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!


Anonymous said...

I feel you.That was my era.Thanks for taking me back.

Comb & Razor said...

anytime, yo..

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these comb & razor! I def feel what you're saying regarding Felix Lebarty. Yes, he was kinda naff but it was the 80s (LOL!) I've been trying to convert both his and Esbee Family's albums since I rescued 'em from storage in Freetown lat year so many thanks for those.

RIP Jake Sollo. My dad (Bunny Mack) was lucky to work with him ( also Tracey King and Wendy Harris) back in the day. Cheers!

Kev (kevgmac76@hotmail.com)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very informative (and funny) post.

I was really young then but i used to wonder why his hit songs were always named after different girls.

Any truth to the gist that he ended up a cab driver in NYC? I remember that making the rounds...

Comb & Razor said...

ha... i can't believe you remembered that MsMak!

yeah, the rumor used to circulate that even during the height of his stardom (well, not necessarily the "height"... but he was still making the occasional hit) that he would spend part of the year driving a cab in New York!

i don't know if it's true or not... i always feel that there's got to be at least a kernel of truth in a lot of these rumors. maybe he OWNED taxis in New York, you know? i know he was into doing other kinds of business on the side (like many others, as most Nigerian artists did not really make a lot of loot from album sales alone back then).

most recently, i heard he was selling cars somewhere in the States, though... *shrug*

Mr Starks said...

I feel like i have seen the light with Esbees Family. Anymore any more pls pls. I feel like ditching my fitted jeans for bell bottoms and an afro. Now I know why my mum scrunches her face when i blast D'Banj in the house.
More Esbees pls!!!

Comb & Razor said...

there will surely be more, Mr Starks!

N.I.M.M.O said...

May his funk forever live on! I like that.

I remember when his death was announced, I couldn't understand why people around me looked sad. I had never really heard about him. But when I learnt that he was the one behind ALL the hit songs of those days. It made sense.

Even as recent as December 2007, his name was still mentioned in private conversations with some musicians like Blacky and Daniel Wilson.

Obviously, his funk lives on.

Comb & Razor said...

hey N.I.M.M.O. -

do you know the exact year Jake Sollo died? my memory of it is a bit cloudy and i haven't been able to find any source to verify it...

i think it was... 1986 or so. right?

Anonymous said...

hello everyone,its a pity that mostpeople dont really know about felix personal life,he never stayed in the states to drive cabs,because he never stayed there for too long,he was always there for recording his songs,and that was all and about nameing his song after dateing someone is a big lie,coz all the names he used in all songs where all fake, no names in all his ever exited in true life.this things said about him are rumors,dont beleive evry thing you read.........

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for clearing that up, Anonymous...

i don't know anything about the cab-driving, really, but regarding the naming songs after his girlfriends... i know that on at least one album (1992's 419) he thanks his wife "Ifeoma"... which was, of course, the title of an earlier hit.

so i guess that rumor is not altogether baseless, no?

anyway, are you in contact with Felix? what is he up to these days?

jeff hilson said...

I've been looking for some felix lebarty for years having bought a cassette of 'Loverboy '83' in Kaduna whilst living there in the early '80s - after a while I couldn't listen to it as the cassette played havoc with my tape recorder. I'm so glad to have found a reference to it on the web! Any chance of an upload?!

Comb & Razor said...

Jeff -

send me your email address at combrazor at yahoo and i'll send you Lover Boy '83.

Unknown said...

Man that Galaxy album sounds incredible.

I can't find anything about the band apart from your blog.

I've been listening to the snippets on repeat for about 45 minutes.

Any chance of hearing some more ??

Ambi nwokeabia said...

I left Home 17 years ago, not having been there physically my memory of it stuck like crazy glue. it was a great opportunity to take a long walk down memory lane. I liked Kris okotie better than Felix Lebarty back then, and tonight confirmed that i still do. I am really grateful for that experience once more. can i make a special request. There was a musician, named Victor Chukwu. He is the brother of John Chukwu, the fairly famous nigerian MC and socialite. The last time i saw him he was the MC at coca cola dancing competition at National arts Theater. Majek Fashek was the guest musician, that is what i mean by my crazy memory. can you hook us up with some Victor chukwu

But i truly has found something that i love. Keep up the Good and worthy work.

Comb & Razor said...

ambinwoke -

thanks for stopping by, and i'm happy to hear that you're having fun so far... believe me, the best is yet to come!

Victor Chukwu, eh? hmmm... as in Uncle Victor Chuks & the Black Irokos? (i actually did not know he was John Chukwu's brother!)

i don't presently have any Victor Chukwu records, though i did have one in my hands a few weeks ago but didn't buy it! i am going back to that joint this weekend, though... if i can find it again, i'll definitely scoop it up and post it here!

Anonymous said...

I worked with Jake and Felix at Tabansi studio's in Onitsha for a few months in '81. As an 'onyogee' of 21, let me tell you, Nigeria was an eye-opener. Nothing can prepare an Englishman for west Africa, but Jake was fantastic to work with, great fun, and Felix was great too. We'd work through the nights as long as the generator could keep pumping power! I often think of Jake with affection - he died a few years after... he lives on in the music!

Comb & Razor said...

Wow! Thanks a lot for sharing, Tom!

I would definitely love to hear more about your experience at Tabansi... email me at combrazor at yahho dot com if you get a chance...


419 Radio said...

Lol. Hey Comb and Razor... First this is an awesome job you are doing here. Thank you so much. Finally, I'd love to hear what you have to say about Okotie's pre mature exit of the music business...

Comb & Razor said...

419 Radio -

Actually, I do have a few thoughts about Okotie's exit from the music scene. Maybe I'll talk about that soon.

419 Radio said...

Just reminding you Comb and Razor... Still nothing on your opinion on Okotie's pre mature exit of the Nigerian music industry.

the saucer people said...

Wow, The Esbee Family tracks are some of the most infectious bouncy grooves I have heard for a long long time! Thanks so much for sharing them with us. Given the fact there seems to be no copies around for sale or any CD re-issues, have you thought about ripping and posting the whole album in high quality 320 MP3 or FLAC? I am sure I am not the only one who would love to hear all the tracks!

Anonymous said...

I met felix liberty recently when i traveled back home at the benin immigration bureau..He was holding his new poorly produced CD and asking me to sew a seed of faith in his ministry...funny enough though! Why is it that most retired musicians are finding solace in the ministry??

Okotie first went to the North to become an Imam and later ran off to prepare himself as a pastor after some years trying the islamic faith..As there seems to be no way to making wealth in the islamic religion he opted in for christianity...try find out how OKOTIE left the islamic religion in the north to embrassing christianity and later self crowned pastor ....Its well

Comb & Razor said...

Yes, I know the story of how Okotie first flirted with converting to Islam before he became a pastor... I think he's a very smart man and he saw several steps down the road that he could make more money as a cleric than as a musician and he was already plotting his departure from the music world as early as 1982.

In a way, it's quite a natural progression for popular music stars to move to the church in later years--after all, many of them first discover their musical ability in the church.

Also, sacred music is just the flipside of popular music... They both are fueled by passion and ecstasy except that in the popular sphere that ecstasy tends to be sexual. As one grows older and sexual desirability recedes, it makes sense to traffic more in spiritual ecstasy.

Comb & Razor said...

the saucer people -

Sorry I didn't get to respond to your comment back in March; while I did read the comment back then, I was a bit indisposed!

Email me, okay?

Comb & Razor said...

419 Radio -

I'll probably talk about Okotie in a post soon.

Anonymous said...

Doctored Bee Gee's logo!

Comb & Razor said...

You know... I never really noticed that before, but you are right!

Unknown said...

When he finished at the Okrika Grammar School, he went to the United Kingdom to study Electrical Engineering which he did for four years. flats in london

MC said...

Comb N Razor your gist is so vivid its like am watching a movie, pls send me esbee's come party. my man understand and Jide Obi's Kill me with love if you have em, i was a kid when i heard esbee fam but their tune never left my head. I luv what u doing, Jake sollo reminds me of what Don Jazzy is now, i guess there is one for every generation.


Bobby said...

Thank you for the rad treatise on Tabansi/Jake Sollo! Please get this blog going again. It's so gooooooood!!!!