Print this Page

African Legends

King Sunny Adé 

By Chris Nickson
Published November 8, 2006

Adé started off playing percussion in church, then dropped out of school and made his way to Lagos, where he began playing guitar in highlife bands, soon becoming the king of highlife music.

By the time Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé was born in 1946, the sound of juju music was starting to firmly coalesce. Its roots were in the laid-back palm-wine music of Sierra Leone and Ghana, but it would be the 1950s before it became a definitive sound in the hands of the legendary I.K. Dairo.
 
Adé, the son of a Methodist minister, started off playing percussion in church, then dropped out of school and made his way to Lagos, where he began playing guitar in highlife bands, before joining the Rhythm Dandies.

But juju was the future, and in 1966 he formed his first band, the Green Spots. They recorded 12 albums in eight years before contractual problems led him to form his own label and change the name of the group to the African Beats.
 
Adé pulled his ideas from many sources, including Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. His music became more rhythmic, pushing ever outward. The membership of the African Beats eventually reached around 30 people.
 
Adé’s records from the ’70s were glorious things indeed, taking chances with music and rhythm, stretching out. And it paid off: In 1977 Sunny Adé officially received his crown as the king of juju music.
 
In 1981 reggae icon Bob Marley died. His label, Island Records, began looking for someone to take on his mantle, and Adé seemed to be a likely candidate. Island put him in the studio with French producer Martin Meisonnier. The result, 1982’s Juju Music, introduced Adé to a Western audience, as did its followup, Synchro System.
 
A third album, Aura, with superstar guest Stevie Wonder, bombed, and Adé was dropped. He continued to record at least two albums a year and play packed shows in Nigeria, while expanding his interests to include films, a nightclub and even politics.
 
It would be a while before he emerged on the international scene again with E Dide (Get Up). It wasn’t the King Sunny of a decade before, but it was the right sound at the right time. Seven Degrees North, in 2000, was nothing short of masterful.

Adé has no need to undertake long, stressful global tours now. At home he’s a revered, iconic figure, and his reputation is assured.

Recommended Listening:
The Best Of The Classic Years (Shanachie)
Juju Music (Island)
Synchro Series (Indigedisc)