(We are deeply indebted to original band member Manford Best Okaro for everything below. See his incredible book History of the Wings for additional information.)
In 1966, civil war erupted in Nigeria. Hostilities had been building since the bloody Kano riot of 1953, and the discovery of additional oil reserves in the east reignited the conflict. The Prime Minister and his cabinet were killed in a coup by Igbo secessionists who declared themselves the breakaway Republic of Biafra. “The perpetrators brazenly looted properties, raped women and committed unfathomable atrocities under the guise of a religious uprising,” Wings guitarist Manford Best recounts in his book, History of the Wings. “This exodus led to an influx of refugees and caused untold hardship such that hunger and starvation became the orders of the day.” Young men in Biafra were expected to fight for the survival of the new republic, but the safer gig was logistical support for the military. This included bands to perform at bases and official events, and to boost overall troop morale. Hence, the Biafran Air Force created a band called BAF Wings.
BAF Wings consisted of two distinct units of musicians: a popular highlife section, led by established bandleader Adolf King; and a second smaller line-up geared towards the “beat” pop music of the day. This pop band consisted of Dream Lovell (Dan Ian) on lead guitar, Gab Zani on lead vocals, Jonathan “Spud Nathan” Udensi on rhythm guitar, Arinze “Ari” Okpala on bass, and Manford Best on drums, with Frank Moses Nwandu acting as manager. The military paid for instruments, amplifiers, and a bus for transportation between assignments. The two sections continued on until the collapse, as recounted by Manford Best:
“After Christmas 1969, it became clear that Biafra was about to lose the battle. When non-stop gunfire and mortar shells started landing everywhere indiscriminately, we knew that advancing Federal soldiers had finally broken through in several sectors. As people in general including the highlife section ran for their dear lives in different directions on foot, members of the pop music section decided to converge at Azia, which was Spud Nathan’s village. Despite the fact that there was no time for a thorough movement plan, we were able to salvage two amplifiers, three microphones, loud speakers, the drumset and two guitars as we fled. Thereafter, we went to our various villages to reunite with members of our families and for them to be aware that we survived the war.”
A ceasefire came in 1970. The country was devastated, especially the east, with civilian deaths a staggering 500,000 to 3,000,000, mainly from famine and disease caused by the blockade. Nigeria was temporarily divided into four states, and the renowned sounds created by the funk bands of the defeated Biafran independence movement quickly began to take hold and spread across the nation. The reformed band, now simply The Wings, decided to base themselves in Enugu, the new capital of eastern Nigeria, focusing on hotels as their mainstay. If you could get steady work at a hotel, you could become a sort of house band there, building a following and making enough to live on. Any spare income earned by the band was invested back into improved equipment (synthesizers and organs were notoriously hard to maintain), and through this process, they became regulars at the Dayspring Hotel on Sunday afternoons, playing primarily pop/soul numbers by The Beatles, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Otis Redding.
A significant setback occurred when lead guitarist Dan Ian (later of Wrinkar Experience) and singer Gab Zani (later of One World) decided to leave the band, which effectively ended their tenure at the hotel. Just as the band was on the verge of splitting, their manager was approached with a fortuitous offer of a 1-year contract with 33rd Brigade Headquarters in Maiduguri. This meant a monthly salary, free housing, health care, all new musical gear, plus a new bus. The members of the band agreed that it was a great opportunity, despite the lack of autonomy that went along with being a military attachment; at least there was no war. They quickly grabbed two new members to flesh out the lineup: Okechukwu “Okey” Uwakwe, a lanky guitarist from a band called The Wavelengths; and Pius Dellin, a keyboard player from neighboring Kano. The band’s existing rhythm guitarist Spud Nathan, who had already been singing some highlife numbers during the band’s hotel sets, mainly to give vocalist Gab Zani a break, stepped in to lead vocals and began honing his voice.
It was now 1971 and pop music was making inroads on the African highlife scene. Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen, inspired in part by Sierra Leone’s funk stars Geraldo Pino & the Heartbeats, are credited with coining the term “Afrobeat” to describe this new sound. EMI’s Nigerian subsidiary began scouting local talent to sign, as did Decca. When not performing for military functions, The Wings were free to gig around the city of Aba at will, and they quickly became a fixture in the burgeoning club scene, primarily at the Ambassador and Unicoco hotels, where they played with house band The Funkees. This led to their being signed by EMI.
In early 1972, the band headed to Lagos and recorded their first 7” single, entitled “You’ll Want Me Back” b/w “Catch That Love.” The release sold well and brought them nationwide radio exposure for the first time. This was followed within six months by “Afam Efuna” b/w “Had I Known” on the HMV label. At this point, due to increasing opportunities and regional fame, they opted not to renew their contract with the military, which resulted in a punitive confiscation of all gear and equipment which the military had purchased, including their bus. Once more, the band was destitute and on the verge of financial ruin.
Jake Sollo and The Funkees, looking to relocate to England, arranged for the sale of their instruments to The Wings through negotiations with EMI, the label of both bands. This enabled the recording of their third and most successful single to date, in October 1973: “Someone Else Will” b/w “I’ve Been Loving You.” Former member Dan Ian played guest rhythm guitar on the track while his two sisters, Callista and Meg Mbaezue, sang backing harmony over Spud’s vocal. The band’s popularity accelerated quickly, culminating in their appearance on the premier musical program on NTA, the Nigerian Television Authority.
For reasons unclear but purportedly to strengthen the rhythm section, additional percussionists Emma Dabro and Dandy Aduba were hired. Manford Best moved from drums to rhythm guitar, replaced by veteran highlife drummer Joel Madubuike, who is credited only as “Noel” on the back jacket of their first LP. It was with this lineup that The Wings entered EMI Studios in Lagos in April 1974 to record their first and only full-length album, Kissing You So Hard, with Pal Akalonu producing. The album was a regional success and stands today as one of the finest Nigerian pop records of all time, starting with Spud Nathan’s anthem “Single Boy” and ending with Uwakwe’s prophetic and plodding groove “Gone With The Sun.” (Due to a manufacturing issue, several songs are reversed in the running order for all copies I’ve seen.)
The production sound is cavernously wonderful and strange, with bursts of guitar and organ moving up high in the mix, disappearing, then surging back, all held together by Ari Okpala’s tight bass lines; check out “Make Me Happy,” with its two distinct passages of Uwakwe’s fuzzed-out guitar and Dellin’s organ breaks, punctuated with Madubuike’s precision drum fills. On the technical aspects of the recording process, Manford Best states that “while all the instruments were being played with the singing going on, the engineer skillfully recorded all the inputs at a go.” The album’s philosophical centerpiece is Spud Nathan’s cut “But Why,” in which he bleakly describes his “struggle to exist” when “emptiness drowns his whole life.” The song’s brooding spirituality would obsess fans for years, especially in light of what was shortly to come.
December 26, 1974. The band played a gig at Mbaukwu. Stories differ as to what went down from this point forward with regard to a disagreement that night within the band. According to Best’s recent account, it was an established practice to rotate a leader monthly between the band’s core four members (Spud, Manford, Ari, and Okey). Spud was supposed to hand over leadership to Manford on December 24th, but he refused to do so for reasons unclear; the latter theorizes it was because a lucrative show was coming up in Port-Harcourt, and Spud wanted to be the one to collect and distribute the money. Tempers flared but Spud ultimately agreed to hand over control to Manford and rode with him in his newly-purchased Toyota to the next gig as a conciliatory gesture. At 4:00am, the band departed in separate vehicles to the town of their next show. Spud and Okey rode in Manford’s car and slept. What happened, according to Manford, is as follows:
“At about 6:00am, two kilometers after crossing the notorious Njaba bridge, we reached Azara-Obiato village and I was turning a corner when suddenly I saw a woman crossing the road. I tried to avoid her by swerving to the left but on seeing an oncoming vehicle swerved back to the right, lost control of the car and knocked her down in the process. The car skidded over the embankment and somersaulted in the bush resting finally on its side. The noisy impact of the crashing car and the alarming cries of the injured woman attracted villagers to the scene. They turned over the car to its normal position, forced the door open and carried Okey and I out while others rescued the woman. When I regained consciousness I stood up and heard Okey moaning and saying some indistinguishable words. I tried to help him stand up but he could not. This was because of the excruciating pain resulting from his injuries. I looked around and could not find Spud so I started shouting.”
Spud Nathan had been thrown from the car’s window; his neck snapped. Okey, writhing in pain and unable to stand, was placed on a bus and transported to two different hospitals, since the first lacked the expertise to handle the traumatic damage done to his spinal cord. The rest of the band, traveling in a different vehicle, would not learn of the crash until the following day. Word traveled fast throughout the region about the wreck and the circumstances behind it, feeding rumors and conjecture among fans and friends. Internally, between the bad blood from the fight beforehand, Best’s comparatively superficial injuries, and the mysterious unidentified “woman on the bridge,” suspicions arose immediately. Existing rifts between Best and the other founding members, especially Ari Okpala, erupted. According to Best, an assassination attempt was made on his life shortly after the crash, which he attributes to either Okpala or Spud Nathan’s sister in London. Ari Okpala and the other members decided to dissolve the band for two years in honor of their dead friend.
True to their plan, in 1976, Ari Okpala founded a new outfit called Original Wings International. Of the Kissing You So Hard lineup, only Okpala on bass and the hired percussionists, Dandy Aduba and Emma Dabro, remained. Johnny Fleming, who had briefly toured with an earlier pre-1974 iteration of the band, returned to replace Pius Dellin on keyboards. With Okey Uwakwe now paralyzed, Charles Effi Duke took over on lead guitar while Jerry Demua was hired to replace Spud Nathan on lead vocals. Drummer Joel Madubuike, who had already split to join the popular funk band The Apostles, was replaced by Emma Chinaka, a.k.a. Emma China.
Meanwhile, keyboardist Pius Dellin (also excluded from the Original Wings relaunch) alerted Manford Best of the brewing betrayal by their old comrades. Furious and feeling slighted, he immediately formed a rival band called Super Wings, with Pius on keys and four other musicians: John-John Duke on bass; Johnson Hart on drums; and George Black and Jerry Boifraind on vocals/percussion. Afraid of getting beaten to the punch and wanting to stake their claim to the name, they rushed into the studio to record a new album, signing to Lagos-based label Clover Sound, run by Ben Okonkwo. The resulting LP called Men of the People was, by Manford Best’s own account, a bit of a mess in the mix department, despite some ace performances, particularly the tracks “Lonely World,” “Trust Your Woman,” and Dellin’s shimmering “Sunshine of Tomorrow.”
Although Men of the People is revered today as a classic, back then, this mad dash to the marketplace backfired. Sales of the LP were flat, and their second-rate status was soon sealed, when, just weeks later in 1976, Ari Okpala’s Original Wings released their own album, entitled Tribute To Spud Nathan, on Nigeria EMI, its cover sporting a photo of Spud, arms outstretched and in belled sleeves, singing onstage at a University of Nigeria show. Starting off with the tribute song “Spud Nathan,” which acknowledged the acrimonious splintering and promised peace from this point forward, it is a meticulously crafted record from start to finish, every bit as good as its forerunner Kissing You So Hard. Inspired rhythmic standouts include “Tell Me,” “Don’t Call Me A Fool,” and “Love Is Meant For Two.” It was, by all accounts of the time, a major comeback in the Nigerian pop scene.
Super Wings would persevere for one more record, again on Clover and with Ben Okonkwo producing. Most of the lineup remained, sans Jerry Boifraind, who left to record his first two solo LPs for Anodisc and Love Day. Lessons were clearly learned from the rushed release of Men of the People, and 1977’s My Love Is For You is the band’s creative apex. Manford Best’s crisp, reverb-drenched riffs, mixed with Pius Dellin’s organ and new vocalist Allwell Opara’s radical warbly vibrato, make for a distinctive and powerful unifying sound throughout its nine tracks, including “My Own People,” “Papa Was So Good,” and “Something (Love)’s Missing.” In true competitive form, that same year also saw the release of the Original Wings LP You’ll Want Me Back, which featured a re-worked version of the first 7” release by The Wings. While a fantastic record (“Stoop To Conquer,” “Help Yourself” and “Anonymous Man” are high-energy standouts), the balance between Original Wings and Super Wings was now shifting a bit.
But it didn’t matter. The market was changing. Nigerian Disco and the spinoff scene later codified as Boogie were on the ascent. Funk bands across the country began closing up shop, with some musicians shifting increasingly into arrangement and production work. Manford Best shut down Super Wings and recorded two renowned solo albums. Original Wings released the superb Change This World in 1979 before Ari Okpala decided to dissolve this iteration of the band permanently. Some members, or at least Dandy Aduba on rhythm guitar, would return as backing band Wings International on Okpala’s synth jammer record Better Love, released on EMI Nigeria in 1985. It is the last release of his that I know of.
Founding lead guitarist Okey Uwakwe’s eventual death in 1977, from spinal injuries sustained in the car crash years earlier, was the sad closing coda for both outfits. Today, “The Wings of Aba” and the name of Spud Nathan are legendary in Nigeria.