David Gresham was the X-ray mechanic who interviewed John Lennon. He loved music and wrote songs but no one wanted to sing them.
One night, Gresham sat down in a tiny hall in Sandton, in Johannesburg, and found the solution to his problems singing Gaelic folk in front of 400 people. The singer was Sean Rennie, also a professional footballer and triple black belt karate fighter.
Months later, the struggling Gresham persuaded Rennie to record the song I’ll Walk With You. The song went on to reach the top 10 chart in South Africa. That success meant Gresham’s fledgling record company is still running 43 years later. In return, Rennie earned a little spot in South African history.
In September, Gresham honored the man who took a chance with his song.
“You know, that was the first time I was in a studio. I was so intimidated,” says Rennie.
“Really? But you recorded so well. I didn’t notice at all,” says Gresham.
According to Gresham, I’ll Walk With You was recorded in one of the cheapest and dingiest studios in Johannesburg. It cost the duo $1.50 per hour. In 1970, this money was half of Gresham’s monthly mortgage.
Gresham was a radio DJ and a composer. He desperately wanted to be an entrepreneur in music.
“I was always listening to music. When I was supposed to be learning how to fix medical machines, my desk was full of radios I had built instead. People kept shouting at me to turn it off. I couldn’t,” says Gresham.
Gresham got his foot in the door by landing a job as a sound editor. When he was 26, he chanced upon the editors of LM Radio, the famous pop station in Mozambique, at a jazz concert in Swaziland. In his young days he interviewed the likes of Ringo Starr, Tom Jones, Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Kenny Rogers, Engelbert Humperdinck and The Bee Gees.
In 1969, Gresham went to London to hunt down John Lennon. Lennon had been banned from South African radio after he was quoted saying that ‘the Beatles were bigger than Jesus’. Gresham tracked Lennon down at Apple Studios in London.
“Let me tell all Springbok Radio listeners, I am a follower of Christ and that’s it. And I would like to apologize to anybody who was offended,” said Lennon.
Springbok Radio refused to play their songs.
In 1964, Rennie, who was born in Dublin, came to South Africa from Belfast’s Crusaders Football Club to play professional football for Johannesburg’s Southern Suburbs. At the dawn of television in South Africa, Rennie hosted a folk song show. The 72 year old cringes at the memory of being on TV. While living in South Africa for over 30 years, Rennie sang part-time, became a general manager in the motor industry, and gave up football to compete in dojos.
“In the off-season I joined a karate dojo, and I’m now a level three black belt… I thought to myself ‘I would rather participate on a karate floor’. Been in three tournaments, been disqualified twice,” he says.
Rennie is unwilling to give the reason for being disqualified but he does admit to running on the wrong side of the law as a teenager in Ireland.
“Every now and again you had to run away from the cops with their dogs. I remember playing with a band, The Cyclones, in Belfast. The lead singer, Jim Armstrong, ended up being voted the best guitarist in the American West Coast. We were walking home and it started to snow. We were suddenly confronted with two policemen and their dogs. It was a stand-up [fight]. It wasn’t easy to live under those conditions. But it prepares you heavily,” says Rennie.
Unlike many musicians who get tired of singing their hits, Rennie and Gresham still relish the sounds of I’ll Walk With You.
Rennie quips that the last time he sang the song was two weeks ago while alone in his house, in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, followed by a few of his other hits. He’s not shy to belt out the vocals either; he says he has no problem pulling out his guitar to satisfy a spontaneous request, be it in a bar, the changeroom or a party.
As entrepreneurs who have been in the business for more than 45 years, it’s unusual for them to be so cheerful, especially after they took a chance in the often messy world of music. It’s even more unusual that they are still friends after all these years. FL