King Sunny Ade Biography

Sunday Adeniyi, 1 September 1946, Oshogbo, Nigeria. When Ade dropped out of school in 1963 in order to play with semi-professional Lagos juju bands, his parents - from the royal family of Ondo - were horrified. In Nigeria, as in much of Africa, music was regarded by ‘respectable’ people as a very low-caste occupation. Ade’s subsequent national and international success should have mollified such parental disapproval, for his star rose fast and high. By 1964, he was lead guitarist in Moses Olaiya’s highly regarded band the Rhythm Dandies and by 1966, after a short spell with another major band leader, Tunde Nightingale, he had formed his own outfit, the Green Spots, playing a speedy but relaxed style of juju characterized by tight vocal harmonies and deliciously melodic guitar work. The band’s name was a cheeky riposte to seminal juju stylist I.K. Dairo, whose Blue Spots had ruled the juju roost since the early 50s.

Ade’s luck continued with his first release, ‘Challenge Cup’, a song about a local football championship that became a national hit in 1967. The late 60s and early 70s saw Ade and his renamed African Beats go from success to success. By 1975, he felt sufficiently powerful and financially secure to set up his own label, Sunny Alade Records, which went on to become a major independent in Nigeria. The mid-70s also saw Ade open his own juju nightclub in Lagos, the Ariya, the African Beats’ home venue when not on tour. By the end of the decade he was one of the ruling triumvirate of juju music - alongside Ebenezer Obey and Dele Abiodun - releasing some six albums per year, and selling around 200, 000 copies of each release. This achievement was countered by the fact that a substantial proportion of these sales were of bootlegged pressings.

By the early 80s, African music was finding a growing audience in the UK, where a number of the more adventurous labels were looking around for African artists to put under contract. In 1982, Island Records signed Ade for Europe and North America (promoting him as ‘the African Bob Marley’). His first album under the arrangement was Juju Music, an across-the-board critical success that charted in the USA. Ade’s UK breakthrough came with a triumphant concert he and the African Beats gave at London’s Lyceum Ballroom in January 1983. Without exception, the music press hailed Ade as an emergent international star. He played regularly to a hugely enthusiastic, multi-ethnic audience, proving that - in a live context at any rate - juju’s use of Yoruba rather than English-language lyrics was no barrier to overseas acceptance. (The audience size and composition was in marked contrast to Ade’s previous UK concerts. In 1975, he had made a three-month tour of the country, playing almost exclusively to expatriate Nigerian audiences at specially organized cultural evenings in municipal halls and community centres.)

The critical success of Juju Music was matched by the 1983 follow-up, Synchro System, which also made encouraging UK and further US chart entries. Both albums were produced by the young Frenchman Martin Meissonnier, who must share much of the credit for Ade’s, and juju’s, international breakthrough. A third Island album, 1984’s Aura, which included a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder, was also well received, but the label - who were clearly banking on major chart success in the short term rather than career development - refused to renew Ade’s contract. The same year was also marred by dissension among the African Beats. Following successful tours of the USA and Japan, they demanded substantial increases in salary. Ade, who was in fact losing money on his international touring owing to the large number of musicians he was carrying and the limited audience capacity of the venues he was playing, was unwilling to meet these demands, and the African Beats were dissolved.

Returning to Lagos, he formed a new band, Golden Mercury, and now records and performs almost exclusively in Nigeria. While the abatement of his international activities is regretted by juju music fans in the West, Ade continues to record outstanding albums that are readily obtainable at specialist record stores. Another international release was then recorded for Dutch label Provogue Records in 1989 (Rykodisc Records in the USA). Ade’s collaboration with Onyeka, Wait For Me, provoked a good deal of intrigue. The album included a song titled ‘Choices’, and it later emerged that the collection had been funded by the USAID Office of Population as part of a $30 million family planning project. Some African-Americans slammed Onyeka and Ade as ‘accomplices to an attack on African cultural traditions and religious beliefs’. This contrasted with Ade’s more usual advice about the promotion of the population (by this time he himself had 12 children). Reports followed of his death in 1991 after an onstage collapse in Lagos, but these were unfounded. He travelled instead to London to recuperate, but his once mighty reputation was clearly in danger of losing its lustre. He returned to form in the late 90s with major label releases such as E Dide, Odù and Seven Degrees North, promoting the albums outside Nigeria with his new band the Way Forward. In his homeland Ade retains a huge following, with each release selling at least 200, 000 copies. He runs, among other things, a record label, a film company, a nightclub and a charity foundation.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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