Last week, I began a dedicated series of servings on Saturday Breakfast in which the ingredients of the key history of Nigerian popular music over the years are examined. We are also looking at the recording industry that thrived on and promoted the music and the influences from which the present Nigerian music buzz emerged. Some of the materials come from my book, Copyright & the New Millionaires. Please read on.
Sonny Okosun, who had operated under the radar for a while in the showbiz circle, performing in Benin City for a while with Sir Victor Uwaifo and experimenting in Enugu with bands like “The Postmen” and “Paperback Limited”, chose the period around 1971 to positively announce himself as a major act at EMI Nigeria. His song, “Help” which had another great song, “Don’t Cry” as the flip side of the 7” single recorded at the EMI Wharf Road, Apapa Studios, was a major hit. Both songs had the immensely gifted singer, Perry Ernest Okocha on the vocals.
Not long after, Sonny Okosun decided to personally grab the mic and take over the lead singing from Perry Ernest. He added a big horn section to his band which section was led by trombonist, Fred Fisher and also added the locomotive drum sounds of Mosco Egbe, the keyboard wizardry of Jonny Wood Olimah , the guitar riffs of Spark Abiloye and his group, Ozzidi took off like a bomb. To top up the attraction, a sexy group of female back-up singers and dancers like Claudia Pepple, Floxxy B, Margaret Akpan and Julie King became part of the group and Ozzidi was hot!
With Ozzidi, Sonny Okosun became a big activist and major voice in the African liberation movement. On the wings of Ozzidi, Okosun toured the African continent several times and made such great recordings as Papa’s Land, Fire in Soweto, Mother & Child, African Soldier, Which Way Nigeria?, etc. and became the greatest and longest hit maker at EMI Nigeria. What Sonny Okosun did was what had been expected of either Jonnie Haastrup, whose band “Monomono” had a massive hit on EMI titled, “Give the Beggar a Chance” or Segun Bucknor, whose “Soul Assembly” had experimented with some intriguing African rhythms in the evergreen song, “Poor Man no Get Brother’’. There were indeed suggestions from some quarters that what became known as Afro Beat was created by Segun Bucknor but such suggestions disappeared because of Fela’s towering personality and his undisputed dominance of the music genre.
At about the same period, three urbane looking young men in Lagos, Beckley Ike Jones, Laolu Akintobi and Mike Odumosu broke into the scene with a three-piece band called BLO which had an unbelievable sound as big as a huge orchestra. The name, BLO was coined from the first letters of the names of the guitarist, Beckley Ike Jones and the drummer, Laolu Akintobi and the first letter of the surname of the bass player, Mike Odumosu. From BLO’s first album, CHAPTER ONE released by EMI, to PHASE II, STEP 3 and PHASE IV, all of which came out on Decca’s Afrodisia label, BLO never quite achieved its potential in record sales but was red hot on stage and the girls went crazy whenever BLO came to town.
People thronged whatever venues BLO played, to listen to the guitar solos of Beckley Jones on his famous Fender Stratocaster guitar, the thumping bass of Mike Odumosu and the magical drum rolls of Laolu Akins and to see their flashy Orange loudspeakers and amplifiers provided by Decca. The fact that only three guys produced such great sound was part of the great legend of BLO. The group was also very professionally packaged by their manager and publicist, Tony Amadi, one of Nigeria’s best Entertainment journalists of all times. There was no argument that BLO were the best instrumentalists around and almost every recording artiste craved for some bars of the BLO sound in their recordings. The guys naturally became the most expensive session musicians in Nigeria. When Mike Odumosu moved on to join the trans-national group, “Osibisa”, Biddy Wright ‘Oladele’ took over as the ‘O’ in BLO. In later years, the ‘O’ in BLO was the incredibly talented keyboard player, Lemmy ‘Otu’ Jackson who also became one of Nigeria’s most successful producers responsible for hit songs from the likes of Oby Onyioha, Christy Essien Igbokwe and Onyeka Onwenu.
If EMI was the Mecca of pop artistes in Nigeria, Odion Iruoje was the Chief Imam. The fast talking and brash Producer and Artiste & Repertoire Manager at EMI, who neither had any formal training or apprenticeship in music, became one of the most powerful people in the Nigerian music industry. Iruoje had an uncanny talent for detecting a hit artiste before the artiste ever got recorded. He could also bring in new elements into an artiste’s work to give it more commercial appeal. His rather stubborn self-assurance ensured that he was in complete control of the artistes, well known for their difficult- to- manage temperaments. Iruoje scored a major hit with the band, “Ofege” featuring high school students from St Gregory’s College, Lagos. He simply gave fillip to the sweet schoolboy voice of lead singer, Melvin Ukachi by throwing in the famed guitars of Beckley Jones to accompany the recordings of Ofege and all the kids in the streets were singing, “Wizzy Ilabo” or “Ofege is our name!”
As the mid-seventies strolled by, with the Udoji awards in the pockets of the Nigerian consumer, EMI was in business with such hit songs as “Still Searching” by Bongos Ikwue and the Groovies, “Beautiful Woman” by “Cloud 7” led by singer, Cliff David, “She’s My Choice” by “Sweet Breeze” fronted by Basil Akalonu, Jackie Moore, Dallas King Anyanwu, etc; “Slim Fit Maggi” by Semi Colon led by Lasbrey Ojukwu and a couple of mild hits from Warri based Tony Grey with his Ozzimba.
While EMI was not known for Highlife, it did extremely well with the music of Peacocks International Band of Owerri led by guitarist, Raphael Amarebem and singer, Dan Orji and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of the music of Apala legend, Ayinla Omowura. EMI was also selling a lot of reggae music by artistes like Jimmy Cliff, Jonny Nash, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Eric Donaldson, etc and scored positively with The Guyanese singer and producer, Eddy Grant, who had established a special relationship with the company.
Next week, we will examine the Juju music explosion at Decca West Africa, the emergence of Fuji music as a serious popular music form, the arrival of the Highlife guitar bands led by Oriental Brothers and the Ikwokirikwo craze fired by Ikenga Super Stars of Africa. Stay tuned. It will be interesting.
See you next week.
– Okoroji is the Chairman of COSON