South African expatriate Jonathan Butler isn't really a jazz artist, but his laid-back, slightly jazz-tinged approach to R&B/pop has earned the singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer a lot of supporters in the urban contemporary, adult contemporary, quiet storm, and smooth jazz/NAC markets. Butler has enjoyed a following since the late '70s, although he reached his commercial peak in the late '80s, and he continues to tour and record in the 21st century. Born in Cape Town, South Africa in October 1961, Butler was only a child when he started singing and playing acoustic guitar. Butler, who was the youngest of about 12 children, 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 from apartheid 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 gave us 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). Butler's 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. ~ Alex Henderson