Rex Lawson: The Highlife Legend

May 27 2017 - 10:50am

By Steve Ayorinde

Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson’s name will not only be written in gold as one of the most gifted musicians in Nigeria – this witty, affable and good looking ‘waterside crooner’ was popular throughout the West Africa. The Cardinal of Highlife heat’ as Res was fondly called, introduced highlife music into the Eastern Region of the country.

Highlife music (which originated in Ghana) was already part of the music culture in the Western region, through maestros like Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya among others. Music was Rex Lawson’s life and highlife music was his forte.

Rex Lawson’s rise to stardom was like a miracle. It started when as a school boy with a promising music career, he approached Lord Eddyson, who was then a leading musician by virtue of his being the leader of the Starlike Melody Orchestra, then based in Port Harcourt. As a kid in his Kalabari hometown in the Riverine area, Rex Lawson who was born in 1938 was no more than the local errand boy – a frumpiest playing errand boy -. It was suggested that he approach Lord Eddyson to see what sort of chances were open in music. The outcome of that meeting was Victories, one of Lawson’s popular albums on Phillips Records, though the marketing was done by Polygram Records. Rex’s career, however was purely a demonstration of raw talent as he never had formal academic music training.

His wife, Mrs Regina Rex Jim Lawson in 1996 – when two chieftancy titles were conferred on the great highlife maestro 25 years after his death said “Rex did not learn music formally. He started by playing in his primary school band at Buguma, his hometown.”

“Thereafter” Regina added, “He started playing with one band at Onitsha. When his father died, he brought the band to Buguma to play at his father’s burial ceremony in 1952. It was then that people began to know him as a potentially great musician”, he was only 14 years old.

Recalling her husband’s steady rise to fame, Regina said that Rex was initially nervous about ‘going to the Lord (Eddyson) but he finally gathered enough courage to approach him. Reluctantly signed on by Eddyson, Regina recalled that her husband was put under the supervision of Sammy Obot who later led the professional ‘Uhuru Dance Band” of Ghana.

A round of musical engagements soon followed for the young but hopeful crooner. Like his other contemporaries, he knew where the action was, Lagos and to Lagos he went. There he played and learned more about music practically under all the great highlife maestros of the time.

He played with Bobby Benson whose song, Taxi Driver was already like an anthem in Lagos. Rex Lawson also played with Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Tunde Amuwo, Chris Ajilo, Baby Face Paul Esamade who was generally acclaimed the country’s best saxophonist and Tommy Obe with his second trumpeter Dele Bamagbese.

These varied experiences marked the beginning of a successful musical career and by 1960, when highlife music was gloriously recognized as an authentic and truly popular African form of music, Rex Lawson (just 23 years old) stood at the head of his own band – “The Nigerphone Studio Orchestra”. Then he shifted his base to Onitsha. The band later metamorphosed into the ‘Mayor’s Dance Band of Nigeria.’

Steve Ayorinde

Even before his death, critics and music enthusiasts acknowledged Lawson’s outstanding contribution to highlife. Wole Iyaniwura, former artiste repertoire manager at the defunct Polygram Records (which once distributed Lawson’s albums) said of Cardinal Rex Jim – “Rex is dead but his works will remain legendary in the minds of all Nigerians. It is not just that Rex Lawson’s sound was distinct but then that was also his distinguishing uniqueness.”

Dolphin Café Hotel in Onitsha owned by one Ideaga was his regular spot where he built a huge followership and a cult of admirers. Like his contemporaries, Lawson acknowledged the fact that a good highlife musician must be as good in singing (and composition) as in playing trumpet. The instrument was both the symbol of masculine authority and the very heartbeat of the highlife. Sawale, Ibinabo, Jolly Papa and Love Adure were some of his evergreen songs that did not only distinguish him as a rare gem, but have actually continued to live long after his death.

His last album, Oturukorote, implied that the maestro had a premonition of his death. Six months later Cardinal Rex Lawson died in a ghastly motor accident at the Urhamigbe corner in the Asaba – Benin Road on 18 January 1971. In those days movement from between cities was not so easy because the roads were in poor condition. He was on his way to a performance in Warri and forty minutes earlier had had a drink with his boson friend Virgil Obuli. Rex Lawson was only 33 when he met his death. The scene of the accident has since been renamed Rex Lawson corner.

Musicians tended to concentrate in the major towns and cities and the radio was about the most effective means of popularizing their music beyond their base. The then Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNBS) for example played highlife and juju music. The Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation also had two 30 minute slots per week called Time For Highlife. These and similar programmes acquainted the entire nation with the latest highlife records.

While Rex Lawson appeared on the music scene he captured most of the radio air time. His records came out in rapid succession and were played daily on virtually every radio station. They were all party favourites and could be heard on the streets of major Nigerian cities.

It was not the sheer volume of his output, however that accounted for Rex Lawson’s popularity. His music had a distinctive quality that made it difficult to place him in any of the familiar highlife schools of those days. Orchestration was an important aspect of Rex’s music, but his hand excelled equally on account of the virtue of the individual members of the group. He probably gave rhythm guitar greater prominence in the highlife ensemble, making it an instrument that did more than just provide a background to the music.

The saxophone was another distinguished instrument in Rex Lawson’s band. Most highlife bands paraded the trumpet as the star instrument with the band leader himself playing the instrument. Although Rex played the trumpet, he found an alto saxophonist who was so good that he conceded the solo to him in many of his songs.

Religious sensibility manifested in many of his pieces and tended to form the bedrock of his message. Jem Bari Miema (sung incidentally some 18 months before Nigeria’s civil war broke) is a prayer to God that there be no more wars, while Tom Kiri Site, one of his last songs implores God to come down and rescue the world from sins. Akwa Abasi, one of his Efik songs is an adaptation of the Lord’s prayer. In Sobo ibibi nla, he alludes to the Biblical saying that a prophet is without honour in his home land. In appreciation of this trait in his music, he was awarded a clerical title.

There was also a strong moral advocacy in his music. Such a moral concern is responsible for the constant lament in his songs that the world has gone bad. In Ereme Senia Peni Ham he laments that women nowadays are worth no more than nine pence (nain-nain). Yet, without contradicting himself many of his songs speak rather explicitly of his many escapades with women.

What is undeniable in his music is his sense of pride of belonging and his total identification with the Kalabari people. He interprets the world through their history, folklore and contemporary experience and without denigrating people of other areas and cultures.

• Originally entitled “ The Highlife Legend,” Steve Ayorinde, now Lagos State Information Commissioner, contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000

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