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Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson: 49 years of enduring legacy

By Philip Jakpor
26 January 2020   |   1:52 am
Among the musicians that dominated the music scene in Nigeria in the 1960s, the late Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson is believed to be the most outstanding. In his time, his contemporaries could not match the touch he added to highlife.....

On January 16, 1971, Nigeria lost one of its greatest musicians, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson. In this piece, PHILIP JAKPOR takes readers through the intriguing life of this highlife musician, whose songs continue to be retouched by young musicians, yet HE is largely uncelebrated.

Among the musicians that dominated the music scene in Nigeria in the 1960s, the late Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson is believed to be the most outstanding. In his time, his contemporaries could not match the touch he added to highlife — a music genre that morphed from the foxtrot and calypso with Ghanaian rhythms known only among the local African aristocracy in the mid-19th century to dance and guitar bands that all classes of the society could relate to.

Rex Lawson was in his 20s when he took the highlife music scene by storm and virtually became a household name in Nigeria and the West African region. He was an emotional and philosophical singer who displayed mastery in conveying deep meanings through the trumpet, the alto saxophone and his haunting voice.

Forty-nine years after his tragic death in a car accident on his way to Warri for a highly publicised performance, his music still elicits stupefaction and applause among music lovers.

At the time he held sway, many were in awe at his ability to compose and sing in different dialects such as Efik, Kalabari, Izon, Igbo, some Ghanaian languages and Pidgin English. Between 1960 and the troubled months leading to the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, his records were released in quick succession and were played back to back on radio. He also had several live performances in Radio Lagos studios.

Even after his tragic death at the age of 33, almost every generation of Nigerian musicians have retouched or recreated his songs albeit without the due credits. The list is almost endless. The late Orlando Owoh retouched his song titled, Yellow Sisi. The most popular Lawson single titled, Sawale, which won the hearts of fans across the country in the 1960s, seems to be the most remixed. In 1991, Alex Zito and the then Port Harcourt sensation, Feladey, remixed it. While Alex Zito recreated the song in his Baby Walakalombo, Feladey used the same title as Lawson. Hip hop sensation, Flavour N’abania, took a cue from them and also remixed the song in his Nwa Baby (Ashawo) in 2011. Larry Gaaga’s Iworiwo, which featured Tuface Idibia, is an inversion of Lawson’s classic Love me Adure. Timi Dakolo’s I never know so is also a recreation of Lawson’s Baby Play Me Wayo. Sadly, the due credits to Rex Lawson in these recreations are missing.

BORN Erikosima Jim Lawson on 4 March 1938, his father was of the Kalabari ethnic group in present-day Rivers State; while his mother was an Igbo from Owerri. It is said that his name, pronounced as ‘Eriko sima’, actually means, ‘do not name this one’ because of his father’s conviction that the sickly boy would live beyond infancy. A pattern of deaths had claimed his first three children. At the time, the young Rex was battling severe small pox infection. His mother was however determined to see him live. She was said to have sought the assistance of medicine men from outside the Kalabari community for treatment. Finally, her efforts paid off as Rex survived and lived beyond infancy.

After his primary school education in Buguma, Rex Lawson is said to have rejected his father’s suggestion and plea that he proceed to high school, and perhaps, the university. For him, going to school would either slow or ultimately derail his plans to become a great musician.Daba, his elder sister, also joined his father to plead with him for a change of heart, but he rebuffed their entreaties.

It is recorded that Daba’s husband, who was a pastor in the church he attended in Buguma, noticed his budding talent, enrolled him in the church band and taught him trumpeting.At that time, the young Rex was also a member of the music band of Christ Army School, Bakana – Kalabari along with the late Sunny Brown who would later become his sidekick and the best trumpeter in the group.

Most of the melodious trumpeting in Rex’ songs are believed to have been performed by Brown who in a later interview confessed that while he was good with the trumpet, he could not match Rex’ haunting voice. From Buguma Rex moved to Port Harcourt and subsequently found a place among the band boys of the popular Lord Eddyson who was then leader and owner of Starlight Melody Orchestra. Rex would later move to Lagos, which was the heart of the Nigerian entertainment life.

He was said to have resided in Yaba and played with professional heavyweights such as Sammy Obot, Bobby Benson, Chris Ajilo, and Victor Olaiya. After his time with Olaiya, he left for Ghana to further improve on what he had learnt from these highlife greats.

On his return to Nigeria in the early 1960s, he formed the Mayor’s Band, which later became known as the Rivers Men. The band had Sunny Brown credited as the best trumpeter in the group and Tony Odilli who played the conga and is the only surviving member of the band, among others. They were an instant success and in high demand. They received invitations to perform across the country, even extending to neighboring Cameroun and Forte Lamy in Chad.

As his fame grew, so also did his teeming fans give him befitting titles. At a point, he was nicknamed Pastor Jim Rex Lawson, then Bishop, before finally taking on the title ‘Cardinal’. In an uncut interview on Voice of America (VOA) recorded for music specialist Leo Sarkisan in August 1965, Tunde Sowande, the Nigerian interviewer, asked Rex how he came about the title Cardinal. His reply was that his fans gave him the nickname because of the way he performed religiously.

At the time, some of his exceptional hits that dominated the airwaves were Angelina pay my money, Baby Play Me Wayo, So Ala Teme,  Bere Bote, Ibinabo and Jolly Papa. Before the Nigerian civil war, Lawson had recorded well over 100 songs that were regularly played on radio and nightclubs across the country and beyond. During the war proper, he also recorded many hits, some of which could be described as ego massage of the military elite. One of them was Hail Biafra, which he sang in praise of Lieutenant Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu. He is also credited for being the first to play the Biafran national anthem at the proclamation of Biafra’s secession on May 30, 1967.

With the liberation of Rivers from the Biafran captors in 1968, Lawson also composed a heart-rending song Major Boro to mourn the Ijaw nationalist Major Jasper Adaka Boro, who is largely credited for the successful military strategy that liberated present day Rivers State from its Biafran captors, but suddenly died in controversial circumstances. He also sang Gowon Special in praise of the then military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, when Rivers was firmly in the grip of the federal forces under the control of commander of the Third Marine Commando, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle nicknamed “the scorpion”. Towards the end of the war, Rex travelled to the United Kingdom where he recorded his last album Rex Lawson in London.

Style And Musical Themes
KNOWN to be very emotional while performing on stage, Rex is celebrated for his contagious sociability, his musical vision, faculty, perseverance and raw individuality. In the typical Highlife band, the trumpet often played a leading function in the music. Rex, was however, an exception and deviated from this path by frequently featuring alto saxophone solos in his songs. In time, he spotted a good hand in the late Sunny Brown who was his alto saxophonist and to whom he conceded the solo in many of his later songs.

Journey to the Death
Rex was said to have signed a contract to perform live in Warri at a place called Runny Bay on Saturday, January 16, 1971. The contract was signed on Friday, January 15. He asked his band members to proceed to Warri ahead of him while he stayed back to sort some issues bordering on a loan he was to obtain from the Rivers State government. His decision to tarry a while was based on information from officials of the state government that a bus, which was component of the loan would be delivered to him before the close of work that same Friday. When the vehicle delivery did not happen that day, he waited till the next day – Saturday, January 16, since in those days Saturday was also a work day. By mid-afternoon when no information on the status of the bus came, he left for the state house to ascertain the true state of things himself. By the time he was convinced that the vehicle would not be released that day, he made arrangements for another vehicle to take him to Warri to meet up with the performance slated for later that night. It was already around 6pm. His sidekick, the late Sunny Brown who was also supposed to join him on the trip refused to, on the excuse that it was too late to embark on the journey to Warri at that time of the day. But Rex was determined and went on to charter a vehicle for the ill-fated trip. Chief Lloyd Jim Lawson, younger brother to Rex, who is now in his 70s, and was with him in the course of the events of his last days, explains in detail:

“The contract for the Warri performance was signed on Friday and it coincided with the day he was expecting the vehicle that the Rivers State government promised him. We waited all day and the bus did not come. Since in those days Saturday was also a work day, he decided to wait again, but around 4pm when it was certain that the bus was not forth-coming he opted to charter a vehicle to convey him to Warri to meet up with the performance.”

Continuing, he said: “I recall vividly that when he was loading his bags and other things into the vehicle that Saturday evening, I had this unusual feeling of loneliness. It was unusual because I had never felt that way before. It was like a premonition. I usually travelled with him but that day due to some exigencies I could not. One thing I always did during his trips then was not to allow anyone drink, especially the drivers, because the roads were not very good. But since I was not with him, I learnt that on their way they stopped to eat at Boji Boji Agbor and the driver had some reasonable quantity of drink.

“Unlike now that we have wide highways, in those days there were only huge trees left and right on the way. When they continued the journey after eating, the drunk driver crashed into a tree. He hit the huge tree on the side that Rex was seated and the shad of the broken windscreen went straight into his head. He was the only one that died. He was 33 years old at the time. It was a very sad day.

“I learnt his body was taken to the Eku Hospital in Warri where he was confirmed dead on arrival. The next day, the body was repatriated from the Hospital and brought back to Port Harcourt by the Alfred Diete-Spiff administration.”Lloyd recalls that information about the late musician’s death threw the entire community into mourning when it came.

“At about 5am the morning after his demise, the radio station was even still playing his music when the then military administrator, Alfred Diete Spiff, came with the army to Buguma to break the news to us. I received them on that sad occasion,” he recalled.His former drummer, Harry, equally related the scene where the accident occurred.

“After leaving the band to join Third Marine Commando, I was stationed near Agbor. The accident that claimed his life occurred at Umutu area near Umunede, which was not too far from where I was stationed, so I was among the patrol team that arrived first. They were three in the Volkswagen but he was the only one that died. The vehicle had somersaulted and the splinter that killed him was not more than two inches, but it lodged in his head.”

Though it is customary for the bodies of indigenes of Buguma to be interred in a massive expanse across the river, the military authorities at the time insisted Rex be buried in the town. They even wanted the body to be interred in the town square but the community objected, arguing that it was not customary. A compromise was finally reached and a final resting place was selected in a conspicuous part of the community. On the site of the original resting place now stands a bronze statue of him holding his trademark trumpet.

Though a street is named after him in Borokiri, a suburb of the city of Port Harcourt just south of Old GRA, other recognitions accorded him are the setting up of a Rex Lawson Chair in the music department of the University of Port Harcourt in 2012. The department also organises a yearly highlife event that brings music lovers from far and near to the institution to share ideas and reflect on the legacy of the late music icon.

Under the current administration of Governor Nyesom Wike, the Rivers State Ultra- Modern Cultural Center in Port Harcourt was renamed Rex Lawson Cultural Center. The Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi who is also a Rex Lawson fan, was in attendance and did the inauguration on Saturday, June 2, 2018.
Meanwhile, the only monument bearing his name in his native Buguma was only erected by his family. In fact, the construction was spearheaded by his eldest son, Felix Jim Lawson.

However, the question begging for an answer is: Are these tit bits enough to honor an icon whose music touched lives across borders, transcended his time and continues to elicit interest?

Answers from the Home Front
Forty-nine-year-old Osima Jim Lawson is the youngest son of the late musician. Born three months after his father’s demise, he feels successive governments at both federal and state level have not done enough to immortalize the beloved daddy that the older generation talks of, but whom he never set eyes on.

Hear him: “For the hope and consolation that my dad’s music brought to fans from all over the country, we feel he has largely been forgotten. No one talks about him anymore and no one will remember him as time goes on except a concrete legacy project is named after him. The way he has been forgotten is the way his children have equally been neglected. Is there anything wrong if government gives his grandchildren scholarships for example?”

Lloyd’s sentiments are no different. He wants a national radio programme that would periodically celebrate the beloved highlife icon so that the younger generation can know and appreciate him. Like the younger Lawson, he feels Nigeria does not have to summarily write off another all-time great when we can collectively keep his memory alive to inspire many generations to come.

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