Key Songs in the Life of… Denzyl Feigelson

MBW’s Key Songs In The Life Of… is a series in which we ask influential music industry figures about the tracks that have – so far – defined their journey and their existence. Next up is Denzyl Feigelson, Head of Platoon (now part of Apple) founder of AWAL and much more besides. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by Sony Music Publishing.

When guests in MBW’s Key Songs series hear the number seven, they’re usually pretty unhappy. It seems a small, some might say cruel number of tracks to select to represent a life and career in music.

Some, in fact, create a workaround, inventing double-A sides combining singles that weren’t released in the same decade let alone on the same slice of vinyl (that’s ok, Jon Platt; don’t worry about it Caron Veazey). Others just say f**k it and pick 10 (we’re looking at you, Gary Gersh).

Denzyl Feigelson, however, is very happy with seven. “It’s my number. There’s seven letters in Platoon, my whole life has been about the number seven. Plus, that was the mission: select seven. And that’s what we do at Platoon, we complete the mission.”

So, in that spirit, and before he begins his main course list, here’s our starter list, of seven things you should know about Denzyl Feigelson:

1) After a life-changing phone call, he played a pivotal role in the creation of Paul Simon’s Graceland – making multitudinous connections between South Africa and the US before eventually going on to work for Simon in the States.

2) In the mid-1990s he retired to become a mail-order flower-farmer.

3) He has managed artists including Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Kenny Loggins and Ladysmith Black Mambazo whilst also, as part of Shep Gordon’s Alive Enterprises at the end of 1980s into the mid 1990s, working with Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass and The Pointer Sisters

4) He founded AWAL in 1997 before selling it to Kobalt for a seven-figure sum in 2012.

5) He worked with Steve Jobs on the launch of iTunes in the US in 2003 and moved to London to work on the international expansion of the platform in 2004.

6) He curated the iTunes Festival from 2007 to 2016

7) In 2016 he founded Platoon, a music company that made an awful lot of noise without saying very much – and played a huge part in discovering Billie Eilish (and many other artists) before being sold to Apple Music (Feigelson didn’t cut and run, he now runs Platoon within Apple).

Now, over to Denzyl…

1) Hugh Masekela & Miriam Makeba, Soweto Blues (1977)

This is a protest song about the Soweto uprising in 1976 [forcefully put down by the then apartheid-based South African government, leading to somewhere between 176 and 700 deaths] and it was the first time I heard protest in a song.

The lyrics in Soweto Blues are so incredibly strong, powerful and fearless. It gave me courage and conviction, it changed my life.

I grew up in the apartheid era South Africa, in the Orange Free State, which is the heart of Afrikaans country. Then I ended up in Johannesburg, where I quickly got into politics, as a 12/13 year old. Soweto Blues was the song that gave me the courage to speak my mind.

“his song was an important sign of the times for our country. And they were terrible times.”

The arc of the story, which we’ll come to in another song, is that I got to work with both Hugh and Miriam later on.

Back then, though, this song was an important sign of the times for our country. And they were terrible times to be black (or non-white) in South Africa.

Because of where I grew up, on a tiny farm, I wasn’t exposed to any kind of apartheid. We were different, we had different lives, but they were my friends, they were my best friends.

And this song was about an important uprising and, as you’ll see, it really shaped how my career developed.

2) Sixto Rodriguez, Sugar Man (1970)

So now I’m a teenager. I’m just learning how to play guitar. I’m forming a band in my garage. And Rodriguez has the biggest banned album in South Africa [Cold Fact]. It was seen as a protest album.

But this was my experience of putting a band together, listening to an album and saying, these are going to be the first 10 songs that we play.

And the whole thing, of course, is that we thought he was dead. That was a heavy time. Because even as a band, people were afraid of us playing those songs.

Our parents were like, are you sure you want to do this? You could get arrested for going out and playing these songs.

I had an older brother who was a jazz trumpeter, who also influenced me. He took me to Soweto where he was playing jazz. He was also quite politically active, always bringing people home and hiding people in the house.

My band was a real garage band, we played in the High School. I remember entering a competition to do what was basically a Bob Dylan impression, just me and a guitar. And I won!

But I didn’t think I’d be a musician. It wasn’t a big plan, it was just having fun with my mates.

3) Cat Stevens/Yusuf, Father and Son (1970)

At the same time as I’m learning guitar, I’m discovering this whole singer/songwriter scene. I had a hard time trying to decide on one, because they all heavily influenced me, but the one that stands out still is Cat Stevens.

His lyrics spoke to me and to a generation. And on top of that there was his melody lines, his voice, his persona, how he looked… he was kind of a rock n roll star, but he wasn’t a rock n roll star. He looked like he could be your uncle.

I just adored everything he did. I followed him and I learned every song. I could play any Cat Stevens song that ever came out to this day.

There were other greats in that area, of course. There was Jackson Browne, there was Joni Mitchell, there was Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash. But it was Cat Stevens who most heavily influenced the way I eventually became a musician, because I was able to study what he did, he was the one I related to. He was like a spiritual teacher.

And I chose Father and Son because my father passed away when I was that age, discovering and loving Cat Stevens. I think this song helped me through that trauma, it helped heal what I was going through as a young teenager.

4) Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Scatterlings of Africa (1982)

The interesting arc of this story is that I discovered Johnny Clegg and Juluka in South Africa just by going to see them play live in the 1970s.

They were Sipho Mchunu and Johnny Clegg the first interracial group ever in South Africa in the years of apartheid, interracial apartheid. Johnny’s a white South African, but he loved Zulu music, he learned the Zulu language, and he partnered with Sipho [Mchunu] to become Juluka.

They were constantly banned from playing live, but they still did, they still managed it, and they wrote songs for their generation.

Scatterlings of Africa is a song that everybody should hear. it’s so incredible and just speaks so powerfully to what was going on at the time.

Scatterlings of Africa is a song that everybody should hear. It’s so incredible and just speaks so powerfully to what was going on at the time. But there’s also so much joy in it, there’s a lot of sentiment relating to the tribal element of how South Africa works.

Now, fast-forward and I went on to manage (with Shep Gordon) Johnny in 1989 – another full circle.

In 1973/74 I go to college in America, I take guitar lessons, become a bass player and move to Hawaii to form a band called Heartstrings, which was the band in Hawaii at the time

We opened for Fleetwood Mac, we opened for Bob Marley. When a big band came to Hawaii, we opened for them.

I went back to South Africa in 1982 and while I was there I played bass in some recording sessions and I met a singer named Steve Kekena. In fact, I ended up producing his first English record, and that led me to start working with Johnny Clegg, who by now was working with a producer named Hilton Rosenthal.

One day, I was in the studio with Johnny and Hilton, when Paul Simon rings up, and asks to speak to me and Hilton. He said, ‘I’ve got this cassette, it’s called something like Zulu Jive Hits Volume 3, it was given to me by a DJ…’

He had been writing to the record label on the cassette, but nobody was getting back to him. So he went to Mo Austin and Lenny Waronker at Warner and said, ‘What can I do? I really love this music, I want to know more about who’s making it…’  They said, ‘Oh, we just met  Denzyl and Hilton at MIDEM, we’ve signed Johnny Clegg to Warner, those guys will definitely be able to help you.”

That’s how I came to be talking to Paul Simon from a studio in South Africa, and we then crated up 50 albums to send to him in America.

A few weeks later we get a letter saying, ‘I love this track, I love this band [etc.], can you get the musicians together and bring them to New York?’

We said, ‘Well, that will be tough, why don’t you come to South Africa?’. But this was at the time of the UN boycott, so he had to clear his trip with the ANC, and with people like Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones, which he did. And he came for three weeks.

And I helped co-ordinate all those musicians that he had liked. I got in a van and went out to the countryside and found all these musicians; we put a band together, and those three weeks formed the basis of Graceland

5) Paul Simon, Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (1987)

I’ve picked this track from Graceland because it includes Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who I went on to manage, thanks to Paul.

I worked on the entire Graceland project from beginning to end.

Paul brought me back and forth from South Africa to New York, bringing various musicians with me for various tracks. Eventually he said ‘Look, why don’t you just come work for me?’ So I joined the Paul Simon organization.

Paul was now finishing the record at the Hit Factory in New York, we also went to Arizona to record Under African Skies, we went to New Orleans and did a track there.

Towards the end of the project, we brought Ladysmith to New York and they created Homeless and Diamonds.

When the album came out, there’s always this pressure on an artist to have a commercial hit, a radio hit, and there was nothing there that people thought would do that on this record.

Then we went out on tour and started playing it and people were just going nuts. It was one of those records that people just got. The music was so joyous. I spent seven years on that project, from 1982 to 1989. Graceland shaped my life – in the best possible way.

6) Pink Floyd, Money (1973)

This one actually goes back a bit. Pink Floyd were a huge influence on me. And Money was a huge influence on me.

Before I left South Africa I went into the army [through conscription]. And the South African army was not a fun experience. But Pink Floyd saved my life. Because all I did was listen to Pink Floyd.

It also changed my life, because the bassline on Money is so great. When I went to New Mexico in the mid-70s, I went to see this jazz guitar player and said I want to learn guitar. He looked at me and said, ‘I really need a bass player’. I said, ‘No, I want to learn the guitar.’

At the end of my first lesson, he gave me a beautiful Fender Jazz Bass and said, ‘Take this home, I think you’re gonna like it’. I went home and I learned the bassline to Money and straight away I was in love. I became a bass player. In fact, I became besotted with bass.

7) Billie Eilish, Ocean Eyes (2016)

I have to skip whole eras, including from 1997 when I started AWAL in my garage in California, to selling it to Kobalt in December 2011 – and that’s a period that of course includes so much amazing music.

But I’m fast-forwarding to 2015ish so that I can include this. I’m the editor of iTunes, amongst other things, and I’m a heavy SoundCloud user. I find a song called Ocean Eyes – and I notice it’s not on iTunes.

I track down the managers and it turns out that the artist, Billie Eilish, is 14 years old. Her parents are, like, we don’t want to get involved with the business, she’s too young.

I totally understand that, but I also tell them I’ve just started this thing called Platoon, it’s just me and Lucie [Watson], every deal is a one-page agreement, no money changes hands, but this song needs to be out there.

“Billie and that song really helped shape Platoon.”

They were, like, great: we like you, you like us, let’s do it. And of course Billie and that song really helped shape Platoon.

It was so strong, it just took off. We started seeing these numbers, and people engaging, asking, who is this? I mean, there were two of us at the label, so it’s not like we did all this marketing; it showed the power of song.

Just that whole experience with Billie, with her family, working with Danny [Rukasin] and Brandon Goodman, the management team, it was just so amazing – not to mention getting to watch Billie and Finneas work. It was such a special partnership with those guys.

Key Songs In The Life Of... is supported by Sony Music Publishing. SMP represents classic catalogs including The Beatles, Queen, Motown, Carole King, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Leiber & Stoller, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones, as well as beloved contemporary songwriters such as Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Olivia Rodrigo, Calvin Harris, Daddy Yankee, Gabby Barrett, Jay-Z, Ye, Luke Bryan, Maluma, Marc Anthony, Miranda Lambert, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Sara Bareilles, Sean "Love" Combs, Travis Scott and many more.Music Business Worldwide

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