Interview with Frank Izuora of Question Mark

The following interview was transcribed from a Weekend Family Music Hour broadcast which took place on July 21st, 2018 on Freeform Portland. Jim (from the show Center for Cassette Studies) and I had the privilege to interview organist, singer and solo artist Frank Izuora. Izuora was a founding member of the Nigerian band Question Mark. Other members included his brother, bassist Amehi (Joe) Izuora; Chyke Okafor on drums; Uzoh Agulefo on percussion, and Victor Egbe on lead guitar. Their incredible debut release, Be Nice to the People, was recorded in Lagos, Nigeria in the mid 70s and is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. Released by EMI’s Nigerian subsidiary, it was produced by the legendary Odion Iruoje, talent scout extraordinaire and the man behind the board for Ofege’s Try and Love and The Last of the Origins, C.S. Crew’s Funky Pack, Butley Emeka Moore’s Kiss & Smile, Apples’ Mind Twister, and literally hundreds of other Nigerian recordings that today inspire music aficionados around the globe. 

Original copies of Be Nice to the People are highly coveted and never show up on the used market. Shadoks in Germany reissued a limited vinyl release (likely unauthorized) in 2007, which is how we came to know of it. A CD reissue came out several years later. Similar to Ofege, Be Nice to the People is known for its driving fuzz guitar passages and catchy rhythmic grooves, one-upping the UK hard rock scene at its own game. But Question Mark had a progressive pop lyricism that their peers lacked, an ability to craft ballads about the goodness of love and the importance of compassion and humanism, songs that, rather than being breathers between big guitar jams, are ones you would put the record on for. At the forefront of this unique sound was the voice and organ of Frank Izuora.

Izuora currently resides in Houston, TX, and he is still writing and composing music. He has a current recording available on Amazon called, Cruise Out.

He is also counselor who specializes in working with couples, families and children. Frank is a warm soul and multi-faceted human being whom we adore, and we are deeply thankful to him for granting us this opportunity. — Karen

Karen: How did Question Mark form as a band?

Frank: We formed our band through our social networks. Much like a domino effect, the one person I knew very well was my brother who was a bass player. I went to the same school my father went to, Dennis Memorial Grammar School. There was a young guy who played soccer there named Chyke, and his last name was Okafor. His nickname was Chykzilly. He knew I played guitar and the keyboards. He in turn knew Ekelaw Uzoh –I know it’s hard for Americans to pronounce African names because it can be jaw breaking! — so from there we formed a band. We knew an engineer in Enugu, his name was Goddy, sort of like Godwin. We went to his studio and recorded some sample tracks, and while we were there, we met Victor and he played lead guitar for Question Mark. So I played keyboard for the band. From there we got together: Joey, myself, Chykzilly, Victor, and Uzoh and we formed the band Question Mark.

Karen: How did you get signed by EMI?

Frank: It’s interesting because I knew Chykzilly who knew Uzoh, and Uzoh who was a congo player and percussionist; he had contact with EMI recording studios, so through Uzoh we met this guy and we started talking about our songs. He said we sound good enough and we did some recordings, so that’s exactly what we did. 

Karen: Was it produced by Odion Uroje, I think he was the talent guy for EMI, I think he also was the producer for Ofege? 

Frank: Yes!

Karen: Did you spend some time in the U.K growing up?

Frank: Yeah, we have an in interesting family background. My father went to London and took the whole family, including my mother, myself, and my only sister and my two brothers. We sailed on an ocean liner. Back in those days it was quite popular and flying in an airplane was quite expensive. So we went on an ocean liner which took us about a month to get there from Nigeria. Along the way we stopped in various countries. In 1960 we got to London and spent 6 years there. I went to school there. I just got back from London recently and I went to my old elementary school. We were there from 1960-1966 and returned back to Nigeria. When I was in London I was exposed to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles at a early age. I was tuned into all the stars that were around, like Elvis Presley. We returned back to Nigeria in 1966 and 4 years later I seriously started to learn how to play the guitar. From there I met other musicians and played in garage bands and honed my skills and then met Question Mark band members much later. 

Karen: If I could be in the U.K, I think 60-66 in terms of music would be a great time to be there. 

Frank: Yes! I remember a competition between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and I believe in my mind, The Beatles won. When I hear my music I think of old girlfriends or analogies like that. 

Karen: Have people tried to contact you prior to us about your music, or asking if Question Mark would get back together?

Frank: I was talking about that to my brother, you know that’s 30 years ago and the drummer is dead and it’s like getting the Beatles back together again, you can’t. Chykzilly passed away a number of years ago. The percussionist Uzoh is actually here. He’s the guy sitting on the extreme right of the album cover with afro hair and Chykzilly is the guy beside him with his arms crossed. Uzoh is a professor in Dallas at a university. Who knew he would end up being a professor…but the track “Hey Hey Girl” was one of the few tracks we wanted to remix. We were all living on school campus and we decided to go to EMI studios in Lagos to record these songs. We all got into a car and drove 8 miles to Lagos to record Be Nice to the People. We were supposed to have spent 3 days recording the album but we just spent a day and a half. We were rushed and a lot of things we wanted to remix such as the drums, some guitar parts and vocals; we had to rush back to high school, coming back on a Sunday so we had no time. It’s like when you hear on recordings, certain areas need tweaking, so when I’m relistening to my music I say, here it comes. Oh it’s that part needs changing! Where today’s artists their perfectionists who spend 2-3 days. We spent a day and a half on ten songs. 

Karen: The lyrics are so great on Be Nice to the People and Didn’t Want to Lose You

Elizabeth Izuora (R)

Frank: Interesting because in the song, “Love,” the lyrics were not my lyrics, they were written by my sister. She was a child prodigy who passed away. She spoke 3 languages, she was a bass player, she played classical music like Mozart and Handel. When you listen to the lyrics of “Love,” it has a lot of substance and so she wrote that and I didn’t sing it. My younger brother Joe sang it. As I said I just visited Joe in London and we were listening to Question Mark because your show wanted to interview me. So we were listening to the entire album in the car on CD and like most musicians they are very critical of their own work; more so than listeners. So when Joey sang the words, “Love was really out to hurt me,” I wasn’t really a lyricist. I’m a very spontaneous person, where if I see something right away, I will write words about it. My sister Elizabeth would put a lot of thought into how to write a song. I admired her for that. Now that I’m a therapist, I put a lot of thought into my words, like when I see my clients or play with other musicians I am not trying to overpower them, I’m trying to blend with them. It’s all about harmony and the give-and-take and relationships and everything you do in life. I was supposed to have sung that song, and it was really late at night in the studio. We convinced my brother Joe to sing that song. He said “I’m not a vocalist” and I told him he would go down in history. He was tired, so tired. 

Karen: Did you guys tour very much as a band apart from recording?

Frank: We did, we played at parties, we opened for BLO and we played on TV. My mother was a director at a TV station in Enugu in the eastern part of Nigeria before the Biafran war she was in charge of a TV show called Curtis Club, which featured young people who could sing, dance, play the piano or tell stories. We went on that talent show and performed for the first time. That was the first time we played live. We thought we can go in there and tear the place down. As soon as we saw the camera rolling and hear the producer say you’re on the nervousness sets in. It’s a lot different performing live than being in a recording studio. 

Karen: Did you guys attend a music school like Ofege?

Frank: No, my sister and I had an Italian music teacher strictly for the piano who was hired by my parents. Unfortunately, I think I had ADHD or something because while she was teaching us I could hear my friends kicking the soccer ball so I went to join them instead. My sister learned to read music and play piano. I never really gave myself the opportunity to read and write music. I learned strictly by ear. I learned how to play the guitar for all the wrong reasons after seeing how he attracted girls when he played music. So I had my friend show me a few chords, I started to listen to Beatles songs again and rehearsed guitar parts and then used my own creativity to produce something similar. You can hear some of that in Oh My Girl. I didn’t play guitar on that track but I showed the guitarist what to play. There was no one who could play the piano, so I took that instrument.

Karen: How did your solo record come to be?

FI: I left Nigeria and came to the States in 1977 and I went to Buffalo State College in Buffalo NY. I returned to Nigeria in 1982 and recorded a solo album. I played all the instruments and did it myself, I decided to quickly write songs and practice. The producers at the TV station where my mother worked on the talent show heard me playing so he started helping me out in recording my solo album. I wanted to record my album before I headed back to Buffalo. So the producer helped me. So I went to meet a guy, Goddy Oku–Oku in Nigeria means fire or light in English. He had a band called the Hykkers who were known in eastern Nigeria. So I went to Oku’s recording studio with them, and it took quite some time recording my album but I got it all done before going back to college.

Karen: Didn’t Want to Lose You was also pressed at Wilfilms, which was William Onyeabor studio. So you’re giving us an incredible history lesson…

Frank: I can tell you a whole lot more. It’s very interesting history, do you guys know about the history of the Nigerian Biafran War? Well, my mother knew the head of state Ojukwu, so when Nigeria broke away, he was aware of our band. He purchased instruments for us and at the time we were not Question Mark, we were The Questions. In The Questions my sister was playing the bass guitar and my cousins who were my mother’s half sister’s daughters were on vocals. So through Ojukwu after buying us instruments he flew us to Gabon during the Biafra war to perform for the president of Gabon. I think his name was Bongo something, he was a really short guy, he was sitting on a couch and his feet barely touched the ground and I was telling myself, he’s the president of a country…We performed to raise money for the troops and we were flying there on a relief plane and they were shooting at us in the plane we were flying in. We actually raised money for the troops and we evolved from Question to Question Mark and then we performed for the first time on TV on the talent show.

Karen: There was another band called The Wings who also performed for the military….

Frank: My mother knew them as well. My mother knew quite a few bands that helped us we knew bands who rehearsed and played through the war, we rehearsed in a garage with a band called The Fractions. 

Karen: Have labels contacted you about reissuing Question Mark?

Frank: I think I could have done things differently, at that time about 9 years ago they had us sign papers and they reissued that. I still own the rights to my own solo record. The song “Freaking Out” and the story behind that song. My father’s brother who was a doctor and musician in the Army returned from Germany, he played music for the fun of it. He returned with a bass guitar and my brother Joey played guitar and he had an amplifier. He gave us his bass as a gift and I looked at my brother and he looked at me and I said, hey let’s freak out! And so we wrote and titled the song “Freaking Out”. 

Karen: Now Again reissued Freaking Out and Scram Out on their compilation Wake Up! Is it strange to hear your original record is worth quite a lot now?

Frank: Yeah! Remember that old phrase, one man’s trash…when we recorded these songs I wasn’t thinking of business. We were having fun. I think sometimes when you feel what you do isn’t really all that valuable. I think as human beings we don’t stay put and life is a journey. You improve who you are as a person, musician work on your style and keep on making progress. It fills my heart with pleasure/appreciation to hear that people appreciate the music I have made many years ago. If the whole world could appreciate each other it would be a better world. 

Karen: Through your music and lyric writing I hear how much positivity you have…

Frank: Music is my first love and I am a musician first. I am also a LMFT (Licensed Marriage Family Therapist), I’ve run into people who have so much emotional stress and through my profession and my personal life I’ve come to realize that when a person loses a sense of self and purpose, I try to come in and show them who they are and bring that out, and gain self esteem. When I was young I was extremely shy and when I tried to talk to girls, I would write down things to talk about. I would call them on the phone and then drop the phone because I was so nervous. I’ve realized it takes two to make a relationship. It inspired me to write songs to appeal to both sexes and inspire people.

Karen: What are your musical projects now?

Frank: I’m working on some new material. I have a new instrumental album called Cruise Out. I am also working on a new vocal album that will have some lyrics that reflect the same philosophies I have. My songs are going to make people appreciate life and have a really good time. When I get through with my new songs, I’ll let you guys know.

Karen: Would you ever tour Didn’t Want to Lose You?

Frank: I would tour in Portland, OR if I can get back up musicians. I’ll think about it and figure out a possibility to have people play old and new stuff. I left London and I was talking to Joey about people wanting to interview me. I ran into musicians on the plane, people who played with Heart and Bad Company. It was a coincidence and I think there is some positive karma going on right now. Hopefully one of these days I get to meet up with you guys, as we say in Nigeria, eyeball to eyeball.

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