TRIBUTE TO MAUREEN DONNE BY HENRICO GREYLING.
A HONEYED VOICE, overflowing generosity and someone who lit up the lives of others with her blissful spirit, Maureen Donne was an exceptionally talented jazz vocalist and tap dancer who not only conquered South African stage, but also showcased her masterful voice at numerous places abroad, such as Los Angeles and London. She passed away on 18 July 2019 to cancer, just three months before her 87th birthday.
Gifted with the ability to tell a story through music and making the audience believe every single word she sung, Donne had her own unique, jazzy tone which equipped her with the tools for a lifelong career.
Always a determined dreamer, she was the second of three children, and was born in Durban on 18 October 1932. Schooled at Maris Stella Catholic Convent in Berea, she was but six years old when she entered her first singing competition and won first prize. This golden girl, who did not receive any formal training, continued performing as she grew, and continued winning Eisteddfods and acclaim as she went. In her formative years, she was entirely unaware of the rumbling applause and bravos that would follow her for the rest of her life. Donne explored her many God-given talents as she tap-danced on shows such as Brickhill and Burke’s 1974 show Minstrel Follies, alongside Pat Gill.
In her late 20s and early 30s, Donne travelled overseas to broaden her horizons and entertain audiences with her delightful voice and captivating stage presence. She had the opportunity to be lead singer for the Ray Ellington Quartet where she got to perform at the London Hippodrome and many other London hotspots.
In the 1960s, she travelled to America to audition for the prestigious position of lead singer for the highly acclaimed orchestra and band, Woody Herman. Donne was one of 200 singers who auditioned for the spot and her star rose ever higher when she got it. She went on to tour all over America with the band for a couple of years. During her time in the States, she was invited to perform as guest artist on shows including The Perry Como Show and The Nat King Cole Show.
Drawn to swing music and well written ballads, Donne’s inherently well-textured voice with its great vibrato, enabled her to perfect jazz standards such as Manhattan and Let There Be Love. In 1958 she recorded the latter with Eddie Calvert under Columbia Records. On air, piano accompanist Dennis Wilman said, “I really try and make the singer give of their best” and this is evident in the album he and Donne did together. She was a regular performer at the Top of the Carlton in the 1970s and toured the Adam Leslie show, Sweet Fanny Adams, with Richard Loring, Joey Wishnia and Annie Christmas, as Loring’s ‘leading lady’. In her heyday in the 1970s, Donne was the keynote performer in many of Durban’s best night clubs, including the Top of the Royal Hotel, Ciro’s Supper Club and she was a part of revues held at Durban’s Playhouse Theatre.
Inspired by singers such Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horn, Donne was able to create her own sound, imbued with energy but also a potent calmness. “An amazing smooth voice and incredible repertoire,” is how South African singer-songwriter, André Hattingh describes Donne, “She always looked perfect so immaculately made up and gorgeous.” Having a charming smile and loving a ‘red lip’ made Donne look like a star all her life. She was a woman with class.
With a voice of the first water and being an embodiment of humility, Donne also had a great – and sometimes naughty – sense of humour. Her brother David, recalled an occasion where Donne went out with a friend, ate pudding and said, “I’m just going to strap it on my hips!” She was classy but bawdy too. Veteran South African actress and long-time friend of Donne’s, Annabel Linder, told the story of when Donne went to see Jack Jones at Sun City; she jokingly asked Linder, “I was sitting in the second row, do you think if I took off my bra and did a harmony, he would have noticed me?” She had a way of making the people around her feel appreciated and easily jazzed up their days with her euphoric spirit. By all accounts, she was a true lady and felt like everybody’s pal.
Donne leaves her brother David and sister Val Prior, niece and nephew, Diana and Bradley, great-nieces Bianca Louw and Tracy Oliver-Faragher, as well as her former sister-in-law and lifelong friend, Tina Miller, not to forget many co-artists, close friends and all the people that loved her voice.
- Henrico Greyling is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. He is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.