by Brian Currin, February 2008, updated July 2020
“Highway’s got my number, yet she keeps calling…”
November 2019 marked the 35th anniversary of the band known as Jack Hammer. This South African band has always stayed true to its original brand of Rock ‘n Roll, and has toured and recorded over the years, never seeking the limelight but always playing their hearts out.
Jack Hammer was more than just a band – it was a roundabout of musicians. A collective that over the years has included amongst its members American Oscar-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton, McCully Workshop keyboard wizard Rupert Mellor, Kwaito master producer Gabi le Roux, Not My Dog guitarist Lanie van der Walt, prog-rocker Ken E Henson, Blues Broer Simon Orange, saxophonist supremo Mike Faure, and many, many others. As band roadie Hendry Jackson (who is immortalized in the song ‘Laat Die Wiele Rol‘) said, “I have seen many Jacks, so to speak, come and go in my time, I tell you.”
Fiercely independent, they have somehow survived the strange machinery that is the South African music industry and produced some sterling original albums over the years. Since their first performance way back in 1984 the one constant factor in the band has been the man affectionately known as “The Hammer”, Piet Botha.
“It all began at Slowfarm on the old Warmbaths road, just north of Pretoria, in November 1984,” Botha recalls. Botha (who was born in 1955 and shares his birth date of 18th July with Nelson Mandela) began writing songs and forming bands while still at school. He hooked up in 1974 with Abner Smith at the University of Pretoria to develop an acoustic duo. “They used to play at the Keg and Tankard in Pretoria”, remembers Jackson. Botha recalls this as being their first professional gig.
Botha then connected with the members of Tusk (Doc Barendse, Dino Salvatori, and Derek Riley) to establish the band Raven and later added keyboardist Gabi le Roux to fill out the sound. This hard-rocking band won the ‘Beat 79’ nationwide competition for new rock groups, and released the Uriah Heep-styled single, ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ backed with ‘The Horseman’, on David Marks’ 3rd Ear Label.
Botha (known as JP Botha at that time and playing mainly bass) then formed the three-piece Catherine Wheel with Karlien van Niekerk and Doc Barendse. At this time violinist Dave Tarr (RIP) and drummer Colin Pratley (ex-Freedom’s Children) were in a duo called Wildebeest. “We amalgamated our two bands” says Botha. Doc Barendse left and Boet Faber joined as guitarist. In 1981 the classic ‘Bushrock 1’ live album (recorded at Upstairs in Sunnyside, Pretoria) was released under the band name Wildebeest. ‘Bushrock 1‘ was the Rand Daily Mail’s ‘Album of the Year’ in 1981.
“I was part of the team with Colin Pratley, Boet Faber, Paul van Eden, Piet Botha, Deon Maree and Gilbert Lyons that put on the ‘One Skin Mile from Skullgrin’, a Wildebeest Bushrock Ballet, at the Conservatoir of Music, in Pretoria, in 1982”, remembers longtime friend of the band and sometime manager, Vernon “Moonshine” Lee (immortalized, along with Jan Maloney, in the 2005 song ‘The Pilgrim‘). “Around this time Piet, Boet Faber and myself lived on a farm in DeWildt, north-west of Pretoria, and I ended up assisting with the management of the band.”
In 1983 Wildebeest was one of the first bands to mix rock music with Afrikaans lyrics and recorded the (now very rare) ‘Horings Op Die Stoep’ 4-track EP which featured ‘Bossies’, a song about the Border War, which was very much a no-no during those Apartheid times.
In November 1984, Jack Hammer was started with Boet Faber, Jan Maloney and Eric Birckenstock. The band immediately built up a new original repertoire and started performing. During the 1984 festive season the club they were booked at burnt down with all their gear. Botha, who had been planning a sojourn in the USA for some time, left, and so the first line-up was short-lived, but that’s when Jack Hammer really began.
During 1985, Piet Botha lived in Los Angeles, working construction, and other immigrant jobs by day, and writing and recording by night. By a stroke of luck he teamed up with a young, aspiring actor, drummer and singer from the south called Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton would do the drumming in the studio as well as vocals and Botha would do the guitars, piano, vocals and harmonica.
Twelve years later, Billy Bob Thornton would win the ‘Best Actor’ Oscar for his part in the film ‘Slingblade’, and is also well-known for his marriage (now dissolved) to actress Angelina Jolie.
By the end of 1985, Botha had to return to South Africa. The first Jack Hammer album, ‘Jack Of All Trades‘, was eventually completed in South Africa, and released in 1987, as a custom album on Third Ear Records. This album has not yet been released on CD and sealed vinyl copies are now sought-after collectors items.
From this time onwards the Jack Hammer band would perform all over South Africa with many different line-ups. From 1987 to 1990, the second album, ‘The Judas Chapter‘, was written and recorded at Doc Barendse’s studio. During 1991 Botha took up an offer to perform with the Silver Creek Mountain Band, and played acoustic guitar and piano, six nights a week for a whole year.
1992 saw a new Jack Hammer, with drummer Findlay Malherbe playing a major role in the new sound, tighter arrangements, and energy that come to light on ‘Ghosts On The Wind‘, which was released in 1994 to much critical acclaim. The highlight of this collaboration was Jack Hammer opening for Deep Purple and Uriah Heep on their “Masters of Rock” tour in March/April 1995.
Findlay went to America, so “The Duke” arrived on the scene. Paul van de Waal had been drumming with bands for years and had to stand in one night in an emergency, without ever having met Jack Hammer. He was hired the same night and is still happily drumming away with them today. He is known as “The Duke”, because he always looks smart.
1996 saw Jack Hammer signing to a record label for the first time! Till then, Botha had always been fiercely independent. The first album to be released under the now well-known Wildebeest label was Jack Hammer’s ‘Death of a Gypsy‘, with catalogue number WILD001.
During this time the band was also privileged to be the supporting act for ZZ Top (one of Botha’s prime influences) on their South African tour. Jackson recalls this as being a high point of his 20 years or so with Jack Hammer: “Ah, you know, everyday is a high point; whenever I hear the guys. I’ve always been surrounded by so many great musicians that I count it a privilege,” says Jackson.
During 1997 Botha was asked to write and record an Afrikaans album. Using the Jack Hammer band members at the time, Johnathan Martin, Jason Phillips and Jorik Pienaar, the result was the all-Afrikaans ‘‘n Suitcase Vol Winter‘ album, released in late-1997, which proved to be a watershed. This album is considered a classic by many and a superb example of the groundbreaking alt.Afrikaans genre.
The major change in Jack Hammer’s sound and direction came about by a strange twist of fate when Johnathan Martin joined the band in April 1997. Suddenly there was another singer and songwriter in the band and, despite his youth, his guitar style was linked to the ’70’s. Soon Piet and Johnathan were doing acoustic shows (as Piet and The Kid), mixing the repertoire from English to Afrikaans and doing covers of old blues classics. Then there were also the electric rock shows, with some vintage Jack Hammer sounds.
Botha released a second Afrikaans album in November 1999, entitled ‘Jan Skopgraaf‘, which did not fare as well as ‘Suitcase’ but which did include some classic tracks like the live favourite, ‘Blues Vir Louise’.
A Jack Hammer compilation, titled simply ‘Anthology’, was released in January 2000 and featured tracks from all four previous Jack Hammer albums plus four new recordings. It also included a new re-recording of their classic song ‘Fort Lauderdale’, which was based on the story of bank robber André Stander. Those new songs were recorded during the winter of 1999 at Sunset Recording Studios just outside Stellenbosch.
In February 2001 a limited edition live album, the confusingly titled ‘Bootleg‘, was released and credited to Piet Botha and Jack Hammer. That album included tracks from both the Piet Botha (Afrikaans) and Jack Hammer (English) songbooks as well as cover versions of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Tangerine’, Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’ (plaintively sung by Martin) and ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum.
October 2001 saw a “Best Of” Piet Botha collection being released by EMI entitled ‘Die Hits‘, which included four new Afrikaans recordings (including ‘Vandat Jy Weg Is’, a tribute to his late mother) alongside Botha’s other classics like ‘Sien Jou Weer’, ‘Blues Vir Louise’ and ‘Staan Saam Burgers’.
A third Afrikaans album, ‘Die Mamba’, was released in August 2003 by Rhythm Records and received much critical acclaim, including being voted the best album of 2003 by the influential SA Rock Digest e-mag. In a poll by Huisgenoot/You Magazine, this album was voted in the top 5 of 2003 by accredited critics from Huisgenoot, Die Burger, Insig, Rapport, Volksblad and Die Beeld.
July 2004 saw the band returning to their roots, so to speak, with the release of a double live CD, ‘Piet Botha and Jack Hammer Live at the Nile‘, which was followed in April 2005 by the long-awaited studio production, ‘The Pilgrim‘. ‘Live At The Nile’ is a double live CD, recorded at the Nile Crocodile in Pretoria in February 2003, and includes renditions of most of the Jack Hammer and Piet Botha classics from over 20 years on the road. The album includes an updated version of the song ‘Russian And Chips’ by Wildebeest from 1981, which is based on ‘The Kid He Came From Nazareth’ from the highly rated ‘Astra’ album by Freedom’s Children. There are also a few other covers including ‘Last Fair Deal Going Down’ by Robert Johnson (a big influence on both Botha and guitarist Johnathan Martin) and songs by The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Pink Floyd (‘Wish You Were Here’).
‘Live At The Nile’ serves as a bridge between the all-Afrikaans ‘Die Mamba’ and the all-English ‘The Pilgrim’ which was the first full Jack Hammer studio album since 1996’s ‘Death Of A Gypsy’. Botha had this to say, “Jack Hammer was a rock band performing in the English language when they started and the swing to Afrikaans was a lovely and vibrant thing at the time, but now it’s time to go back as it were, in order to move forward”.
‘The Pilgrim‘ was produced by Lanie van der Walt, who was also responsible for ‘Die Mamba’ and the award-winning Not My Dog album, ‘Braai Vibes’ (SAMA best rock album 2003). Lanie was also an integral part of Jack Hammer from 1994-96 as a guitarist and songwriter, before he went on to form Not My Dog. The line-up of Jack Hammer that recorded ‘The Pilgrim’ consisted of Paul van de Waal (“The Duke”) on drums, Tertius du Plessis (“Beano”, so named because he acts like Mr Bean) on bass guitar and Johnathan Martin (“The Kid”) on guitar and vocals and occasional cello. Martin left at the end of 2004 to go solo, and Tonie van der Walt (Lanie’s brother) joined on guitar.Throughout the many years of performing and recording, Jack Hammer has refused to compromise or bow to commercial pressure and their work is considered timeless. This is evident when listening to their earlier work as far back as ‘Jack Of All Trades’.
Botha was one of the first musicians inducted into the SA Rock Hall Of Fame in January 2002, alongside James Phillips (who died in 1995). Other media highlights over the years have included performing with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and ZZ Top on their South African tours, with the legendary Shawn Phillips, and also with Vusi Mahlasela. 2004 marked the band’s 10th anniversary gig at Oppikoppi, the most prestigious festival on the SA Rock calendar.
In February 2005 a “Tribute To Piet Botha” gig was held at the Foundry Fly Lounge in Pretoria to celebrate the music and life of Piet Botha. This whole day event included performances by Scicoustic, Akkedis, Tidal Waves, Valiant Swart, Southern Gypsy Queen, Albert Frost, Anton Goosen and many others, all paying tribute to the influence, friendship and mentorship of this humble musician. The Jack Hammer Band also performed including guest appearances by guitarist Lanie van der Walt and Deltablue and Bed On Bricks bassist, Schalk van der Merwe.
The ‘TuksFM Sessions‘ 6-track CD was also released at this tribute gig. Jack Hammer had re-recorded two songs from ‘The Pilgrim’ album at TuksFM (the University of Pretoria’s radio station) as well as four new recordings including a cover of the Freedom’s Children track ‘Slowly Towards The North’.
Piet Botha has been making music for over 30 years and celebrated a 25 year recording career in 2004. The powerful words of Kurt Schoemaker, a native Texan and ardent supporter of South African music, very aptly describes Botha, “Piet Botha the songwriter has a realistic outlook on the world, he’s a veteran who has seen the fight and knows how fragile peace and life, can be”.
On the 6th May 2006 Piet Botha was awarded a South African Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to South African music. Piet Botha was also awarded a Prestige Award by the FAK in September 2006 for his contribution to the Afrikaans language.
In December 2006 Toni van der Walt decided to leave the band and in January 2007, Johnathan Martin returned to the fold.
In 2008, The Jack Hammer band had been pounding down the highway since the Eighties and still showed no signs of slowing down. In May 2008 at the annual STRAB festival in Mozambique, Jack Hammer released the critically-acclaimed album, ‘Highway 13‘.
Jack Hammer’s ‘Handful Of Rain‘, released January 2016, comes after many years spent touring, and is an ode to the road, a book of songs, a collection of quiet reflections of a man looking back on his life as a touring musician. Songs of rivers, highways and impossible love: these are the main motifs of this album.
In February 2018 Piet Botha released ‘Die Middernagtrein‘, an album of gypsies, ghosts and other stories of life and living.
Piet Botha passed away on the 2nd June 2019 after a short battle with cancer.
On the 18th July 2020, to celebrate Piet’s birthday a digital live album ’13 Towns’ was released.
Piet Botha and Jack Hammer are true Legends of South African Rock.
“… and we must be travelling on now…”
- JACK HAMMER