Sunny Brown… Music Stops For The Highlife Trumpeter
In the last three months, two heavy weight highlife musicians have gone to meet their ancestors. First, it was ex-Roy Chicago sideman and singer Tunde Osofisan; followed by big band leader and arranger Stan Plange. And now, it’s trumpeter Sunny Brown, one of the two surviving ‘Generals’ of Rex Lawson’s memorable Rivers Men highlife aggregation. It never rains, but it pours!
Ironically, the three may have died of different ailments but the circumstances that surround their exit seem to have followed after the same pattern, exactly the same. They have all gone without any media mention; without a musician striking the bell note; without the emotions associated with grief and concern from the public. They have all departed without a fare well from a scene whose musical culture they nurtured and nourished so that we can revel in today’s success story. Pity, they have gone unsung and unmourned!
As a matter of fact, I too would not have known; and this story would never have been told – if I had not had a chat with Professor Onyee Nwankpa, Head of Department of Music, University of Port Harcourt a few days ago. We were discussing the modalities for the forthcoming Rex Lawson International Highlife Music Conference previously slated for February 2016 when our conversation roamed from the postponement of the event and other issues – to the surviving members of the Rex Lawson outfit. Apparently on the misapprehension that I already knew, he just mentioned it – as a matter of transient interest. Sunny Brown passed on in September at the age of 78years.
The last time I saw the late great trumpeter was in January – at the 2015 Rex Lawson International Highlife Music Conference venue, University of Port Harcourt. He had come with conga drummer, Tony Odili – to team up with, and give some relevance and vitality to the Rex Lawson Memorial Band – which took the center stage at the conference for obvious reasons. Looking frail and sluggish, it was obvious that the trumpeter was struggling with some health challenges. He could not play the trumpet, his customary instrument; neither could he contribute to the rhythm section on claves. Standing there, he just managed to contribute to group – vocal harmony singing, a trait for which the famous Rex Lawson outfit was popular – while Tony Odili – in his mid eighties, was savouring tremendous cheers and ovation for evoking the nostalgia of enacting the rhythmic patterns with which he held dance floor communities together – on conga drums – in those days.
Actually, Sunny Brown and guitarist David Bull joined Rex Lawson in 1968, during the Nigerian civil war; and Lawson was particularly happy to have Sony on board because of his powerful trumpet whose tonal conception was similar to his: broad, warm, exuberant and plangent – in the Clifford Brown – Donald Byrd – Lee Morgan tradition. Lawson trusted that Sony could represent him creditably on trumpet solos whenever he had problems with his embrochure and it became necessary for him to take some rest – a situation which reminds me of Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah’s predicament when he came on tour of Lagos and Ibadan in 1955. Suddenly, he had problems with his embrochure in the face of the numerous gigs lined up for him. After a tedious and extended search, he eventually found a replacement in Agu Norris whose tonal approach and style were close to his – among the many trumpeters sampled; and he enlisted him temporarily into the Tempos Band – to sit in and do the job.
Sunny Brown also led a successful band of his own. Music first came to him in church and, like Rex Lawson, he played with the school band before craving for professional grounding and tutelage in Lagos where it was all happening:
“When I left school, I went to Lagos to join Baby Face Paul in 1958”, said Sony Brown in a 1998 encounter. “He was leading The Top Toppers Band, a progressive highlife outfit which was one of the many sets established by Bobby Benson to boost the entertainment spread of the Bobby Benson Jam Session. I enjoyed playing with the band. I learnt a lot because of the caliber of musicians I was working with.”
However, in search of new directions and perspectives, Brown travelled to Senegal in 1960; and was also in Ivory Coast to perform with several French bands where his trumpet was professionally stretched and tested. He returned to Nigeria in 1965 and proceeded o Kano to play with Paradise Dance Band. There, he formed his own band with Nat Buckle on vocals and Maliki Showman on tenor saxophone. He eventually moved to Onitsha during the civil war and performed in Enugu before they were all displaced by the crisis of the civil war. That was when he met Rex Jim Lawson who was his senior at Christ Army School, Bakana – Kalabari where they had previously performed together in the same band. He did not find it difficult to regroup with Lawson to form The Marine Commando Band.
According to Brown who was a sideman with Rex Lawson until his untimely death, “Rex left for Warri where the band had an engagement. The boys had left on Friday and we were supposed to join them on Saturday, the following day, for the show. I was to travel with Rex Lawson in the same vehicle but as luck would have it, I refused. It was too late in the day to travel. I told him to postpone the trip till the following day but he refused and went to hire a bus.
“Unfortunately the bus was involved in a fatal accident on the way and Lawson was taken to Eku hospital in Warri. As soon as we heard the news, we took off. But by the time we got there, Lawson had passed on. He died on January 16, 1970.”
The death of the highlife legend offered Brown another opportunity to strike out on his own again. He formed The Sunny Brown Jazz Band and recorded a number of hit singles including four albums even as he honoured club dates at such Port Harcourt venues as Presidential Hotel, Hotel Olympia, Cheers Bar and Shell Club among others – on weekly basis.
However, at the time of his death, Sunny Brown “had moved to the righteous side” and no longer played in hotels. He had become born again with gospel music as his main preoccupation.
Sunny Brown did not enjoy the amount of popularity that Rex Lawson garnered; and in fact, no other highlife musician has surpassed Lawson’s popularity rating to date. But Brown will be missed for the quality of his trumpet, his solo construction, sense of rhythm and melodic exploration – musical ingredients without which Lawson’s ensemble would not have achieved the coherence and formidable sound identity that endeared it to highlife aficionados.