Roy Chicago: A frontline highlife kingpin in the 60s
Roy Chicago (real name John Akintola Ademuwagun), one of the top highlife musicians in the sixties, started playing (professional music) in the 1950s at Central Hotel on Adamasingba Street in Ibadan before moving to Lagos. But his foray into music began in his elementary school days in Sapele in the 1940s. Siaka Momoh, as anchor person for ‘Showtime’ in Vanguard, met him in April 1985, four years before he passed on. He shared the memories of his early beginnings with him.
The meeting was at Chicago Club at Modeke Street, off Ojuelegba Road, Surulere, on Lagos mainland. At 50 then, agile Roy, who along with Victor Olaiya, high-fliers in the highlife music turf of the sixties, had become a committed beer seller – doing all the associated chores of bartending – attending to customers, retrieving empties, receiving and taking stocks, etc.
On how he came into music he said: “I became associated with music during my elementary school days in Sapele. We had a school band and I was the band leader. This gave me the opportunity to learn how to play some instruments and I became very good with the trumpet. When I left school in 1946, I became a teacher. I taught in Sapele and present day Ondo State. I established school bands in schools where I was teacher. When I left teaching, I started professional music.”
Roy said he joined Hubert Ogunde’s band immediately he left teaching. This was in 1959.He later left Ogunde for Bobby Benson’s Jam Session Orchestra. He left Bobby, went to Ibadan to form the Green Springers for Green Spring Hotel and came back to Bobby after this assignment. He later left Bobby to form his own band. So, Roy had a tortuous learning curve.
According to historical records, after Nigeria gained independence in 1960, Roy Chicago became increasingly successful with hits such as “Iyawo Pankeke”, “Are owo ni esa Yoyo gbe” and “Keregbe emu”. Victor Olaiya’s International All Stars and Roy Chicago’s Abalabi Rhythm Dandies were two of the leading highlife bands in Nigeria, both led by graduates of the Bobby Benson Orchestra. Roy Chicago is popularly acclaimed to have introduced the talking drum into highlife.
Roy Chicago combined the trumpet and saxophone with vocals. Playing with Bobby Benson in the 1950s, he performed ball room dance and highlife, fox trot, tango, waltz, quick step, jive and Latin American music. His sidemen included tenor sax player Etim Udo and trumpeter Marco Bazz.
Roy Chicago’s highlife style had its accent anchored on rhythm. He explained Nigerian folksongs with vocals by Tunde Osofisan, one of the finest singers on the highlife scene. Although his style could not be called a jazz derivative, there are blue notes in his saxophone parts and “cool” jazz intonations and phrases, which are closer to traditional Yoruba music than to highlife.
Fall of highlife
The Nigerian Civil War of 1967–1970 made highlife to lose its popularity. Why? The Igbos from the breakaway regions of eastern Nigeria had, hitherto, ran many of the top highlife bands. With their exit, Yoruba-derived Jùjú music took over. Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, Juju music kingpins remain evergreen in the nation’s music space.
Jùjú Music is a prominent music genre of the Yorubas and has been described as guitar band melody; a laudatory and dedicatory music established by the Yorubas from various “palm wine musical tones’ in Lagos in the 1930s and 1940s. The word “Jùjú” (not to be confused with Western Africa mystical power attributed to charm or fetish) was derived from people yelling ‘ju so ke’ (throw it up) when the music was played in the streets accompanied by tossing up and shaking a tambourine.
Starting in the early 1930s and 1940s when Jùjú music was prevalent only within Yorubaland to the early 1970s when the music had become a popular genre across the country to the 1980s which both saw a short-term decline and later, a resurgence of Jùjú music with the release of Shina Peter’s remarkable “Ace” album, the Jùjú music we listen to and enjoy today has gone through a lot of changes in terms of instrumentation, melodies, sound and fan base.
At a low point in Chicago’s career in the 1970s, Bobby Benson helped again by providing musical equipment.
Roy Chicago, an indigene of Ikare-Akoko in Ondo State, Nigeria, had two children Bolajoko and Kayode Akintola. In contrast to Victor Olaiya, whose music was based on Ghanaian melodies and progressions, Roy Chicago based his music on Nigerian indigenous themes and folklores.
Former members of his band included trumpeter/vocalist Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, who was of mixed Igbo and Kalabari background. Lawson apprenticed with Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, and Roy Chicago before striking out on his own with a unique blend of Igbo lyrics sung over Kalabari rhythms. Jimi Solanke, the playwright, poet and folk singer, was another singer with his band. The band’s recording of his composition “Onile-Gogoro” became one of the most memorable highlife hits of the 1960s. Alaba Pedro, a guitarist from Roy Chicago’s band, went on to play with Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode, O.J. to his friends. Alaba Pedro joined Roy Chicago in 1961 and stayed with the band until the time of the civil war, when it disbanded in 1969. He recalled that “It was a highly disciplined band … The band was versatile and could play almost all types of music, but … highlife [was] its specialty, which relied more on Nigerian melodies with rhythms rooted in indigenous elements. Peter King, one of Nigeria’s greatest tenor sax players, started with Roy Chicago’s band in Lagos before going to England to study music
Siaka Momoh, a media consultant, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, 234-8061396410