Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Jake Sollo is Awesome Part 1: Lover Boy & the Esbee Family
Lately, a couple of readers have requested to hear some Felix Lebarty and I'll admit that it gave me a moment of pause: Why haven't I posted any of his music at all up until this time? Was he not, after all, probably the biggest Nigerian music star for a good chunk of the 1980s? Did not his music burn up the floor at many a birthday party when I was in primary school?
Yes, all of that is indeed true. Also true is the fact that in some way, I'm a bit embarrassed by Felix Lebarty. Somehow, I just don't feel like he's traveled very well. Of course, I realize that some would argue that most of the music I post has not traveled well (if it even travels at all), but I'm not even talking just about Lebarty's records per se. I mean him--his whole style, image, everything.
The nasal singing. The crappy wannabe Yankee phoneh. The "sexy" sighs and yelps. The drawn-out gimmick of him naming his lead singles after the girls he's supposedly dating at the time. The okoro-next-door romanticism. The faux-leather pants. It's all terribly cheesy to me now and to be honest, it was cheesy to me even back then. But, y'know, cheesy in that way that was good in the 80s.
My feelings about Felix Lebarty reflect the reasons why until recently I mostly distanced myself from 80s (black) music in general: Because it was the soundtrack of such a formative period in my life, I used to fear that I was too close to it emotionally to ever objectively assess its actual value as, y'know... music rather than as nostalgia.
I'm over that problem now, I think... As I've gotten older, I've found myself becoming less and less intimidated by the power of my own sentimentality and adhering more and more to Duke Ellington's rule of music appreciation: "If you like it, then it's good." I threw on Lover Boy a few months ago, and yes, I thought it was good--mostly because of Jake Sollo's crisp production, of course.
I have frequently alluded to my ardent admiration for Sollo; amongst most lovers of 1980s Nigerian boogie Lemmy Jackson is the ne plus ultra, but for my money, Jake Sollo was the most vital and interesting producer of the era. (Not to mention one of the sharpest rhythm guitarists to ever walk the earth.) By the early 80s, after almost a decade spent in London gigging with everyone from Osibisa to Bunny Mack to Kim Wylde, Sollo was settling back in Nigeria, mostly functioning as a house producer/A&R at Chief G.A.D. Tabansi's Taretone/Tabansi Records, and it was in this capacity that he discovered Felix Lebarty.
Actually, Felix--younger brother of Aigbe Lebarty, a Bini highlife bandleader in the Victor Uwaifo mold who enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 1960s and early 70s--had already been "discovered" before he met Sollo. Producer Odion Iruoje and fledgling pop star Kris Okotie spotted Felix on stage at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt fronting his rock band the Sex Bombers and swiftly recruited him to play guitar (alongside BLO) on Okotie's 1980 debut I Need Someone.
Okotie, meanwhile, was already setting his eyes on consolidating power behind the scenes as a producer and an executive. He set up his own label and planned for his first artist to be Felix Lebarty, whom he was grooming into a lightweight version of himself. (He would later create a female version of himself in the person of his younger sister Lorine Okotie, of "Single Girl" fame.) But in the meantime, in order to strengthen the Kris Okotie brand, his primary focus had to be on releasing new Kris Okotie music. As Okotie knocked out three LPs between 1980 and 1981, Lebarty grew tired of waiting for his shot. Without the knowledge of Okotie and Iruoje, he took a meeting with Jake Sollo and forged what would turn out to be a longterm professional relationship with Chief Tabansi.
(This move would later fuel much controversy, speculation and rumors of bitter, mortal enmity between Okotie and Lebarty.)
In January 1982, Sollo traveled to London with Lebarty and recorded the album Lover Boy. As was common during the London era of Nigerian pop, the record featured African and British musicians, including Pat Henry and Tracey King--two thirds of a trio of London session vocalists (along with Wendy Harris) who frequently worked with Sollo and whom he produced as "Galaxy" (not to be confused with London producer Phil Fearon's 1980s band of the same name).
While Lebarty's warbling vocals and songwriting style retained a superficial resemblance to those of his erstwhile benefactor, Sollo distanced his new charge from Okotie's laidback pop-rock sound by cutting him on thumping discolypso arrangements full of big drum kicks, squiggly synth lines and bright, blaring horns.
Felix Lebarty - "Lover Boy"
Felix Lebarty - "Ngozi"
Felix Lebarty - "My Number One"
Lebarty also filmed several promotional videos to accompany the tracks. I can still remember the Saturday afternoon they debuted those clips on NTA 9.... They all looked pretty much like the standard UK black music videos of the day--the male artist lip syncing in front of a glittery curtain... two women in chic disco wear gyrating on either side (as a rule, at least one of these ladies was always caucasian)... smoke machine... public access cable optical effects (usually doubling, tripling and quadrupling)... Basically, Snoop's "Sensual Seduction" video.
When he appeared onscreen blurting "Boy-Boy-Boy... I'm your Boy-Boy-Boy" we were like, "Who is this Kris Okotie manque?" (cf. the opening of "Lover Boy" to that of Okotie's "You Are My Woman"), but within a matter of seconds it became clear that he was projecting a kind of saucy charm that was a world away from Okotie's earnest intensity.
By the time the barnstomping "Ngozi" came on, everybody knew the kid was a star. Instead of him being viewed as a Kris Okotie clone, almost overnight he had spawned his own army of imitators such as Dizzy K, Terry Mackson and Chris Mba. And because for the first several months of his stardom virtually nobody called him by his real name--he was generally referred to as "Lover Boy"--people were more inclined to compare him to Honey Boy (who was the biggest star in Nigeria at the time) than to Okotie.
Lebarty and Sollo reunited the following year for Lover Boy '83, featuring the hits "Chi-Chi" and "Sexy Woman." As Lebarty's pop dominance grew from strength to strength, Okotie announced in 1984 that he was leaving the music business. Of course, the rumor mill went into overdrive about him being cowed by the Lover Boy onslaught, but really, Kris Okotie was a lot smarter than that; his premature retirement from music was actually a carefully thought-out power move. (We'll talk more about that later.)
Jake Sollo also had success in 1982 with Peace of Mind, the sophomore album by the Esbee Family.
While officially a trio consisting of guitarist Kingsley "Dallas" Anyanwu and singer Maurice "Jackie" Anyaorah (both late of the then-recently dissolved varsity rock band Sweet Breeze) with bassist Ndubuisi "Roy" Obika, in essence Esbee Family was a supergroup comprising the Sweet Breezers, Galaxy, and Sollo himself lending support on guitar, synths and occasionally bass.
(Well, that was the case on the second LP, anyway; on the first, 1980's Chics & Chicken, Anyaorah, Anyanwu, Obika and Sollo were joined by vocalists Carol Ingrams and Pamela Douglas.)
The Esbees were the first Nigerian band I remember seriously digging. So funky and urbane, such a suave and debonair look... They were like a Nigerian answer to Chic!
(Actually, now that I think of it, that's a fairly apt comparison as Sollo's guitar playing and production style always reminded me a little bit of Nile Rodgers.)
I also recall being rather fascinated by their lyrics, which seemed very "adult" and "sophisticated" to me at the time. In contrast to the generic proclamations of love I was used to in a lot of pop music I listened to, the Esbees often had a certain narrative specificity to their discussions of relationships between men and women. (I was intuitively aware of this even as I was unsure what they were talking about. "Chics are magnets"? Huh? And what is the meaning of this mysterious "gin & lime" that this woman wanted so badly? I still don't know for sure!)
Also, there was a mild sense of danger listening to them, as their wry, casual celebrations of fleshly pleasures were occasionally distressing to my nascent Christian sensibilities: I blushed at songs like "Chics & Chicken" that talked about girls who "spread their legs so wide/so you may see through" or "My Man Understands," in which Tracey King extols her dude, who is so much in love that he's willing to ignore the gossip and take a chance on turning a harlot into a housewife.
Esbee Family - "Gin & Lime"
Esbee Family - "Chics are Magnets
Esbee Family - "My Man Understands"
I really got into this band, and I was pretty disappointed when they didn't release another album (as far as I know). I later heard that Anyaorah and Anyanwu went to the States to get their PhDs and I know Roy Obika produced records for other artists in the 80s. Tracey King is still doing her thing, but I don't know about the other two Galaxy girls. I was recently informed that the Sweet Breeze were reuniting, so I guess that's encouraging.
Sadly, Jake Sollo died in a car accident in the mid-80s (a loss that pretty much dealt a deathblow to Nigerian pop music, in my opinion).
May his funk forever live on!