Rex Lawson: Life And Times Of A Highlife Legend

Rex Lawson image via El Sur Records


writes on the legacy of the late Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, a true legend, who left a big shoe that many highlife musicians are finding it hard to fill today. His songs “So Ala Teme,” “Bere Bote,” “Ibinabo” were and still the taste of those who are lovers of good music.

The seven-year period between Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the start of the civil war in 1967 was a golden era. The people of this multi-ethnic nation lived together harmoniously, cherished and respected one another despite the diversity of cultures and religions.

The newfound independence from the British colonialists offered the citizenry the hope of building a great nation and they held this great vision as an ideal literally written on their faces.

While the political sphere presented the theatre to actualise their visions, they also found time to relax and listen to native music which provided the necessary distraction for reflection on the meaning of life itself. Highlife – a music genre that emanated from Ghana – was the rave in the 1960s. It had 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 ordinary folks could also relate to.

As young Nigerians embraced highlife music and added local ingenuity to their renditions, its appeal grew in the country. Among the multi-talented proponents of this music and perhaps one of the greatest Nigeria ever produced at the time was Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson.

Rex Lawson was in his 20s when he became a household name in Nigeria. He was an emotional and philosophical singer who displayed mastery in conveying deep meanings through the trumpet, the alto saxophone and his haunting voice. Nearly five decades after his tragic death in a car accident on his way to Warri, his music still elicits wonderment and acclaim among music lovers.

At the time he held sway, Rex Lawson was recognised as the people’s artiste because of his ability to compose and sing in different dialects. He sang in Efik, Kalabari, Izon, Igbo, several Ghanaian dialects and Pidgin English. In the 1960s, his records came in quick succession and were played back to back on Radio Nigeria, besides several live performances he did in Radio Lagos studios. His songs were party favourites of the time and were loved by even those who did not understand the dialects he sang in. Yet, his songs dwelt on family values, love, hard work and morality.

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 “this one will not live long”. The name was as a result of his father’s conviction about how long the sickly Rex would live when he was an infant, following a pattern of deaths which had claimed his first three children. At the time, the young Rex was battling severe small pox infection but his mother was determined to see him live. She was said to have sought the assistance of medicine men from outside the Kalabari environment for treatment. Finally, her efforts paid off as Rex survived and lived beyond infancy.

Musical Career:

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 university. He felt going to school would either slow or derail his plans to become a great musician. His elder sister named Daba also joined his father to plead with him for a change of heart, but he rebuffed their entreaties.

t is, however, 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, Rex was already a member of the music band of Christ Army School, Bakana-Kalabari along with the late Sunny Brown who would later become his sidekick. From here, his interest in trumpeting soared. When he felt his hand was strong enough, he moved to Port Harcourt and subsequently found a place as one of 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 greats. On his return to Nigeria in the early 1960s, he formed the Mayor’s Band which later became Rivers Men. The band was an instant success and was in high demand. They received invitations to perform across the country, even extending to neighbouring Cameroun and Forte Lamy in Chad.

As his fame grew, Rex’s teeming fans also gave 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,” “Atabla Woman,” “So Ala Teme,” “Bere Bote,” “Ibinabo” and “Jolly Papa”. He also sang “Yellow Sisi” which was remixed in later years by the late Orlando Owoh. His hit single “Sawale,” which captured the attention of his fans across the country at the time, has been remixed by more than a dozen generation of artistes since his demise, including ace musician Feladey in the early 90s and hip-hop sensation, Flavour N’abania, who remixed the song into Nwa Baby (Ashawo) in 2011.

Before the Nigerian civil war, Rex had recorded well over 100 songs that were regularly played on radio and night clubs 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 late 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, Rex also composed a heart-rending song to mourn the Ijaw nationalist, Major Adaka Boro, who is largely credited for the successful military campaign that liberated the state, but suddenly died in controversial circumstances. He also sang Gowon Special in praise of the then 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.

Biafra Controversies:

The period immediately after the 15 January 1966 coup through to the start of the Nigerian civil war in 1967 was very precarious. The assassination of Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and the Prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, were viewed as attempts by soldiers of eastern extraction to dominate the north and other regions. There was tension all over the country. The situation was near boiling point in the north owing to the failure of the General Aguiyi Ironsi administration to court martial officers implicated in the failed coup and the perceived celebratory posture of people of the eastern extraction living in the region. At the time, musicians were also very cautious of what they sang so as not to be misinterpreted by any of the ethnic nationalities. Rex Lawson was caught in this dilemma also.

After the January 1966 coup, some mischief makers started circulating his 1964 song titled “Ewu na Ba Kwa” (Goat is Crying) in the northern part of the country. In derision, the bleating goat in the song was identified as late Ahmadu Bello howling as he was being killed by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, leader of the coupists. This did not go down well with many in that part of the country. Combined with the failure of the Ironsi government to address the perceived injustices brought to the fore by the coup, the outcome was not pleasant when it came. The anticipated counter coup came on 29 July 1966 when soldiers from the north killed Ironsi in Ibadan. Many soldiers drawn from the east but based in the west and northern parts of Nigeria were also gruesomely murdered. But the mayhem was not restricted to the military, as miscreants jumped on the situation and extended the killings to many innocent citizens of the east living in Kano, Kaduna and elsewhere.

The following months were crisis-filled, bringing a lull to all aspects of life, including social engagements and clubbing. Before the civil war, the highlife industry in Nigeria was dominated by musicians of eastern extraction and natives of the present-day Niger Delta. As suspicion fuelled by crisis in government increased, many of the bands disbanded and returned to their hometowns. Expectedly, highlife music took a hit. Rex Lawson fled Lagos for his native Buguma where he retired to fishing – the traditional livelihood of his people.

War broke out on 6 July 1967 with the secession of the eastern region from Nigeria. The secessionists extended their capture to many parts of the present-day Niger Delta, including Rivers – a state created by the Yakubu Gowon administration as a contingency plan to break the then eastern region into two.

Chief Lloyd Jim Lawson, younger brother to Rex Lawson, who is now in his 70’s, explained the situation:
“When the Biafra war broke out, my brother had to leave Lagos and relocate back home just like many other musicians from what was then the eastern region comprising the present east and all the present-day Niger Delta states.” 

Lloyd said that at the time, he was a young man working with the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) in Umuahia. On one occasion he had a chance meeting with then Chief of General Staff of the Republic of Biafra, Philip Effiong, who inquired from him about the popular musician. He informed Effiong that Rex had retired to fishing in Buguma since the war was now the pre-occupation of those that hitherto patronised the night clubs. The surprised Effiong felt such raw talent could not be allowed to idle away so he immediately ordered that Lloyd go fetch him and bring him to Umuahia.

“Effiong ordered that I should be provided a vehicle and all that was necessary to bring Rex to Umuahia for rehabilitation,” Lloyd explained.

“As anticipated, when I arrived Buguma, I was told Rex had gone fishing. I had to go down to the river to look for him and when we met, I explained that I had come to take him to Umuahia on the instruction of the number two man to Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafra leader. We chatted about this and he did not object. We returned to the house to prepare for the trip to Umuahia the next day.”

Explaining further, he stated that: “When we finally arrived at the State House in Umuahia, Rex was welcomed and was informed that he was to head the Biafran State Band. He was asked to replace the equally popular musician – Celestine Ukwu, who was heading the band at the time. Celestine was subsequently made head of another band.”

It is believed that it was either in Umuahia or Owerri where they were routinely engaged to entertain the military officers that Rex Lawson composed the controversial song “Hail Biafra” in praise of Ojukwu. But his stay in Umuahia would not be long. For reasons unknown even to Lloyd, one morning sometime in May 1968, Effiong called him and privately asked that he inform the musician to flee to the newly created Rivers State via the forest. Rex Lawson was at the time performing in Owerri.

“To avoid any suspicion, Effiong told me to wail uncontrollably when I am brought before the Biafran high command to be informed about my brother’s abduction by some persons in Owerri. I did exactly that, rolling on the floor and weeping without any suspicion. Ojukwu was even pleading with me that my brother would be found safely and returned. Effiong was there with him. Later when he met me again privately, he commended me for putting on that convincing show. By then, Rex was safely in Port Harcourt.”

In his account of the evening they fled Owerri, 74-year-old Dawari Somoni Harry, one of the late musician’s team members who used to play conga and maraka, said that they were in Owerri when intelligence got to them that beyond entertaining, they (members of the band) were to be conscripted into the Biafran army to fight. The band had a signal they usually gave each other whenever there was danger.

Harry explained: “After he gave the sign which we understood to mean “dispersal” we left all our musical instruments on stage to avoid suspicion, pretended we were on recess and fled by night through the forest, splitting in different directions. Some of us came back to Rivers, others missed their way in the forest and were never seen after that.”

Harry subsequently quit drumming when he arrived Port Harcourt and joined the Third Marine Commando. 

It cannot be ascertained what may have influenced Effiong’s decision to instigate the escape of Rex, but immediately the musician arrived Rivers State there was breaking news on national radio from Kaduna that the federal troops had liberated Rivers from the Biafran troops and Rex also freed from his Biafran captors. Naturally, there was wild jubilation all over the newly-created state, particularly Port Harcourt. The federal troops were warmly received in all parts of the state subsequently.

Rex then started playing for the Third Marine Commando Band. It was during this period he composed Gowon Special as tribute to the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon. Apart from a government lodge allocated to him by then military administrator of Rivers, Alfred Diepreye-Spiff, his abode in town was 35 Aggrey Road.

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 16 January 1971. The contract was signed on Friday 15 January. 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 16 January, 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 who 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 Gboji Gboji 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.

His Contemporaries Remember Him:

As befitting of a king, after Rex Lawson’s death, his contemporaries agreed the Nigerian highlife scene had lost an irreplaceable gem. He was well honoured by his generation of singers who all paid him tributes. The roll call of eminent musicians who did tributes to him included Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, Victor Uwaifo, Orlando Owoh and Erasmus Jenewari who also died in a car crash years after.

Legacy Death has not diminished the love that highlife has for Rex Lawson’s music. His songs are still played, recreated and remixed by younger musicians who were not even born when he lit up Nigeria’s musical landscape.

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 Centre in Port Harcourt was renamed Rex Lawson Cultural Centre. The Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi who is also a Rex Lawson fan, was in attendance and did the inauguration on Saturday 2 June 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 titbits enough to honour 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 levels 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?” he asked rhetorically.

Lloyd’s sentiments are no different. He wants a national radio programme that would periodically celebrate the beloved highlife icon so 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.