RIP SA’s singing cowboy, Lance James



BIG Daddy, Keeping it Country. Photograph courtesy

THE MAN WELL-KNOWN for his signature Stetson hats, rich voice and the ability to move through almost any music genre, walk into any room and leave a mark, Lance James, fondly known as ‘Big Daddy’ succumbed on 2 March 2020 to an infection from an emergency hip replacement. He was 81.

Born Lance James Liebenberg on 18 July 1938 in Johannesburg’s East Rand town of Germiston, James spent his formative years in the Crown Mines area South of Johannesburg, well before Soweto was established or apartheid was ratified.

Musically, he was nourished by the work of the Andrew Sisters and Bing Crosby, and while, as an 8-year-old, tennis with his older brother and one shop in town kept his sense of home in place, he grew into a veritable giant in the music genre, putting out over 70 albums and becoming known and loved as far away from home as Ireland, Spain, Germany and America. Ultimately however, South Africa – and his South African fans – was very close to his heart.

But he was not always set on becoming a star. Indeed, as a youngster, James was keen to pursue a career as a motor mechanic, but once the magic and thrill of the music industry had bit, there was no turning back. The roots of his professional career can be pinpointed to one clear date: 1 May 1954. This was when he started work as a continuity announcer on Springbok Radio. He occupied this chair (and these listeners) for over 30 years, and readers may remember his voice behind his own Radio Today show, Keep it Country, which until recently, with James compiling and presenting it, had the singular honour of being the longest running radio show on South African radio, clocking in 44 years.

James’s music career was launched in 1963 with the release of two singles Hey Good Lookin’ and Baby you’ve got it made. Since then he went on to win no less than 60 accolades, which notably includes a life-size bust, wearing the Stetson that become synonymous with him. James loved to dress as an American cowboy, but, never reneged on his  fully bilingual South African status. Moving effortlessly from country, to rock, Blues to pop, Americana and even some spirituals, James was supremely versatile in genre and collaborated with the likes of Mzansi’s well acclaimed The Mahotella Queens in a version of Trouble will soon be over in his final body of work, perhaps psychically entitled Swan Song , released in June of 2019.

With an enormous list of appearances on popular radio and TV shows and awards celebrating his contribution to the industry, James received two Afrikaanse Taal-en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV) awards and was given the lifetime achievement nod by multiple organisations, including Vonk, Huisgenoot, Skouspel, Ghoema, SAMA and more. Over the years, he shared the stage with other country and western singers and friends, including Tommy Dell, Min Shaw, Sally Vaughn, Jody Wayne, Clive Bruce, the Rodeo Girls Line Dancers, Billy Forest , Bobby Angel, Barbara Ray, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

Fame, fortune, and celebrity status never compromised James’s sense of genuineness and humility. He would often perform in institutions for the elderly, or for terminally ill children, and there was always a special place in his heart for close friends and family. A country concert held at The Hillfox Arena in 2014 to celebrate his contributions took on a sombre turn as he took a moment to honour and pray for his wife of 35 years Valerie May Liebenberg who suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away in her sleep a year later at the age of 77.

In 2014 Bill Jones’s biography of him Keep it country at the show was published, revealing the back story of James’s extraordinary life. In 2015, he put together an autobiographical work Dankie: …soos vertel deur “Big Daddy” Lance James with the help of Francois Van Oudtshoorn.

James leaves his daughters, Chanel and Dionne, three grandchildren, Tyran, Declan and Lillian Joy, and his partner of five years, Eunice Wait, as well as literally millions of fans, along with a legacy that is well deserved and simply cannot be forgotten.

  • Keabetswe Huma is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

3 replies »

  1. Thank you for this fine tribute to my cousin Lance. We grew up together, He and brother Les did not have easy lives. They lost their Dad, Uncle Charlie, when they were young. I lost touch with Lance a few years ago, and am devastated to hear of his death.

  2. He was also a friend of Chstles Jacobie and they did lots of gigs together…Babsfontrin on weekends comes to mind

Leave a Reply