Preferring Shunna to the stage name bestowed by fans, Shunmugam Athappa Pillay was born in St Aidan’s Hospital in Durban in a year that he preferred to keep close to his chest. He went to school across the road at St Anthony’s, and later, Wesley College in Cape Town. As a teenager in the 1950s, he was “discovered” by the larger-than-life impresario and club owner, Pumpy Naidoo of the famed Goodwill Lounge. The conversation went along the lines of: “What do you want to do?” to: “I want to sing.”
His niece, the acclaimed dancer, Professor Suria Govender, shared a vignette that his father, Shrinivasen, was a gifted Tamil classical carnatic singer who no doubt passed down good genes. Impressed by the lad’s verve, Naidoo hired the 1000-seater Bolton Hall for 30 nights with the instructions that they were to play, whether a handful or a hundred came. In spite of the small audience initially, he put his signature heart and soul into his singing.
When musicians from African Jazz and Variety popped into the venue, they were impressed enough to invite him to sing with them. No sooner was he singing to crowds of 3000, baying for more in the Durban City Hall and touring the country in the company of a 70-strong cast that included Dolly Rathebe, Ben Masinga, Gambi George and Dalton Khanyile.
Well-read, and crisp in conversation, he was fond of quoting Marcel Proust. “I am a star,” he said to promoter Alf Herbert of African Jazz and Variety. “I always headline,” he said to me in an interview soon after he returned home following his wife, Carole Manchester’s, death and four decades in the US. Adding, “I loved her dearly,” to his recounting how he scattered her ashes over the flowers of their sprawling New York property which he left to the state to create a public park. He then broke on a rock the china teapot that had held her ashes.
“I don’t like him,” he cut me short when I tried to introduce him to a photojournalist whose crime it seems was to once have called him Mr Makeba in a newspaper caption. Pillay’s first wife was effervescent nightingale and political activist Miriam Makeba. Their marriage did not last, but they cherished a lifelong affection for each other.
Scoffing at the suggestion that his extended sojourn abroad was political exile, he was firm about having gone to the UK and US simply to advance his singing career. Pillay has sung in iconic clubs like the Blue Angel in Liverpool and made his New York debut at the Village Vanguard, which he described to a journalist as “the Sistine Chapel of jazz”.
He was signed by the Music Corporation of America, which was the most dominant label in the world at the time. He had earlier worked for the BBC in London, which he said paid dreadfully but stylishly drove him in a Rolls Royce. Well into his eighties, Pillay kept his chiselled good looks, dapper dress sense and aristocratic, curt manner that had scant regard for political correctness.
“Politics never interested me; I am a singer,” he said to his two dining companions over a glass of a fine French red at the celebrated Le Troquet in Westville.
“Sing in your own voice,” he admonished a young lady belting out her lungs at the microphone at the UKZN Centre for Jazz. That lesson went down well with another popular crooner Yogan Naidoo of Black City Records, whose sultry political tribute,Vilakazi Street, is on iTunes.
Yogan credits Pillay with grooming him into a confident vocalist. He also gifted him a prized cashmere sweater. He clearly made the cut when invited to open for Pillay and his close mate, the stellar trumpeter Hugh Masekela, at the Royal Durban Country Club in March 2017. Just 140 guests were privileged to have an audience with the musical greats that evening.
He shared a tight bond with Masekela going back to the 1950s and remained in daily telephonic contact, sharing, among other things, their ailments. Both could count themselves among Makeba’s ex-husbands. They were also working together on a musical based on the gay life of a local gangster, tentatively titled Pansy, which, sadly, never made it to stage.
His take on Oscar Hammerstein’s Ol’ Man River would have left both Frank Sinatra and Paul Robeson nodding in admiration. One old friend reminisced about how he would bring women out in tears when he sang My Yiddishe Momme, leaving them to raid the kitchen at the Jewish Club. I had no hand to hold when he crooned Smokey Robinson and Ronald White’s My Girl at Royal Durban, but it is a memory to hold dear.
A chest ailment in the early 1970s robbed the world of one of the most beautiful voices on the planet, but when he did sing, he was in an unparalleled class.
Naidoo is a local historian and serves on the board of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal