Flash of greatness: RIP Stephen Eliovson



EARNEST, intense guitar authority: Stephen Eliovson. Photograph courtesy last.fm

TALENT IS A strange thing. Sometimes it flashes its feathers with an incendiary focus that is too wild for its environment. Jazz guitarist and master-musician Stephen Eliovson was a performer who had the talent and wisdom to harness that fire, but alas, he held it briefly. It is said that if you were in his presence for one live performance, during the 1980s, you would never forget it. He died on 13 March 2020 from end-stage cancer. He was 66.

On paper, Eliovson’s career might be perceived to be something of a flash in the proverbial pan. In 1982, The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah described his career trajectory as “a remarkable musical success story, or at least the beginning of one.” From the age of 21 Eliovson had studied guitar under Johnny Fourie, the house guitarist at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in the early 1960s. Within just one year, he was performing in public and in 1978 after a brief stint designing guitar accessories in the United States, he returned to tour South Africa with Fourie. It was in this context where he began to play with conversations between western and eastern jazz rubrics, bringing tablas and sitars to chat and dance with electric and acoustic guitars.

His work was exquisite and unusual and didn’t kowtow commercially. The album that made the Salt Lake City music critic sit up and take notice had evolved from the late 1970s, when Eliovson mailed a cassette tape to German-based independent record label ECM. They liked it and a recording contract was signed. His beautiful acoustic collaboration with North American percussionist Collin Walcott – a former student of Ravi Shankar and Vasant Rai and a music and ethnomusicology graduate of Indiana University and the University of California – resulted in Dawn Dance (1981), his debut album.

Sadly, it was to be his only album. A second album was lined up with ECM when Eliovson broke his leg badly. This was to be a harbinger of a mysterious turn of events in his life which saw him never recording again. Rumours of him trying his hand at farming in KwaZulu-Natal and of his stash of guitars remaining unclaimed in the US cannot be corroborated. Effectively Eliovson vanished from the grid, the music industry and his friends and fans.

Born on 27 November 1953 in Johannesburg, Eliovson was the youngest of three sons to photographer Ezra, president of the Johannesburg Photographic Society, who developed his own four colour prints in his home darkroom, and his Cape Town-born and Johannesburg-educated wife Sima, born Benveniste, who boasted Rhodes Island and Spanish ancestry and was fondly recognised as the doyenne of garden writing in South Africa. She published 12 books between the 1950s and 1970s, taking over her late husband’s Hasselblat camera after he passed away in 1962.

Eliovson’s mother died in 1990. In 2008, his brother Peter died in Australia. Supported financially by the Jewish Benevolent Society in the last couple of years of his life, Eliovson, who was buried on 17 March in Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery, was described by a friend as a gracious man in a class of his own. He is survived by his brother Robin in Australia, nieces and nephews, a close coterie of devastated friends and thousands of admirers all over the world.

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  1. I played with Stephen in a little club in Hillbrow just down from the Chelsea in a side street on the right, can’t recall the name of the place, it must have been early 80’s, it was great experience. Great player and innovator.

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