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Achievers

Mann-made original rocks fame and recognition

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Probably the most successful musical export South Africa has ever seen, Manfred Mann has long been out of the spotlight. Yet, at 81, he remains a working musician armed with talent, humour, and a unique way of looking at life.

“Manfred Mann is exactly like Manfred Mann, there’s no one else in the world that’s like him,” says his manager, Steve Fernie. “There are very few people who have achieved what Manfred has. The number of internationally successful records that have been released over the years and the extent to which the name Manfred Mann appears, he’s quite an astonishing chap.”

A keyboard player who co-founded and inspired the name of hit British rock band Manfred Mann and later Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Mann is the winner of this year’s Mann Made Arts, Sports, Science, and Culture Award. The new sponsors of the award just happen to share a surname with the musical legend – yet it wasn’t really his to begin with.

Before the professional name change – the result of a writing pseudonym inspired by a jazz drummer – 20-year-old Manfred Lubowitz took a train from Park Station to Cape Town and boarded a boat to the United Kingdom. Cheap but lengthy, the journey took three weeks. “It was very inefficient, but it was also very good because you disconnected very slowly from your home country, you had time to adjust,” recalls Mann. “I’d never been out of South Africa at all.”

In London, Mann was overwhelmed by his own insignificance. “Big dreams and stuff is just stupid, the idea that one would get into the pop music [scene] at all, let alone become a pop star was inconceivable. The only person who thought I might do something was my sister.” And she was proved right, when Mann’s rhythm and blues group and namesake wrote and performed 5-4-3-2-1, the theme tune to ITV pop music television programme Ready Steady Go! which became a huge hit.

“If you’re a lawyer or a doctor, you’ve made it,” says Mann. “If you’re in pop music, now suddenly you’ve made it, but just for three months, and now you’re nobody again.” Competing against the likes of the Beatles, Mann ultimately realised that his band’s strength would be in reworking lesser-known songs that other people had written.

One such song was Do Wah Diddy, and with it came superstardom. “One of the reasons I carry on recording to this day is that I know that it’s possible to sit in a room, make a record, and the whole world sings it – eventually,” says Mann, reflecting on the simplicity of recording one of the best-known songs of all time. “I know that’s possible.”

Treating viewers of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards to some keyboard stylings, Mann spoke about how he googled how to do an acceptance speech. “The first requirement was that you had to be humble,” he said. “Then I remembered something Golda Meir, former Israeli Prime Minister, said to former United States secretary of state, Henry Kissinger in the 70s: ‘Henry don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.’ So, you can’t be too humble because that means you’re thinking you’re really important.”

With trademark humour, Mann admitted that he did feel rather important, even though he wasn’t sure whether or not he deserved his award – or whether it would give him a discount on cheese. “The thing that’s nice,” he concluded, “is that I got the award from my home country, which I’m not connected to on a day-to-day basis, and from my own regional tribe.”

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