There are some conversation stoppers that leave a room full of people with their jaws wide open. “I have sold 12 million albums, had a number one hit in 10 countries globally and a number 2 hit in England.” The general response to this statement is “Who the hell are you?” We are talking about Cindy Alter, the Johannesburg-born musician, best known as front lady of the 70’s mega-successful band Clout, who dominated the world charts with their hit ‘Substitute’ in 1978.
Even though Cindy was born to a musical family, she is adamant that music chose her. She picked up a guitar at age 10, wrote her first song at 15 then joined a heavy-rock, cover-band, playing everything from Zeppelin to Grand Funk. Her strong childhood dream to write songs and live in America was reinforced by listening to prolific songwriters including James Taylor, Carol King and later, Cat Stevens.
After graduating from high school and working as a girl-Friday for a local recording studio, Cindy recorded her first single, ‘Schoolboy’, then spent the next few years touring South Africa, opening for various big-name acts.
In 1977 she auditioned for an all-girl band named Clout and was suddenly catapulted into the world of pop-stardom. Clout sold millions of albums worldwide, earning gold records. ‘Substitute’, a cover of the Righteous Brothers song, became a global smash hit and was kept from the top of the UK charts by the Grease theme song. The single entered the Billboard Hot Hundred in America and peaked in the top 50. Clout toured Europe for four years, sharing stages with the top recording artists of the time including The Police, Thin Lizzy, Supertramp, Dire Straits, Blondie, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People, to name a few.
Clout’s management largely overlooked Cindy’s contribution as a songwriter and she only contributed two songs to the band’s repertoire. Trying to redeem royalties from their management and record company at the time became a struggle and this was the beginning of the end for Clout as the ill feelings between the band and its management took its toll and the band members parted ways after just four monumental years.
The music never stopped. Cindy joined forces with local musicians to form a new band, Cyndicate, with the sole purpose of writing and recording original material. Cyndicate had enormous potential, being courted in the States by Kim Fowley, manager of the Runaways. After visiting the America to write and record with Fowley, Cindy decided to take a personal break, and reassess her goals, and started the Cindy Alter Band, which evolved into Zia, a new concept in South African music, during a politically charged era.
Zia was a multi-racial band playing pop rock songs, with Zulu influences. The band had a number of radio hits, (most written by Cindy), toured South Africa, then broke into the French market, and toured France, opening for the Bee Gees at Bercy in Paris. They proved to be a popular choice of support act and were offered the opening slot on the Bee Gees’ US tour. This was a major coup for a South African band, but was sadly thwarted when their local record company could not offer the financial backing for tour support. Cindy took this as a sign to move on. She resigned from Zia, and in July 1990, booked a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
In LA, Cindy found peace and fulfillment as a human being, musician and songwriter, stretching her musical abilities beyond her wildest dreams. She co-produced, wrote and independently released two solo albums, ‘Silver Moon’ and ‘Dark Heart’. Cindy became very active in the local songwriter community, playing clubs from the Roxy to Roxbury, and hosting numerous songwriting showcases and events. She became an active member of ASCAP, NSAI & other songwriting organizations across America and was often on the bill as a seminar guest-speaker promoting artist empowerment.
Cindy is a published poet; had an honorable mention in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and been a prizewinner in the Senheisser Evolution Band Search and the Grand Slam Songwriting competitions in the USA.
Cindy performed acoustically and with her band making waves in songwriter circles in Los Angeles, and in Nashville. Her appearance at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara in the Sings Like Hell series was a powerful introduction to an audience who support the likes of John Hiatt, Peter Case, Richard Thomson, Nickel Creek and Gillian Welch. The Santa Barbara newspaper, The Independent, called her “red hot”!
Cindy has also appeared alongside such diverse artists as Kenny Loggins, Olivia Newton-John, Clint Black, Glen Phillips, Dave Mason, Sophie B. Hawkins, Flock of Seagulls and Dishwalla, and has co-written with other songwriters, including Trevor Rabin.
In 2002, an agent in South Africa who wanted to reunite Clout for a series of shows approached Cindy. After nearly 20 years apart, Cindy thought it would be good karma for the band to play together in a relaxed atmosphere, with none of the previous baggage in tow. Two months before her planned departure to South Africa, Cindy did a short tour in Nashville, and was inspired to move to the songwriting capitol. As she was making plans, life decided to throw her another curveball – she was diagnosed with Acute Mylogenous Leukemia, and was admitted into hospital immediately for intense chemotherapy treatments. This was just the beginning of the long road back to health, and after undergoing a Stem-Cell Bone Marrow Transplant at City of Hope hospital in California, Cindy felt strong enough to make new plans.
A full year in and out of hospital had not daunted Cindy’s spirit or her passion for music, but, in fact, enhanced it. Her guitar was with her always, and the songs were flowing like tears – happy tears! A few shows here and there during treatment kept her soul alive and strong, and when she felt renewed and revitalized, Cindy decided to move back to South Africa, reunite Clout and do the shows she was meant to do a year before. Also, going back to her roots felt like an integral part of the healing process. Leaving Los Angeles was one of the toughest things Cindy had done. Not only did she leave a marriage, her sister, niece and friends, but a part of her life that had brought her ‘to and through’ her greatest challenges.
Clout re-united over 20 years later in 2005 for a successful South African tour, which came with a sterling new album, where Cindy’s own compositions were included. This time around was definitely a more meaningful experience and the band played purely and simply because they loved music. The album entitled ‘Since We’ve Been Gone’ received a nomination for a South African Music Award. It included re-recorded versions of the band’s mega hits including ‘Substitute’ and ‘Save Me’.
After touring for a year, Clout went their separate ways and Cindy joined forces with Stewart Irving, a top-notch vocalist and performer, forming Alter Irving, an acoustic-based country rock duo. Their first album ‘Chained to the Wind’ included 11 original tracks and a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’.
Today, Cindy is healthy and happy, telling the stories about her life’s journey through her music and writing her autobiography, aptly titled, ‘No Substitute’! She feels she is living her best life … a life with no regrets! As she says, “It’s been a wild ride, but it’s far from over”. She recorded a duet ‘A Lion’s Heart’ with Daniel Baron and released her first solo single in many years, ‘Thrive’ in mid-2014. Cindy is working towards her third solo album release scheduled for 2015.