BILLY SUTER chats to GRANT BELL, a member of Durban’s seasoned Gee Jays vocal trio, which presents its show, Don’t Tune Me – Ek Se, at Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre at St Cyprian’s Church Hall, 603 Umbilo Road, at 8pm on Friday and Saturday (April 20 and 21) and 2pm on Sunday (April 22). Tickets cost R150. Call Roland at 082 499 8636 to book.
HOW MANY SHOWS HAVE THE GEE JAYS DONE TO DATE – AND WHAT MARKED THE FIRST?
We have done 15 shows to date in a supper theatre format. The very first was Meat Me at the Hermit (the spelling was intentional as the Hermit Restaurant only served vegetarian dishes). The Hermit was in Hermitage Lane in Durban… and that show would have been some 32 years ago.
Barry Meehan was responsible for ‘productising’ the show which opened to very mixed reviews. The production contained plenty of comedy and popular music, a formula which remains integral to our shows today.
HOW, WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU AND FELLOW GEE JAYS, JOHN DIDLICK AND GARY MCKENZIE, MEET?
We met in an amateur production staged by The Company of Theatre Arts at Durban’s St John’s Theatre. The producer, Jean Beauchamp, wanted a Beatles medley and John, Gary, Jim Croeser and I were chosen to perform it. By the way, we still use this very same medley (mixed by Dawn Selby) in some of our corporate gigs.
We started out performing the Beatles medley straight, but inevitably our sense of comedy found itself in some of the songs, and I think this is when we realised we had something unique that people enjoyed watching.
The Gee Jays was taken from our first names: two Gs and two Js. Jim, sadly, didn’t last long as his family emigrated to Australia and we became a trio.
Barry Meehan encouraged us to put some material together and was instrumental in producing our first shows.
WHAT HAVE BEEN TWO OF THE MOST AMUSING INCIDENTS INVOLVING PERFORMANCES WITH THE GEE JAYS?
Gary and John perform a strip in our show Not the Full Monty. Gary always entices a woman from the audience to join them onstage. In one corporate gig, at the Durban Country Club ,he decided to choose the wife of the MD of the company, thinking he would earn brownie points.
Unbeknown to him, the woman he chose had a prosthetic arm… and when he came to help her up from the chair it almost came off in his hands.
The show stopped for several minutes while John and I tried to compose ourselves, and Gary tried to help the woman back to her seat.
Also, we once travelled to Lesotho to do a corporate gig for an IT company. Before we took the stage the MC, who was ever so proper, wanted to introduce us as the performers for the evening. He took to the stage before a packed audience of dignitaries and his opening words were: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, you are probably wondering why i am standing behind this rectum…” A classic case of mixing up the words ‘rostrum’ and ‘lectern’. Suffice to say, we did not present ourselves onstage as we had collapsed in a heap.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THREE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR SINGING CAREER?
I thoroughly enjoyed performing in the Neil Diamond Tribute, The Jazz Singer. We had a fantastic band and working with Barry Thomson, Dawn Selby and Mali Sewell is always a great privilege. We repeated the show six times over the years at the Heritage Theatre in Hillcrest.
I have also sung several Frank Sinatra songs with the Durban Philharmonic Orchestra, and for the first time realised the power of performing with a 30-plus-piece band.
I believe one of the strengths of the Gee Jays is our ability to blend and harmonise our three quite distinctive voices into a collective sound … and this is always a great experience for me.
THE GEE JAYS IS A SIDELINE PASSION – HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TEACHING, WHAT SUBJECTS AND AT WHAT SCHOOLS?
I had an opportunity to study drama after school but chose teaching instead, and have never regretted my decision as I have been able to enjoy both my passions.
I started teaching at Westville Boys’ High in 1985. I took a year’s sabbatical in 1995 to completed my B Ed degree and then returned to Westville to continue my teaching career.
In 2000 I resigned from teaching and decided to try my hand as a fulltime pro entertainer, and for the next six years I tried everything from radio to TV to industrial theatre.
Sport has always been my third passion, and in 2007 I had an opportunity to return to Westville Boy’s High and head up their sport academy. In 2009, I took over as director of sport, and in 2014 I became the director of high performance in sport.
In 2016 I moved to Clifton School as the new director of rugby, as a challenge to develop their rugby programme to match their other fine sports. I am also a backline specialist coach at the Sharks Academy, so between Clifton and the Sharks, I am kept very busy.
John is a retired headmaster and now works as a teacher at a special needs school, while Gary has entertainment contracts for several companies and organises entertainers and events.
WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?
Passionate, focused, loyal, driven, balanced
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I had an imaginary friend when I was child. I support New Zealand Rugby – not because I am unpatriotic, but rather because I enjoy their game philosophy. I am a sore loser – even when I know it’s wrong. I am extremely competitive – even at a game of cards. I hate baked beans.
YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON STAGE?
When I fell off the front of a stage into the orchestra pit (narrowly missing the drummer’s high hat which would have impaled me). This happened during an unforeseen blackout in the theatre. I uttered “F…K” into my lavalier mic which the entire audience heard… and when the lights came up, the audience saw my butt as I tried to climb out of the pit onto the stage.
THE MOST FAMOUS PERSON YOU HAVE MET – AND WHO WOULD YOU GIVE GOLD TO MEET?
I’m not sure about famous, but I’ve meet a heap of Springboks and other international players and coaches on my travels. I tend to remember the ones who didn’t have an ego. I would really love to have met Frank Sinatra, as I have always had a very close affinity with his music. I grew up listening to it and I have performed so many of his songs over the years.
HOBBIES, PASTIMES AND FAVOURITE THINGS?
Blues and jazz music; reading crime novels and autobiographies; fly fishing; mountain biking and anything to do with the beach – my favourite place.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU?
Players thanking me for helping them achieve their dreams in sport. Surprising because these guys are famous players and I had but a small part to play in their success. This sense of humbleness in sportsmen is special.
WHERE WERE YOU BORN – AND WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BIRTHDAY?
I was born in Durban. My 21st birthday was memorable as I had just lost my father and it was only on the evening of my party that I finally realised I would not be able to share occasions like this with him again. That is why my family is so important to me.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON CALLS TO REINTRODUCE THE DEATH PENALTY IN SOUTH AFRICA?
As much as crime is a major issue in our country, reintroducing the death penalty is not going to solve the problem. We need to tackle corruption in our government and ensure all our people’s basic rights and needs are taken care of.
WHAT ARE YOUR FEARS AND PHOBIAS?
I hate spiders… not sure why… probably some innate, deep fear from watching too many horror movies about giant arachnids as a child.
WHAT TRAITS DO YOU MOST DISLIKE IN OTHERS?
Dishonesty and disloyalty would be my biggest bugbears. I also intensely dislike people who have an overblown opinion of themselves and suffer from a “God complex”. Having had firsthand experience of working under some like this for several years, I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy
IF YOU COULD CHANGE THREE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
I’ve got to that age where I’m finally comfortable walking around in my own skin, so as much as it would be great to be 21 again, I could only do it if I had the knowledge, wisdom and experience I have now.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’? AND WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘ABSOLUTE NO-NOS?
Absolutely fabulous: Thai food, the All Blacks, the Blitzbokke, Michael Franks and my family .
Absolute no-nos: Carbohydrates after lunch, rainy weather, traffic jams, radio DJs who masquerade as comedians on air and gym bunnies in tights who have no calves.
FIVE OF YOUR ALL-TIME FAVOURITE SONGS?
Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan, Change the World by Eric Clapton, Eggplant by Michael Franks, Moondance by Van Morrison and I Can See Clearly Now by Hothouse Flowers.
THE BEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER HAD? AND THE WORST?
Best: The fact that my family eats the dinner I prepare when I cook Italian.
Worst: “You’ve got great legs… for a girl!”
WHAT IS THE MOST PAINFUL THING YOU HAVE ENDURED?
My family recently suffered an armed home invasion and my son was held at gun point. The fact that one of the people I dearly love was in danger, and that I was unable to help him, was the most painful thing I have had to endure.