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Thursday, May 28, 2009


Article on Durban singer-pianist/producer Colin Penn. (Article by Billy Suter, courtesy of The Mercury)

Durban singer-pianist and prolific producer of nostalgic productions, Colin Penn, is soon to present his 100th show in a career spanning 55 years.

Who would have thought, when he first started tickling the ivories in the early 40s, from the age of four, that Durban’s Colin Penn would still be tinkling away on the black-and-whites and keeping the customers satisfied?

Clearly making music has long been a passion for the amiable entertainer, and he’s still loving the spotlight, as it is with great pride that Penn announces he will soon be chalking up his centenary of shows. And, once again, the spotlight will be on nostalgia, having long favoured tripping down Memory Lane for inspirations for his popular productions.

“When did you last see a dance or ball advertised? There used to be the Mayor’s Ball, Red Cross Ball and the like, but that all seems passé now,” he says somewhat sadly, as an aside to announcing his latest production. “I spend my time putting on supper theatre, or cabaret as we used to call it in the old days, but I only do shows that pay tribute to the stars of my heyday … Blue Eyes, Tom Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis – that’s my music.”

Titled Please Take Your Seats, Penn’s 100th show will run at various Durban venues between late May and late June, and will feature movie music from1940 to 1970. As usual, Penn will be on keyboards alongside his band The Pennants, providing backing for guest vocalists John Didlick, Grant Bell and Bobby Minter.

Tickets R50 for all performances of Take Your Seats Please – to be seen at Glenwood High School (May 24), Grosvenor Boys’ High School (May 31), Scottburgh High School (June 7) and the Amanzimtoti Civic Centre Supper Room (June 21).

In his long and colourful career, Penn has played at most Durban hotels and music venues, while his talents have also been heard on radio and as far away as Disneyland in America, in Tawian and England. He is also proud to say that he has performed for every State President since South Africa became a republic.

It all began in earnest for Penn in 1954 when, as a 13-year-old at DHS, he earned is first pocket money as a pianist.

“My first New Year’s Eve gig at the long-gone Perthshire Hotel in Gillespie Street saw me receiving 15 shillings in 1954,” he says with a smile, adding that “two years later I travelled to Colenso for a New Year’s Eve gig and got the equivalent of R20 – and that included travelling expenses and playing until 2am.” He also smiles at the memory of being a youngster and playing at Durban’s then-notorious Cosmo Nightclub. “All the hookers were surrogate mothers to me and would not allow me to drink alcohol, nor allow the taxi drivers to charge to take me home at 5am,” He recalls.

Penn’s first “every night contract” was as a solo pianist at The Montfleury Hotel in Durban North which, at one time, was owned by entertainer Edgar Adler. “After that I performed at The Al Fresco with a quintet, at a time when I was working by day at Barclays Bank.” This contract, he points out, coincided with the introduction of striptease in Durban. “We had Kathy Keaton at The Butterworth and Rose Pagel at The Al Fresco. I remember all the old men sitting at front tables with their tongues hanging out every night, hoping to walk Rose home. This, of course, was the job of the members of the band. There had to be some perks!”

Another memorable career highlight, says Penn, was working at the very popular Zanzibar Room at the Killarney Hotel, which is where he was the day America’s President J F Kennedy was fatally shot. “By that time I had pared my band down to a trio and became Colin Penn and His Pennants. Up to then we had just been an instrumental band, but the new contract required a vocalist, and because I did not want to split the money four ways, I took on a guy that had never said more than “The bar closes at 11, please order your last rounds now’ … Me! I was then known as a pianist-vocalist.”

Next stop for Penn and his Pennants was the huge Cellar Restaurant under the Playhouse, which could seat 400 and was enormously popular before it was made smaller to become the Cellar supper theatre in the 80s and, now, the Zulu Jazz Lounge.

“Then we went on to The Los Angeles Hotel – at a time when my wife and I had opened a takeaway in Broad Street called Penn’s Pantry. I would go to the fish market a five in the morning then, smelling of fish, head off for the SABC to perform on Piano Playtime with Eric Egan.”

Other subsequent engagements included Kings Hall in Aliwal Street: “It was popular for weddings and we played there every Saturday afternoon for the princely sum of three guineas for the band. That is equivalent to R2.10 a head! From there we went to The Lonsdale Hotel, where we played three function rooms. It was quite normal to rush from one wedding to another, from afternoon and evening.

A career highlight? There are many, but high on the list would be the night Penn got a call from impresario Don Hughes, asking him to get down to Tiffany’s, then a five-star restaurant with international cabaret at The Beach Hotel. Penn was signed up to replace resident pianist Braulio Perez, who was King Farouk’s personal pianist and played at the wedding of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Perez had fallen at the restaurant and fractured his skull, and Penn was roped in as the place was buzzing that night. During his time there he met many popular artists, among them Petula Clark, Jimmy Edwards and Tommy Trinder.

Subsequent residencies in Durban were at The El Castillian (“we were booked there for three months and stayed seven years”), The Bal Tabarin nightclub, The Lido in Umkomaas and the Napoleon Restaurant in Aliwal Street. Penn also started a long association with the Durban Country Club, where he introduced monthly supper club.

“Youngsters that came with their parents to New Year’s Eve dances when I first started at there, were coming with their children when I did my last New Year’s Eve dance in 2000,” he says with a grin. And the way he’s still going so strong, it seems another generation might soon start warming to his talents. – Billy Suter