Bobby Benson, The Bubbly Showman Who Pioneered Highlife Music In Nigeria

Posted on February 17 2020 , at 06:40 pm
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Bobby Benson
Bobby Benson.

When ‘Taxi Driver’ comes up on your stereo as you frantically search through radio stations for traffic updates while you sit behind the wheels on a hot Monday afternoon in Lagos, you’d be forgiven for not quickly changing the dial.

The horns and trumpet at the start of the song are soothing enough to escape your worries for a moment, but the voice that follows is one that casually reassures you that your troubles are not peculiar and definitely not insurmountable. That voice is Bobby Benson’s.

Bobby Benson

Bobby Benson was born Bernard Olabinjo Benson in April 1921 in Ikorodu, Lagos. Benson didn’t immediately set his sights on getting his voice heard across the world, as he was content with learning a craft in fashion designing while in Secondary School. He would later try his hands in boxing, before he travelled abroad for a stint as a sailor in the Merchant Navy.

Benson’s world would eventually take a huge turn.

He became a master in playing the guitar, piano and saxophone, and in the early ‘40s, he made his entertainment debut with the Negro Ballet in London, touring several European capitals.

Home Is Where The Heart – And Money – Is

By 1947, Benson had made up his mind to return to his home country. But he never returned from Britain alone. He stepped on his country’s soil with a lady named Cassandra – his wife of half Scottish and half Caribbean origin with whom he later formed the Bobby Benson and Cassandra Theatrical Party.

His music reached millions in no time. He formed the Bobby Benson Jam Session and played swing, jive, sambas and calypsos. It was through this band he introduced the first electric guitar. Benson’s team quickly expanded to over 10 members in the 1950s, and he ultimately became a pioneer of the popular highlife genre.

That was when Benson’s first big hit, ‘Taxi Driver’ was recorded.

Benson also opened his own night club, Caban Bamboo in Ikorodu, which he later converted into the Hotel Bobby.

The All-round Entertainer

Before Dapo ‘D’banj’ Oyebanjo earned the moniker, ‘The Entertainer’ in the early to late 2000s, Bobby Benson was known as the ultimate showman in music. He earned his stripes as a singer, comedian, performer and an overall entertainer. His happy go lucky demeanor earned him a show on NTA in the 1970s, where he performed as a stand-up comedian and magician, while he also sang.

Benson, with his larger than life characters, was simply a joy to watch for all. And he had the hits to back his colourful persona – ‘Gentleman Bobby’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Mafe’, ‘Nylon Dress’ and ‘Niger Mambo’ to name a few.

‘Taxi Driver’ went beyond the shores of Nigeria, becoming a classic hit in all of West Africa and arousing covers from several other musicians.

But there was another side of Benson that his teeming fans didn’t see.

On stage, he was funny but at home, he was a very strict disciplinarian. I got some ‘supersonic’ beatings from him. He was a disciplinarian to the core and he took no nonsense at home,” Benson’s first son, Tony tells Punch in a 2017 interview.

Women

With the fame and money came the women, and Cassandra would later leave Benson and return abroad when Tony was only eight months old. “I think she could not cope with the adulation of women folks to my father,” Tony says.

“He did not bring women home and if I remember vividly, my father never had more than one woman at a time living in the home. If he had his associations, it was outside his home. However, in the family home, there was only one woman.”

Legacy

Benson’s band opened the floodgates for many legendary highlife musicians Nigeria has come to know today, including Eddie Okonta, late Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago and later, Rex Jim Lawson. Olaiya started out as a trumpeter with Benson’s band before going on to form his own band, the ‘Cool Cats’. Okonta, Chicago and Lawson also started out playing as members of Benson’s band.

His first son, Tony would also be inspired to go into music, following in his father’s footsteps.

Benson became the first president of the Nigerian Musicians Union when it was formed in 1960. He died in Lagos on May 14, 1983 aged 62. He fathered as many as 10 children.

Though highlife as a genre of music is struggling for relevance among a younger generation, Bobby Benson’s name will remain engraved on the walls of Nigeria’s entertainment industry for eternity.

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