Dolly Rathebe (1928 – 2004). Actress, singer and shebeen owner.
Born into poverty on April 2, 1928, in Randfontein, burdened by a broken home and a physically abusive stepfather, Rathebe became one of the stars of the Sophiatown era, singing in African jazz shows with Dorothy Masuka, Thandi Klaassen, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. She was thrice married and divorced with three children.
In the 1960s-1970s she retired from her music career and for a while ran a shebeen in Cape Town, before resuming in the 1980s with TV work and other appearances.
Later in her life she went to live in Mabopane, near Pretoria, where she was a member of the executive committee of the Ikageng Women's League. She funded the construction of a multi-purpose hall at Sofasonke village near Klipgat, north of Pretoria. The hall is named Meriting kwaDolly, which translates to "Dolly's Retreat".
She died on 16 September 2004 in Pretoria after suffering a stroke and was buried in the New Roodepoort Cemetery at 301 Elias Motsoaledi Road, Dobsonville, Soweto. On 19 September 2015 a tombstone was erected for her during an offical ceremony led by the Gauteng MEC for sports, arts, culture and recreation.
She rose to fame at nineteen years of age, in 1949, when she was spotted by a talent scout and starred as the night-club singer in the country's second all-African-cast film, African Jim (later re-titled as Jim comes to Jo'burg, 1949), The Magic Garden (1951).
Besides these films she remained active as a singer and continued to be much photographed and written about throughout the rest of the decade, during which time By the 1950s she was singing with Johannesburg’s top bands, touring the country and even going as far as Lourenço Marques with the Manhattan Stars and the Harlem Swingsters. When Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety show opened in 1954, Dolly appeared and stayed as Herbert’s main attraction for many years.
She became an international star when she agreed to sing with the Afro-jazz group, the Elite Swingsters in 1964, singing regularly with the pre-eminent African jazz-marabi band of the era.
However, when King Kong went to London, taking with it most of the country’s top performers, the township’s old music scene was destroyed and musical tastes shifted to favor mbaqanga groups such as the Dark City Sisters and the Mahotella Queens. Dolly's jazzier vocal style began to fall out of favour and she retired from her music career and started a shebeen in Cape Town.
In 1989 the Elite Swingsters reunited to perform in a film set in Johannesburg during the 1950s and the reunion proved so successful that the group agreed to stay together and made a number of records, e.g. Woza (1991), A Call for Peace (1995) and Siya Gida/We Dance (1997).
She won a Naledi Lifetime Achiever Award (posthumous), February 2005.
Sunday Times, 19 September 2004.
The Star, 15 February 2005.
South African History Online .
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