted him beyond himself.”

Michel was a Transvaal swimming champion during his school days. He was educated at Observatory East, Yeoville Boys, and Observatory Junior High. He says he wasn’t a particularly good student but excelled in English and carpentry.

After leaving school, he trained as a manufacturing jeweller, and served his five-year apprenticeship, although he never worked in the profession, finding it too quiet and conservative. Music was always going to be his passion.

To while away the time during his hospital stays, Michel taught himself to play the harmonica.

Larry Adler, a global virtuoso at the harmonica, was visiting the Children’s Hospital when he heard Michel playing. Hearing Adler say, “You’re good enough to get even better” was encouraging for Michel.

“Jo Slovo’s dad gave him a mouth organ to practice on, and the rest is history,” Ash says. “Benny entered hundreds of talent contests which were held at various bioscopes on a Saturday. He won the lot.

“Top dance band leaders took an interest in this youngster, and there was no good band at any time for whom Benny did not work at some time or other.”

Michel’s dream was to form his own band. He did so at the age of 17, when he assembled a group of youngsters whose average age was 16.

When World War II began, Michel landed a broadcasting contract and won a national contest almost simultaneously.

During the war, Benny formed a civilian “concert party” under the auspices of the YMCA, which entertained troops and did 450 concerts for six years, efforts for which he was awarded a medal by General Jan Smuts for “meritorious service to the war” by a civilian.

By 1957, Michal had recorded the first vinyl LP record in South Africa, called Rozinkes mit Mandlen, a collection of Jewish songs and lullabies. He recorded another seven LPs, two of which had international acclaim.

Markowitz joined Michel’s band in 1969, at a time when the latter would have around 16 bands performing on a Saturday night at different functions. “Benny comes from the old school. A total mensch! He ran his business on strict lines. It was difficult to employ anything up to 50 or 60 different musicians on a Saturday night at different venues. It was like a normal eight-to-five day job for him.

“Benny is a sensitive, compassionate man with an engaging sense of humour,” Ash says. “He landed a magnificent six-and-a-half-year broadcasting contract with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to do a live big band show called the Sparletta Swing Shift, which aired on Saturday nights.”

Michel basically performed at all the major functions in his day, Birin says. “I heard him play once. They were brilliant. Just watching the energy and the enjoyment of his bands, I wanted to do what he did.

“From him, I learnt that a good function comes first, money second. For him, the most important thing was ensuring that the bride and groom had their best day ever.”

In addition to weddings, Michel played at banquets, balls, cabarets, nightclubs, Barmitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries, conventions, rallies, jazz recitals, and fundraising functions. He performed before royalty – including the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret when they toured South Africa in 1947.

In 2002, Michel released his autobiography, Footnote to a Dream, “a revealing, nostalgic story about a bittersweet life, one that he still lives today,” Ash says. “Benny was married to Becky for more than 60 years. Sadly, she passed away 11 years ago after a life dogged by ill health. He has three grandchildren and a great-grandson.”

Ash describes Michel as her hero and “the perfect dad”. “Being an only child, all that he ever wanted was for me to be happy. He taught me so many skills, as well as love and compassion. He always told me to not underestimate people because they looked different. At the age of 87, Benny was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed a mastectomy. Today, he lives in an apartment in Killarney. His mind is superb. His keen sense of humour remains unchanged. It’s believed that Benny is one of the oldest surviving victims of poliomyelitis in the world.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Stan Smookler

    Jan 19, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    E-mazing article, very well written to a special MENTCH

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