Talent is no guarantee of success in the commercial music world. If it were then Lionel Martin Pillay would have been one of the most successful musicians to come out of South Africa.Considered by many to be one of the most brilliant pianists, he never reached the heights of popularity, and is not as well known as artists such as Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and Hugh Masekela.You could say he was a childhood prodigy. He started playing the piano at the age of 5 and was first introduced as a pianist at a dance held by the Municipality of Durban at the age of 7.He studied music and when he grew up opened his own music school in Victoria Street. At the age of 18 he joined The Rhythm Sextext as a pianist. In Durban he regularly played at the Goodwill Lounge as well as at Club Lotus and other venues. Lionel was a gentleman and in his quiet manner and amazing talent delighted his contemporaries as well as his fans. His contemporaries included Chris Joseph, for whom he played drums for a short while, Mariam Makaba, Claude Shange, Hugh Masukela and Winston Mkunku. (I am led to believe that Winston and Lionel combined for a fabulous rendition of the jazz classic Yakhal' Inkomo.)He had impressed Virginia Lee who then used him as a backup musician in her Eisteddfods mainly held at the Durban City Hall. Most audiences were unaware that he was the pianist at these shows.Lionel then moved to Johannesburg where he became a studio musician performing on recordings of some of the country’s top artists. He became a resident pianist at Sun City when it first opened. He also performed with a number of jazz greats including Johnny Fourie, Hugh Masekela and Basil Mannenburg Coetzee. Lionel composed and directed music for the SABC and played with The Des and Dawn Linberg band and Musical Films In the 70's.He went on to explore parts of Africa and played in Zambia and Swaziland. Later he ventured abroad and became a sensation in the Isle of Man. He played at the Montreau Jazz Festival and rose to fame as he toured the world with great artists of different genres like The Supremes, Andre Crouch and The Comedian Spike Milligan. By then the music world had recognised Lional as a jazz musician in a class of his own!His most prized possession was a note that he carried in his jacket pocket written to him by the legendary Oscar Peterson, who happened to be at one of Lionel's gigs. The message read " love those great jazz notes"He recorded three albums: Plum and Cherry, Deeper in Black and October Magic. Two singles were also released: •Cherry –Composed by Dollar Brand/Plum composed by himself•You Keep Coming Back To Me/It Seldom Snows HereLionel passed away in 2003 as a result of poor health, a sad end to a great artist..
Deeper In Black
Blues For Jusef
Tony Scott, facinated by Lionel’s musicianship at the Goodwill Lounge in Durban. (Probably 1957)