Insure your car, home and valuables with iWYZE
“WHO the hell is Larry Joe?” asked puzzled Freshlyground keyboardist and co-founder Aron Turest-Swartz, on hearing the capacity stadium crowd clamouring for the unknown performer. It was December 1, 2008, in the little Northern Cape town of Douglas. SA’s chart-topping Afro-fusion phenomenon was billed to play a special World Aids Day gig. Also featured was an obscure vocalist and guitarist, known only as “Larry Joe”.
“This tall, skinny guy went on-stage to play… and I was totally blown away,” Turest-Swartz confesses. “While he was packing away his guitar, I remember whispering, “Who are you, man?”
Seconds later, armed guards escorted the mystery artist away.
Incredibly, “Larry Joe” was a convicted criminal, serving a five-year jail term in Douglas Prison for housebreaking.
Shortly afterwards, having left Freshlyground to produce gifted performers from disadvantaged backgrounds, Turest-Swartz contacted the correctional facility, and was allotted five minutes’ talk-time with Larry Joe.
“He said ‘I want to be a great musician’,” Turest-Swartz recalls.
Over the ensuing year, fuelled by these fleeting monthly conversations, the relationship blossomed between the former thief, junkie, and 27s gang general, and the gentle suburban boy.
In early 2010, they met face to face.
Having received official permission, the two converted Larry Joe’s cell into a makeshift studio, and over a 20-hour period, recorded his debut album, Crazy Life, selecting five tracks from over 40 songs – in English, Afrikaans, Spanish, Portuguese and Xhosa – that Larry Joe had penned while in elective solitary confinement; a guitar (and the seven stars visible through the window bars) his sole companion.
On February 11, 2011, having served half his sentence, Larry Joe was paroled for good behaviour. That day, in the prison car park, 1 000 people attended his first performance as a free man.
Now, just over a year later, Turest-Swartz and Larry Joe share an affectionate bond transcending that of mentor and protégé. But what caused this gifted guitarist, with the sweet, soulful voice, to plummet so deeply into the abyss … and how did he claw his way out?
Larry Joe describes his impoverished, dysfunctional childhood in Kimberley and nearby towns.
It’s a typical tale of alcoholism, abuse, neglect and hopelessness – with one major redeeming feature. Music. Recognising his aptitude, Larry Joe’s father encouraged him from an early age, and he shone in talent shows.
Throughout the dark years – incarcerated in juvenile detention centres; busking and begging on the streets of Cape Town; stealing to fuel his addiction for buttons and dop; living as a fugitive, and then, while in jail, experiencing the shattering deaths of his father, and subsequently, his 18-month-old daughter – music remained Larry Joe’s inspiration, and salvation.
Could that hard-core exterior have masked a sensitive, vulnerable soul?
He nods. “I was fearful, so I thought that, if I became fearsome, I’d be more in charge of my life. Gangsters were the only accessible role models in my community. I chose that path.”
Was there a defining moment of revelation?
“It was a gradual process. I handed myself in, and took the rap. In a way, I was free from that point onwards. One step in the right direction led to other amazing stuff, like being invited to perform by the prison authorities, and meeting Aron. I discovered that you can never be too bad to be good – and I want to share that with others.”
He’s acutely aware that he could have been just another statistic.
Instead, during the first year of his new life, Larry Joe accompanied Turest-Swartz to Europe, selling out all his CDs. He also performed at the 2011 and 2012 KKNK. His first single, Middle of the Night, will be released shortly, with another in August/ September, and an album by year-end. He has collaborated with Vusi Mahlasela, and Karen Zoid, and regularly gigs with The Larry Joe Live band.
A documentary of his personal journey will premiere at the Encounters Film Festival on June 11 and 20. And yet, despite his burgeoning fame (and fan-base), he remains refreshingly candid.
“I had this list of things I wanted to do: perform on Noot vir Noot, appear on the cover of Huisgenoot and You, and star in 7de Laan. But my greatest dream was to play at Madison Square Gardens!”
He’ll be appearing on Noot vir Noot on June 29, with a magazine feature and TV role in the pipeline… but more importantly, Larry Joe wants to be a positive role model for youngsters.
With his inspiring story of “bad guy makes good”, he’s the stuff of which teen heroes are made – an exemplary channel for conveying a powerful message of hope against adversity, and the ability to realise innate potential.
He and Turest-Swartz have initiated a programme called Face the Music, and will be conducting workshops countrywide, in an attempt to inculcate sound moral values, and emphasise the importance of education, amongst schoolchildren.
For a young man who so recently traded his cell for celebrity, these are giant strides. Larry Joe grins ruefully. “I used to break into houses. Now I want to break into people’s hearts!”
l See www.larryjoelive.com, or www.facebook.com/larryjoelive