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Letta Mbulu

Letta Mbulu - South African vocalist, composer

Letta Mbulu was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa. Still in her teens, Letta began touring outside of Africa with the musical "King Kong," which ran for a year in England following a highly successful two-year run in South Africa. When the tour ended, she returned to South Africa but soon the policies of Apartheid were to force her to leave her native land for the U.S.A.

She arrived in the United States in 1965 and quickly befriended such fellow South African exiles in New York City as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa - all alumni of the "King King" musical. Performances at New York's famed Village Gate club began to attract attention to her talents, particularly from jazz legend Cannonball Adderley, who invited her to tour with him (which she did throughout the remainder of the decade).

Letta Mbulu also displayed an early gift for writing joyful, memorable songs. These were showcased by no less an authority than Miriam Makeba on the singer's albums THE MAGNIFICENT MIRIAM MAKEBA ("Akana Nkomo"), ALL ABOUT MIRIAM ("U Shaka," "Jol'inkomo") and MAKEBA ("U-Mngoma," "Magwala Ndini").

Letta first made herself heard on records as part of Letta and the Safaris, a group featuring husband Caiphus Semenya and the South African husband and wife team of Jonas and Mamsie Gwangwa. A single, "Walkin' Around" was issued in 1966 by Columbia Records, but lack of publicity failed to garner much attention to the clever little R&B swinger.

Letta and Caiphus soon relocated to the West Coast, joining Hugh Masekela, who became a fixture of the California concert and recording scene. While there, producer David Axelrod fell under Letta's spell and had her signed to Capitol Records, where Axelrod himself was scoring big hits for Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley.

Axelrod produced Letta's debut “Letta Mbulu Sings”(Capitol/1967), an immediately attractive collection of Township-style pop mixed with American R&B. It was a hugely enjoyable style that Ms. Mbulu and her collaborator/husband Caiphus Semenya could nearly patent as their own.

Even though a single was released (the magnificent "Ardeze" b/w "Pula Yetla"), radio stations wouldn't play the record out of fear that no would understand the words. As a result, hardly anyone ever heard the record and, worse, sales were slight.

Axelrod convinced Capitol to give Letta another chance. The following year he produced the singer's majestic, “Free Soul” as near perfect a collection of afro-pop as has ever been waxed, this time dropping Letta's surname, but in odd contrast, featuring the beautiful young Letta on the cover swathed in colorful afro-centric clothing.

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Columbia Records



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A&M Records


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