South African-born guitarist Jonathan Butler is a hugely popular performer known for his crossover blend of R&B, pop jazz fusion, and worship music. While he has enjoyed a following since the late '70s, Butler broke through to a wider audience in the late '80s with albums 7th Avenue and Jonathan Butler, the latter of which featured the hit single "Lies," which reached number 27 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song. An internationally recognized artist, he has lived in England and California, and remains a star in his native South Africa where his 2004 album, Surrender, achieved gold status. As a Christian, many of Butler's albums, like 2012's Grace and Mercy and 2015's Free, showcase his faith and love of gospel music, along with his groove-based jazz chops.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa in October 1961, Butler was a child when he started singing and playing acoustic guitar. He was the youngest of about 12 children and absorbed a variety of music when he was a kid. He was an admirer of South African stars like singer Miriam Makeba, but he was also hip to the American soul and jazz artists who lived thousands of miles away in the United States. Stevie Wonder became a major influence, and so did former hard bop guitarist-turned-R&B/pop singer George Benson.
Sadly, Butler learned about the horrors of South Africa's racist apartheid laws at an early age; when he was growing up, South Africa had an oppressive system of racial segregation that was quite comparable to the Jim Crow laws that plagued the southern U.S. until the early '60s. Apartheid (which has since been abolished) was the subject of some of Butler's '80s recordings. Although he was never a hardcore protest singer à la Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Tosh, or Bob Marley, he wrote some anti-apartheid songs here and there. Butler, who spoke Afrikaans before becoming fluent in English, was a teenager when British producer Clive Calder signed him to the London-based Jive Records in 1977; Introducing Jonathan Butler, his largely instrumental debut album, was released that year and employed Bob Cranshaw (who is best known for his long association with Sonny Rollins) on bass. At the time, Butler was often compared to Benson, a man who, like Butler, has been praised for both his singing and his guitar playing. It wasn't long before the teenage Butler won a Sarie Award, which is the South African equivalent of an American Grammy or a Canadian Juno Award.
But Butler didn't remain in South Africa much longer; in the early '80s, he escaped and moved to England (where Jive's main office was located, and where Butler remained for 17 years). Butler maintained a loyal following in the '80s and '90s, not only in his native South Africa, but also in the U.S. and Europe. One of his biggest releases came in 1987, when Jive released a self-titled album that contained a hit cover of the Staple Singers' "If You're Ready (Come with Me)" (which found him performing a duet with British urban contemporary singer Ruby Turner). And Butler's next Jive album, 1988's More Than Friends, was also a big seller; that CD featured the major hits "Lies" (which was nominated for a Grammy) and "Sarah, Sarah." Butler continued to record for Jive in the early '90s; then, in the late '90s and early 2000s, he provided three albums for N-Coded Music: 1997's Do You Love Me?, 1999's Story of Life, and 2000's The Source. After that, Butler (who turned 40 in October 2001) left N-Coded and moved to Warner Bros., which released Surrender in June 2002.
With the release of 2004's Worship Project, Butler (a life-long Christian) began to find more ways to express his faith alongside his smooth jazz and R&B stylings. Even when he grooved, spirituality was at the center of such albums as Jonathan (2005), Brand New Day (2007), So Strong (2010), and Grace and Mercy (2012). His first-ever holiday album, Merry Christmas to You, appeared in 2013. The following year, he was joined by bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Elan Trotman, and others for Living My Dream, and in 2015, he delivered the gospel-infused Free. Butler returned in 2018 with Close to You, which found him reinterpreting classic songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. ~ Alex Henderson