Monday, November 26, 2007

On: The Quincy Jones of Nigeria, woman singers and the London Era of Nigerian music

When I first started seriously getting into music around 1982 or so, like most people, my interest in various records was based upon the appeal (vocal and/or visual) of the singer. I maintained massive mental inventories of my favorite vocalists; when required to fill in the "Fave Singer!" category in slum books, I took five or six single-spaced, tightly-packed lines to list them all. But I soon learned that this adoration of singers was the way that small boys--or girls in general--approached music. Within the esoteric community of serious soundheads (an all-male fraternity, of course), singers were admired, sure... but ultimately, the name and face shouting from the front of the record sleeve was much less impressive than the name listed under the credit "Produced By."

When I hung out with music hipsters in their teens and early twenties, their conversations were just inscrutable to me--hours of nothing but Leon Sylvers III produced this and Mizell Brothers are in the studio with so-and-so and Nile Rodgers should have been behind the boards on that session and Narada Michael Walden is a very underrated producer... What lingers in my memory above all is the hushed reverence that crept into their voices every time anyone uttered the name Randy Muller, like some sacred oath!

Now I didn't know shit about what a producer did: I reckoned he was something like the conductor of an orchestra, but truthfully, I didn't exactly know what a conductor did either. I mean, the musicians already have the sheet music in front of them, right? So what's that jerkoff in tails really doing standing in front of them gesticulating with a stick?

Regardless, I sussed that the producer was somehow the smartest guy in the room; the man who saw the big picture... who made it all happen. Part technician, part musician, part magician. While the singer stood in the studio, emptying her soul into the microphone with an emotional nakedness that would move any onlooking mortal to the point of tears, on the other side of the glass, the producer was mostly unaffected, entrenched as he was in manipulating the knobs and meters on his expansive mixing desk, obsessively committed to achieving the sonic vision in his ears.

The only producer I really knew or cared much about was Quincy Jones; he had produced Off The Wall, after all, and at that point, my world pretty much revolved around Michael Jackson. The next producer I took an interest in was one whose name had been popping up with increasing frequency in my hipster friends' conversations and among the supercool DJs on Calabar's Cross River Radio: Lemmy Jackson.

I admit it: the only reason I cared about Lemmy Jackson at first was because I thought he might be a heretofore undiscovered member of the seemingly ever-expanding Jackson clan. I got into Millie Jackson for the same reason. (What a rude shock that was!) Millie Jackson was not, of course, any relation to the Jacksons of Gary, Indiana and neither was Lemmy. Lemmy Jackson (born Otu Udofa) was in fact a Nigerian producer, and if you were a Nigerian musician, you weren't shit if he wasn't producing your record. "The Quincy Jones of Nigeria" they called him.

Jackson's rep as "the man with the magic fingers" took off in 1981, a banner year in which three landmark albums bore his production credit: Christy Essien-Igbokwe's Ever Liked My Person?, I Want To Feel Your Love, by Oby Onyioha, and under his own name, Tonight. The latter two were released by Time Communications, a new label established by insurance tycoon Paul Aifuwa of Time Insurance Brokers, who had hired Jackson to serve as in-house producer. Aifuwa envisioned an affair much more upmarket than the average Nigerian record company and even than the multinational labels like Decca West Africa and EMI Nigeria: handsome packaging, lavish production values, proper publishing for the songs... the whole nine.

I'd wager that Aifuwa was inspired in some part by apala star Alhaji Haruna Ishola's Phonodisk Records, which had been the first homegrown "major" label on the continent built from the ground up by indigenous Africans. Phonodisk had not only top-shelf recording and mastering facilities and a reheaarsal studio, but also its own record press and a motel to house talent and personnel during sessions. Phonodisk's first smash was the 1980 album I Need Someone, recorded by a young law student named Kris Okotie, produced by Odion Iruoje and featuring the band BLO (for which Lemmy Jackson was keyboardist) as session players and arrangers. Jackson, sans BLO, had since become the leader of Phonodisk's house band.

Aifuwa entered a partnership with Phonodisk, recording at the company's studios at Ijebu-Ode, Lagos and having Time Communications' records distributed by Phonodisk. However, instead of mixing the records at Phonidisk's facilities, he chose to send the tapes to London for that extra awayan polish. This was hardly an uncommon practice, of course. A good chunk of Nigerian records at the time were mixed and mastered in London. I'm not completely sure why, as there were many facilities where the records could be competently mastered back home in Nigeria... I guess they did it just because they could. These were prosperous times: civilian government had returned after more than a decade of military rule; the oil boom was over, but the Nigerian naira was still almost twice the value of the US dollar; casual weekend trips to London were not unusual among the middle class. The music industry was booming too, and EMI and Decca were spreading that major label moolah, flying musicians to record their albums and shoot their videos in London like it was nothing. Even tiny, backyard labels like Average Records were sending their tapes to Jand for mastering. I often refer to this period as the London Era of Nigerian Music.

Another distinguishing feature of the London Era was the large number of Nigerian musicians residing in the UK at the time. The most important of these were probably The Funkees.

The Funkees originated as an army band after the civil war, and by the time they relocated to London in 1973, they looked to be the group that was closest to achieving the dream of becoming "the next Osibisa." Unfortunately, after just two LPs and a couple of 45s, the band broke up in 1977. Most of the members--Jake Sollo, Harry Mosco, Mohammed Ahidjo, Chyke Madu and Sonny Akpan--remained active in the London music scene, doing session work, recording their own albums aimed at the Nigerian market at home and abroad, and supporting visiting Nigerian artists.

The Funkees' debut album Point of No Return (alternately issued in France as Afro-Funk Music) was co-produced by a charismatic Sierra Leonean named Akie Deen, who had been hustling hard to promote West African and Caribbean music around London since the beginning of the 1970s, before there was any real "scene" to speak of. Over the course of the decade, Deen would become the man to know among African musicians in London as he knew everybody in London's black music world and was a central force in organizing, booking and marketing West African and West Indian musicians, between which he made little distinction. The result was a dynamic, musically miscengenous climate: Nigerians, Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans making soca and calypso, Trinidadians playing on Nigerian afro-funk records, and hybrid styles like discolypso.

Adding to the mix were the many young white session players who worked in the London black music scene and, by extension, on African pop records. Probably the most significant of these was trumpeter Luke Tunney, whose credit appeared on several Nigerian albums in the early 80s, mostly as a horn arranger. Tunney went on to form the duo Mercy Mercy, best remembered (by some) for the 1985 soulboy dance classic "What Are We Gonna Do About It".

Another one was Morris Michael. Michael mostly contributed background vocals on Harry Mosco and Jake Sollo sessions, but he was also a guitarist with a clean, jazzy tone, as he would show later in the 80s as half of the Tears For Fears-esque sophistipop duo Private Lives.*** (The band broke up shortly after its 1984 debut Prejudice and Pride--featuring the single "Living In A World (Turned Upside Down)"--flopped, but like another short-lived, twee 80s New Romantic twosome, Seona Dancing, they have continued to be big in the Philippines.)

Okay. I am really digressing now, aren't I?

So yes. The Time Communications label mixed their records in London.

Oby Onyioha was the first artist signed to Time. A baby-voiced vocalist with a toothy grin, Onyioha represented the new wave of Nigerian female pop singers emerging with the arrival of the new decade. It might be odd thinking about it today, but twenty-five years ago, the very idea of Nigerian female pop singers was in and of itself quite novel and maybe even a little revolutionary. Looking over the Nigerian popular music scene of the 1960s and 70s, you notice that female singers are very rare, owing largely to the prevaiing perception in the culture that a female singer was two, maybe three notches above a prostitute. Yes, there were a couple of ladies like Joyce Obong or Alice Eyo who cut a few sides or featured as girl singers in the highlife orchestras, but their careers were usually brief: they got married and left the singing behind, because it just was not a good look for a woman of decency.

Which is not to say that no women whatsoever were able to grab a microphone without letting go of dignity. In the early 1970s, Nelly Uchendu and Joy Nwosu managed this balancing act, and Julie Coker released some well-received records, as well. But Coker had the advantage of already being a respected television newscaster and in any case, her records featured "folk" music rather than "pop." Uchendu and Nwosu were also billed as "folk singers," clearly a much more respectable sobriquet than "rock singer." Other than the freespirited and fiercely independent Lijadu Sisters, who started out singing folk but switched to rock--and frankly, were viewed by some as being kind of "loose"--it's hard to think of too many female "pop" singers from that era.

Then came the 1980s, bringing with them Onyeka Onwenu, Martha Ulaeto, Julie Pip, Dora Ifudu, Uche Ibeto, Funmi Adams, Ima Valentine and a score of educated modern ladies holding their heads high and singing the liberated songs of the New Woman--and some of them even wearing trousers as they did it! After the decidedly austere presentation of the folk singers, to have a woman like Oby Onyioha wearing red lipstick and a perm, cooing "I Want To Feel Your Love" and exhorting her sisters to "Enjoy Your Life" while decadent strings swooped around her was a deliciously radical change of pace, forerunning a substantial cultural shift.

In his Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, Ronnie Graham attributes this sudden surge in female singers to the success of Nigerian entertainer Patti Boulaye, who had become the UK's answer to Diana Ross after winning the TV talent show New Faces in 1978. I used to think that was just a little bit farfetched since Patricia Ngozi Ebigwe had been in her teens when she left the country during the war and her rise to stardom had entirely taken place away from Nigerian shores, so I thought of her more as a "Nigerian-born singer" than a Nigerian singer per se.

Of course, I didn't doubt that Boulaye was an inspiring figure to Nigerian women, especially as her kisser was plastered on the wrapper of the most popular bath soap in Nigeria (1:17 mark, yall), but I felt her success said as much about the prospects of Nigerian female pop musicians at home as, say, Shirley Bassey's did. But when I think about it now, Boulaye was not as divorced from the Naija scene as she might have seemed; in 1976, before she really blew up, she returned home to star in one of the first major Nigerian feature films, Ladi Ladebo's Bisi, Daughter of the River.

If Boulaye's meteoric rise left any doubt regarding the commercial appeal of Nigerian female pop singers, Theadora Ifudu blew it off the map. In 1979, the arty co-host of NTA Channel 10's Bar Beach Show self-released her debut album First Time Out (backed by members of Monomono) and almost immediately was signed by Epic Records and whisked off to New York to record her followup. It was official; someone out there wanted to listen to modern Nigerian women.

It made sense that the next singer poised to take advantage of this new vogue would be the woman regarded as one of the grand dames of Nigerian female pop. In 1981, Christy Essien-Igbokwe was only 21 but was an old hand, having released her first record (1977's Freedom) when she was a mere 17. Like Coker and Ifudu, she had been a beloved television personality and her wholesome image made her the perfect ambassador for the country. Her sixth album was set to be a major affair intended to cross her over to international audiences.

The new album would be the first album release from Lagos International Records: I don't know a great deal of the story behind Lagos International, but from the slick LIR releases I've seen, it is clear that it was a London-based label more or less dedicated to disseminating Nigerian pop music in Europe and America. LIR's domestic marketing and distribution was handled by Skylark Records, the label owned by Chief Olu Aboderin, founder of the Nigerian Punch newspaper (at which Essien's husband, Edwin Igbokwe was GM at the time). Several Skylark releases featured arrangements by Lemmy Jackson--who, with BLO, had also backed Essien on her previous album, 1980's Give Me A Chance--so not surprisingly, Jackson got the job helming the Ever Liked My Person? sessions in Los Angeles.

Ever Liked My Person? deviated from previous Christy Essien outings in numerous ways. For one, no Nigerian musicians on the record; Jackson instead used seasoned L.A. studio vets like George Bohannon, Webster Lewis and James Gadson, imbuing it with the ultra-professional, early-80s West coast gloss of a Brenda Russell record. (Just in case you're wondering: I like Brenda Russell.) And the material ditches the funk and soul that characterized previous Christy releases in favor of adult contempo, country & western, and highly polished pre-World Music™ fusions of Caribbean rhythms sung over in Yoruba, Efik and Igbo. The record itself was pressed up on snazzy green vinyl!

I don't know the extent to which Person? achieved its goals of putting Christy on the international radar (I recall seeing her mentioned in write-ups in minor rock mags) but it is definitely her best known album back home. If there's one Christy Essien tune universally considered an evergreen classic in Nigeria, it's "Seun Rere," the song with which she represented Nigeria at... some international song contest.

(I can't remember exactly what it was called... It was like Eurovision, except I think it was in L.A. I remember the announcer's voice proclaiming "CHRISTY ESSIEN i-guh-BO-kway!!" and her coming out and performing "Seun Rere" and "Ka Anyi Gba Egwu"--the latter with some frantic dancing--and then they showed a video of her walking the streets of Los Angeles singing "Ever Liked My Person?" It's stunning that I can hardly find any documentation of this online, because it was quite a big deal at the time; thereafter, she became known as "Nigeria's Lady of Songs.")

Lemmy Jackson's sumptuous solo album, Tonight, was recorded simultaneously with Onyioha's, using the same Phonodisk standby studio players like Eugene Ndema, Basil Barap and Paul Sokeng (I believe all three were Cameroonians) as well as his BLO colleague Laolu Akins. In London, he overdubbed strings and horns (provided by Luke Tunney, Annie Whitehead, and Gary Barnacle) and percussion from London-based Nigerian musician Keni St. George.

I can imagine that the results might be a tad rich for some tastes, but this was pretty much what a lot of people wanted to hear back in '81: Homegrown music with production that was just as slick and "sophisticated" as anything by Gamble & Huff or The Bee Gees. Lord knows I ate it all up: the rare Morris Michael guitar solo on the title track... the mutated bass on "I Can Satisfy You"... the restrained vocal on the ballad "Tell Me Love"... the subtle tonal shifts between chorus and verse in the bubbleheaded disco number "Make Your Body Dance"... I loved it all and I still do. (A different version of the song appeared on BLO's 1980 Bulky Backside LP, by the way.)

While I Want To Feel Your Love and Tonight sold well and signalled a promising start for Time Communications, they ended up being the label's only releases. Apparently, Aifuwa quickly learned that as the economy started dipping, the rewards of the home market alone were insufficient to support or justify the expenditure he was pouring into the enterprise. Aifuwa didn't leave the business of show, though; later in the year, he staged the massive Tempo '81 concert featuring (among others) Miriam Makeba, The Commodores, and reggae band Third World, who so enjoyed their trip to Nigeria that they immortalized it in song.

Phonodisk also packed it in a couple of years later, a casualty of perpetual mismanagement. Haruna Ishola was a very smart and ambitious man, but he was also illiterate and spoke no English; hence, he was dependent upon his children to carry out most of the label's day-to-day business. Let's just say they didn't exactly uphold dad's noble aspirations for the company.

Out of the fray, Lemmy Jackson ascended from session man to studio royalty. BLO called it quits in 1982, freeing Jackson up to devote himself to fulltime production. He would enjoy a decade-long run as Nigeria's producer par excellence, weathering changes in public taste from disco and boogie to reggae and beyond. After the hits dried up for him altogether, he accepted the invitation from the governor of Akwa Ibom State to run the state's new ultramodern recording facility in Uyo, where he resides today, developing new acts and training the next generation of studio wizards.

Now, there's something I've been wanting to clear up regarding Tonight. In a previous post, I referred to Lemmy Jackson as a "velvet-voiced soul singer and keyboardist." This characterization was based on the Pendergrassian baritone on display throughout the Tonight album.

I never actually owned this album back then, but I knew it every song on it by heart because Cross River Radio played the thing from end to end, as they did with Ever Liked My Person? and Oby Onyioha's I Want To Feel Your Love. (I should probably mention that both Jackson and Essien were local kids done good.) So I never really read the sleeve notes on Lemmy Jackson's Tonight; I just knew that these songs were credited to him.

So, not long after I made that post, I'm looking at the credits on Tonight and I notice that right at the bottom underneath every other credit--including the engineers and stuff--that it says "Lead vocal - Selmore Lewison."

Hmmmm.... That's interesting. Lead vocal on what? All the songs seem to be sung by the same singer...

Then I realize that Lemmy Jackson is not credited for a vocal performance anywhere on the record; not even for background vox.

Then I realize that on BLO's last three records, Lemmy Jackson is the only member of the band who is never credited with any vocals whatsoever.

For some reason, I felt a bit deceived... Like, after 25 years of thinking he sang these songs, he actually didn't sing shit?

I guess I can't be mad... It's not like he ever claimed that he did sing on the album (even though they practically buried that "Lead vocal" credit) and hey... They called him the "Quincy Jones of Nigeria," right? I guess this "Selmore Lewison" was his James Ingram! And it explained a lot, really: I had long wondered why--if he had a voice like that--he had never released another solo album. Then again, it raised the question why me and my man Enyi felt we could hear a tinge of an Efik/Ibibio accent on songs like "I Can Satisfy You" and "Tell Me Love" while "Selmore Lewison" was clearly a name that could only belong to a West Indian?

Who was this "Selmore Lewison"?

Well, it didn't take too long to ascertain that Selmore Ezekiel Lewinson was the birth name of Dan-I, a Jamaican-born British singer who scored a top 20 UK hit in 1979 with "Monkey Chop"--an early Trevor Horn production that incidentally got a lot of burn on Cross River Radio. (I actually thought that it was a Nigerian song, largely because of the pidgin English lyrics... I probably should have saved this for "West Indian Musicians I Once Thought Were Nigerian" week.)

Sure enough, "Dan I" was credited as a background singer on the Oby Onyioha album, so I decided to find out more about Mr. Lewinson. Here is some of what I found.

Dan-I performed in various styles throughout his long career--pop, rock, reggae, ska, gospel--he even toured Nigeria during FESTAC '77 and was a member of a short-lived Funkees splinter group called Abraka (apparently named for the 1974 Funkees single).

Sadly, Dan-I passed away in September 2006. So I'm posting the Tonight album in his memory (and also dedicating it to my boy Etino).

Hope y'all enjoy it as much as I do.

Lemmy Jackson- Yamaha Acoustic and Electric Grand Pianos, Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, Prophet 5 Synthesizer
Laolu Akins - Drums on all except "We Can Do It"
Basil N. Barap - Bass
Eugene Ndema - Guitar
Paul Sokeng - Drums on "We Can Do It"
Morris Michael - Guitar on "Tonight"
Percussion - Keni St. George, Lemmy Jackson, Dean Disi
African xylophone - Francis Igboke, Igwe Ede
Horns - Luke Tunney (trumpet), Gary Barnacle (sax), Annie Whitehead (trombone),
Strings - The Locrian String Ensemble

Backing vocals - Jane James, Ray Shell, Morris Michael, Simeon Catlyn
Lead vocal - Selmore Lewinson

Backing tracks recorded at Phonodisk Studio, Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
Overdubs at Hillside Studio, London, England
String overdubs and mixing at Rak Studios, London.

All songs written and arranged by Lemmy Jackson
Horn & string arrangements by Luke Tunney
Get the ZIP or track by track:

1. Don't Let Love Slip Away*
2. Tell Me Love
3. I Can Satisfy You

1. We Can Do It*
2. Tonight
3. Make Your Body Dance

*Yoooooooooooo... I gotta apologize for the skip at the beginning of "We Can Do It" and the maybe four skips in "Don't Let Love Slip Away"... I actually ripped those songs, like, eight different times trying to get rid of them, but in the end I had to accept that the problem was due not to scratches or even dirt, but small defects in the vinyl itself. Hope it doesn't bother anybody too much!**

**Why am I so apologetic about this? Shit, stuff like this is just part of the vinyl experience! I dunno, though... Modern listeners (among which I count myself, I guess) are so conditioned to a perfectly pristine listening experience at all times that I feel almost like I'm spitting in your faces by posting any recording that's anything less than flawless!

Here's some bonus beats for ya, for what it's worth:

Oby Onyioha - "Wait for Me"
Christy Essien-Igbokwe - "Shooby Shooby"
Oby Onyioha - "I'll Put It Right Again" (Doesn't this song kinda anticipate Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called..."? BTW I really don't care if you think this tune is a saccharrine monstrosity, I love it!)

***12/5/07: I kinda implied above that Morris Michael was a "young, white session player"; however, I just found this photo of Private Lives and alas! he appears to be a gentleman of significant negritude! My bad... I guess I racially profiled the dude based on what his band sounded like, which is more Kajagoogoo than Imagination. (Actually, Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs guests on Prejudice and Pride.)

For what it's worth, I had only ever seen the album's front cover, which for some reason pictures a drawing of two white guys... So you can't blame me!


John B. said...

Amazing post - a real tour de force!

Comb & Razor said...

thanks, JB! 'twas one of those days that i started out wanting to talk about one thing and then got kinda... carried away!

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Great post! You schooled me. Can't wait to hear this!

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for commenting, "Big Al"! (and your new blog looks like it's going to be great!)

Anonymous said...

So interesting and so well documented, as always! A model of post.

John B. said...

Great tag, Big Al! You sound like a bouncer in a Marrakesh hashish bar!

Anonymous said...

Big Al, fo real tho!

MATTO said...

Best post so far on my favorite blog, love all the info. Dora Ifudu made a American record too, this time around, not quite as strong as her first but overall very much worth the listen.

Anonymous said...

OOOOh my God! I'm in tears!!! My husband worked with Time Insurance so I happened to have met most of these people you mentioned. Lemmy 'otu' Jackson....Tempo 80... Bless you.


Comb & Razor said...

wow... that's great, Nnebaby!

maybe you can share some stories with us sometime...

Anonymous said...

can you give me the link to christy essien 1980 and 1981 plaese,
thank you very much

Anonymous said...

So what do you have on Tina Onwudewei please, I want to locate her songs, photographs, life and times.
Anyone can help?

Comb & Razor said...

Well... What exactly about Tyna do you want to know?

Martin!!! said...

Wow.. What a compendium of knowledge. Great write up. Documentation for the next generation..

Comb & Razor said...

Thanks, Martin!!!

Anonymous said...

wow cool.

Joe Asikpo said...

This is one the best write up on the Nigerian music industry.As a keen follower and investor in the industry, I've been further educated.

nuhman said...

good work to explore the woman singers

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