By SYLVESTER ASOYA
Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson, one of Nigeria’s highlife legends may have passed away mysteriously and unexpectedly but he still lives
In Buguma, a coastal town in Asari-Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State, there is a belief that the late Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson’s musical steps were actually ordered by God. And there were early and enough signs too to show that young Rex was tailor-made for the arts and music, a sector he towered over, with his contemporaries for many years.
As a child, he was well known for his positive peer influence on other children of his age who loved his leadership qualities and charm as a gregarious and talented kid. Apart from personally leading his classmates every day to school, he was also their unofficial music conductor and band leader, two roles he cherished highly. Every day on their way to school, Rex the restless boy with boundless creative abilities would create musical sounds from any available scrap and other disused materials in the neighborhoods. For many years, his ingenuity provided recreational opportunities and also inspired attendance in school as every child wanted to be in his company. It was the real deal.
Today, Lawson’s music and larger-than-life image still reverberate. George Raymond, another musician from Rivers State, also known as Suku-Suku and other artistes who came under Lawson’s influence early, owe him a debt of gratitude for all the help and direction.
That is why over 50 years after his tragic death; this great son of Buguma still remains a matter of interest and discussion among his people and lovers of highlife in Nigeria and across the West African sub-region. In an interview with alice, Osima Rex Jim Lawson, the highlife maestro’s son, says everyone remembers his father because of his electrifying and invigorating life. There can never be another Rex Jim Lawson, he insists.
No doubt, Lawson was in charge of his incredible life and art for the period he lived. He took off quite early as a musician and became a popular artiste and band leader in early adulthood. However, for this great man from Rivers State, luck was definitely not a bigger contributor to his remarkable success as an instrumentalist, composer, organizer and performer. To those who met him, there were unmistakable distinguishing personal attributes that stood him out; he was indeed a hard worker. Many agree that he was a brilliant performer who was not only spontaneous but also possessed great stage presence. Others describe him as the ultimate showman who knew the rules of show business.
Nonetheless, certain things were sacrosanct about Lawson: they include the fact that he was a simple and jolly good fellow with striking good looks. He was also humorous, friendly and bubbly. But he loved life even as he consciously tried to make people around him happy all the time.
Of all his friends and associates, Anthony Odili, a former band member remains one of the closest and oldest. Odili who is now over 90 years played Conga for the Cardinal of highlife. He witnessed all the highs and lows of Lawson’s amazing life. But before finally pitching his tent with Lawson, Odili had performed with another highlife artiste, the Late Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. In fact, he was among Osadebe’s highlife ensemble that gave Nigeria One Pound No Balance many decades ago.
Odili who played host to alice in his Port Harcourt home still remembers how Lawson first ventured outside Buguma, his home town, from an opportunity that came through Uko’s Brass Band of Uyo.
In a twinkle of an eye, the Uko Brass Band became the tonic Lawson desperately needed to move and conquer the world of highlife. He kept faith with the music band and did everything possible to master his art. Eventually, Lawson landed in Lagos, the city of dreams, where he met his expectations. For musicians of his time, going to Lagos was like a compulsory pilgrimage (the city being the capital of Nigeria and center of show business and leisure). Lagos turned his fortunes around musically. In Lagos, his confidence also soared. Apart from the leap he recorded in his career, his professional skills equally sharpened, the moment he met and worked with great highlife musicians like Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo and others of that generation. In fact, he benefitted immensely from those early contacts in Lagos, Ghana and other parts of West Africa.
Aside Lagos and all the extreme adventures in Ghana and other countries of the West Coast, Odili still recalls his unforgettable moments and experiences with Lawson on and off stage. The band was at different times in Cameroun, Aba, Calabar, Onitsha and Enugu. They also performed alongside UAC Band, Eastern Star Dance Band, Awa Brass Band and Willie Way Band of Olympic Hotel. He narrates their experiences; how they performed, made friends and enjoyed life.
Lawson later returned to Onitsha, the commercial city, East of the Niger, after the grandeur and drama of travels and performances in Lagos and the West Coast. In Onitsha, he headed the Niger Phone Studio, a name he later changed to Mayor’s Dance Band of Nigeria.
Before his demise on January 18, 1971, this highlife master had battled with overwhelming feeling of fear and emotions related to death. Though he was well known for weeping and shedding tears even while performing his songs on stage, not many people knew he also had the power of clairvoyance. Since his death, Soala Temen, one of his hits, continues to be curiously linked to his death for reasons that may not be too far to seek. According to those who hold this view, Soala Temen reflects clearly, this premonition of death which came six months before the tragic accident that claimed his life along Benin–Asaba Highway. Yet, the song by its nature, quality and rendition still falls into Lawson’s vintage years of classics; works that defined his career. In the song, he insists that everybody must live in harmony. While he admonishes the poor never to envy the rich and the famous, he calls on the rich to be fair to all irrespective of social status. Like most of his works, his realities once again provided another opportunity for him to preach fellowship, unity and love.
His major works include Bere Bore, Love Adure, Yellow Sisi, Jolly Papa, Sawale and Ibi Na Bo.
Lawson will be remembered for his extraordinary life and career. But outside music, politics was also part of his life, just like many musicians. And like every great actor on stage, he played his part well and convincingly too, before the curtain of life fell.
This article was first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.