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Cornelia Möller was born in Hamburg, Germany and came to South Africa with her family at the age of three. She was educated at Parkhurst Primary and Parktown Girls High Schools in Johannesburg. Of the various genres of music popular at the time, Cornelia favored folk music and, as a teenager, she sang Bob Dylan compositions while accompanying herself on the guitar.
Cornelia went to the Troubadour coffee bar in Nora Street, Johannesburg, one night, where she was invited to “get up and sing a couple of songs.” The owners were impressed by the young schoolgirl with the mature voice and offered her a spot for regular weekend performances. Her first break came when she was heard by Abe Aronowitz, owner of the Nitebeat coffee bar. She was paid R15 for singing a few songs – “a fortune to me in those days!”, she quips. Soon the weekend stints turned into a six night-a-week job at the Nitebeat. Cornelia was asked to perform at the 1967 National Folksong Festival – which she did receiving the plaudits of the pundits and much press coverage for her performances. Music critic Bill Brewer wrote in a review: “If I were a folk-singer impresario, I’d grab Cornelia Möller as fast as I could extract contract and pen from pocket.”
It was at the Troubadour that Cornelia met composer David Marks (of Master Jack fame). Enamoured of her natural talent, he brought her to the attention of producer Ray Walters at Teal Record Company. She was offered a recording contract on the spot and, as a 17-year old, signed a recording contract in February 1968. In the same year, Cornelia landed a singing role (as a singer in a coffee bar!) in the South African film feature, Once upon a Friday, which was released in December 1968.
She recorded her first album, I wanna live, for Teal in July 1968. Because record companies could enter only a limited number of their artists into the various categories for the SARI awards, they usually favoured the established and well-known artists for this competition. Teal was so enamoured with Cornelia’s talent that they entered her into the SARI awards before her album was commercially available! For her debut album, I wanna live, producer Ray Walters and Cornelia selected the repertoire and were in need of one more song to make up the twelve titles to be recorded. A demo tape had been sent to Walters from a publishing house in Australia of a ditty entitled Picking up Pebbles. Walters played the song to Cornelia, who was reluctant to record it because she felt that it was a “silly” song. Her reasoning was that the lyrics were not as profound as most of the folk material already chosen. Walters persuaded her to include the son on the album.
Picking up Pebbles was released on a single in July. It entered Springbok Radio’s Top 20 hit parade in September and reached the #1 spot three weeks after its chart entry. Picking up Pebbles held the #1 position for four consecutive weeks on the Top 20 in October 1968 and enjoyed a 13-week stay on the charts. It also made #1 on the Rhodesian “Lyons Maid Hits of the Week” charts in November of the same year. In November, Pebbles also reached #1 spot on LM’s hit parade (Springbok’s Top 20 was based on sales whereas LM’s hit parade was based on a songs popularity, determined in an opinion poll). Despite sales equaling three gold disc awards for Picking up Pebbles, Cornelia was never presented with a gold disc award for record sales (Helen Shapiro suffered the same fate with her million-selling Walking back to Happiness).
RCA Victor in America and Germany were so impressed by samples that had been sent them, that both companies requested copy masters of Cornelia’s music for release in their respective countries. In August 1968, Cornelia’s first album was released locally as well as in the USA (an honour she shared with Four Jacks and a Jill alone at the time). Picking up Pebbles was released as a single in Germany. The songs Men of Steel, Ships of Wood, Circle Game, Picking up Pebbles and Master Jack have been culled from I wanna live. Master Jack is sung in German, the lyrics of which were penned by Cornelia’s mother, Vera. The album I wanna Live reached double-gold disc status but, for reasons best known to the late Gerald McGrath of Teal, Cornelia was not presented with the disc.
The composer of Picking up Pebbles, a young Australian, Johnny Curtis (real name Robert Kerr), was tragically killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident in London several months after Pebbles became a smash hit for Cornelia. He came from a poor family and worked part-time to pay for his studies. Ironically, the royalties earned from his song gave his family the wealth that he had dreamed of as a struggling student.
RCA Victor in America commissioned Cornelia to record an album of mainly locally composed material. The company had been impressed with two Dave Marks compositions recorded by Four Jacks and a Jill – Master Jack and Mr Nico – both of which had charted in the States. In November 1968, Cornelia’s second album, simply entitled Cornelia, was released. The album didn’t do as well as expected – “It flopped!” declares Cornelia – “Although there was some good material on the album, it was simply not of a high enough standard to impress the Americans.”
Cornelia performed as guest artist with the Buddy Greco show in October and November of 1968 on Greco’s South African tour. She sang the title song for the movie Dr Kalie (Starring Siegfried