King Sunny Adé & His African Beats,
Bobby, from 1983, was our initial case study of the albums made by Nigerian juju potentate King Sunny Adé for his native market. Next up we have Private Line, a 1978 lp cut by Adé with assistance from the African Beats. One side contains the original “3-6-5 Is My Number (Dial),” later re-cut in condensed form for his first Island label release, 1982’s Juju Music. Stood shoulder to shoulder, the two versions yield telling clues as to juju music's evolution over the brief span of six years. Acoustic instruments (most notably vibraphone, a glistening presence throughout Private Line) were replaced, come the '80s, by polyphonic synths such as the Prophet 5. The French producer Martin Messonier (Amina, Cheb Khaled, Papa Wemba) worked with Adé on all three of his ‘80s releases for Island, and obviously cracked whip on the African Beats. Though still fairly laid back and loaded with loopy charm, most evident via Adé’s come-on line sung in hooked-on-phonetics English, his band plays the later Island version of "3-6-5..." like they were trying to catch the last train out of town. The 1978 “3-6-5…” sounds nearly sleepy by contrast, with not much in the way of compression, its chorus vocals sporting an impressionistic take on intonation.
Several elements coalesce to make this lp a compelling listen. Adé evidently set up his stage P.A. system in the studio (cf. the Stooges’ Funhouse) adding otherworldly reverb to his voice; Demola Adepoju, whose pedal steel guitar at this juncture still represented a novelty within juju, sprayed bent notes and berserk ornamentation in the “What, me worry?” style of pianist Lenny Tristano. Also, Demola toyed with signal processing during these sessions, the radical timbre of his fuzz-tone steel rivaled only by that of Sneaky Pete Kleinow during the first iteration of the Flying Burrito Brothers, some ten years previous.
And then there is the Clavinet of Doom. Both sides of Bobby hung instruments and voices on the clothesline of a cheap drum machine’s beats; here, the same effect was achieved by substituting a Hohner D6 for the beat-box, the former tapping out a slowly mutating riff, its subtext fraught with menace and bad vuggum.
By the mid-‘80s, Adé was dropped by Island Records after failing to conquer American audiences, as Bob Marley had previously done for that label. Adé then dissolved his wonderful band, the African Beats, in a fit of creative insecurity. Many writers of the day — and, possibly, some Island Records employees — hypothesized a fatal flaw in the otherwise winning sound of King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. Consensus had it that Adé's tendency to sing mostly in a language understood only by Nigerians was, for all intents and purposes, his commercial Achilles Heel. Even the aw-shucks transliteration of “3-6-5…” wasn't enough to put him over. I just thought he was too nice a guy to make it in the States. It didn't matter that you couldn't understand his Yoruba dialect; just from the tone of his voice, you knew he was singing about his mom. Ike Turner or Peetie Wheatstraw, he was not. Scam artists, cads, heels, grifters, roués and other such undesirables settled America, and many of their descendants continue to make its best pop music. Others of them write about that music.
Though, I'll admit I hadn’t heard the clavinet snaking through both sides of Private Line when I made that call; that such a rudimentary performance could force a character reassessment continues to impress me. It's nasty.
PRIVATE LINE (@160)
(vinyl courtesy of the collection of Dan Meinwald, E.A.R. USA)