Bobby Benson was the ideal artiste: knowledgeable, cosmopolitan and widely travelled. A unique musician with prodigious appetite for creativity and candor; he was also multi-talented, confident, innovative and highly experimental, qualities he brought to Nigeria’s music scene in his days.
Born on 11 April, 1922 in Ikorodu, Lagos, Benson was unusual. He stood out from the crowd with his style and carriage, both onstage and in his private life. And for many years, he dominated the jazz genre and also provided training and mentorship opportunities to young and up-and-coming artistes who learnt at his feet. At that time, nobody visited Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling capital city and the sub-region’s entertainment hub in the 1950s and ‘60s without a trip to Caban Bamboo where Benson held court. As a matter of fact, everything was at Caban Bamboo. There were superlative performances, people and great company, superb music, exquisite drinks, alluring atmosphere that attracted many and the feeling of relaxation that pervaded the fun spot.
Benson and his Combo, an inventive band, actually started professional music in the 1950s. In less than two decades, they were already household names in most Nigerian cities and the West Coast. However, of all the hits in those early days and even today, Taxi Driver and Freedom…stand out. They remain his most enduring and popular songs, mainly for the works’ supersonic trumpet, the irresistible lyrics, harmony, composition and rhythm. Benson was also concerned about professionalism and welfare of artistes. So, in 1960, he emerged as president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians but two decades later, he established his own union which he called the Performing Artistes Union of Nigeria.
Bamidele Johnson is a journalist with a pretty good grasp of Nigeria’s music and entertainment industry. “Bobby Benson’s influence on Highlife and Nigeria’s pop culture was huge”, he insists. “He was a pioneer, who fused world-famous music genres with major local ones and even less classifiable strains. His Taxi Driver, I believe, remains one of the most sampled Nigerian songs. Another great one in his marvelous repertoire is Iyawo se wo lo se ni. He was an accomplished singer, songwriter and equally importantly, an instrumentalist. That for me is the definition of a musician. And Hotel De Bobby, which sadly gave way after years of legal wrangling, was one of the biggest fun spots in Lagos during the ‘60s”, he says.
In the same way, Ogbueshi Tom Mordi, 82-year-old retiree and community leader in Okpanam, Delta State, also speaks eloquently about Benson’s pioneering efforts, his remarkable creative abilities and his distinctive skills as a performer. He recalls with nostalgia, the great and unforgettable experiences he had as a young man at Caban Bamboo many years ago. He remembers Benson, the quintessential music director, composer, organizer, trainer and the dude who engaged people easily and pleasantly.
For Mordi, one of the major attractions to Benson’s place was classical music. “I am a classical dancer”, he reveals. According to him, “I also teach dance, so Caban Bamboo was a natural place for me. But above all, Bobby Benson was jovial and extremely sociable. He was a great entertainer who could activate anything around him despite his age. I remember he brought the idea of not selling beer in bottles; he actually sold beer in mugs and once you were served, you paid immediately. As I said earlier, my reason for attending his club was because he was very good with classical music. Of course, highlife was more popular but for some of us who enjoyed classical works, Benson was the guy to beat. I remember Osita Osadebe who also played a little of classical songs on request at Empire but that did not in any way, compare to the regular classical performances at Caban Bamboo”.
Life, he affirms, was splendid, interesting and better in those days. According to him, there was love, even between strangers. We did not experience kidnapping, banditry, duping, discrimination or stealing at the level it is today. “Life was enjoyable and we truly enjoyed life”, he says.
Another octogenarian and lover of good music, Engineer Mike Uchemefuna also reminisces on the great stories around Benson, his place and all the memorable experiences of the past. “I must say that I had beautiful experiences those days in Lagos. The biggest thrill for me was sitting down and listening to good music. I also remember Tony, Bobby’s son who would sit on the piano all day playing and electrifying the atmosphere. At that time, I worked for Mandilas Motors as one of their workshop managers. So, anytime I visited Lagos, I was always at Bobby’s place and every time I visited, I had a great time. Today, I still remember. That is why this generation must take life easy. They should stop chasing shadows and listen to their parents and other elders. For me, that is the only way to live, enjoy and remember, like some of us, their parents are doing today”, he warns.
It is almost impossible to discuss pop culture, highlife and jazz in Africa without Benson the pioneer who introduced Caribbean musical expressions and big band tradition into Nigeria’s music. He also provided platforms and training ground for many musicians like Sir Victor Uwaifo, Roy Chicago, Bayo Martins, Zeal Onyia, Victor Olaiya, Eddy Okonta and others.
For this highly respected entertainer and performer, variety was also the spice of life. So, in his active performing years, Benson brought different performing groups to Hotel Bobby where he also collaborated in dozens of combos with great musicians. One of such was with the inimitable Eddy Grant who thrilled Benson’s Lagos fans for many years as a resident artiste.
Benson was indeed an exemplary performer with abilities in nearly all the genres, including comedy, music and improvisation. He also achieved much of his artistic dream with his wife, Cassandra; together, they established Bobby Benson and Cassandra Party in 1947. While he played the guitar and saxophone, his wife danced. Later, he formed the Bobby Benson Jam Session, a dance band that provided different varieties of music including samba and calypso.
For all these and more, he will always be remembered as a trailblazer and the ultimate performer with style and panache.
This article was first published in Alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.