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Bernard Olabinjo “Bobby” Benson: The Life and Legacy of Nigeria's Highlife Pioneer

When discussing the legends that have graced Nigeria's music scene, Bernard Olabinjo "Bobby" Benson's name will forever be etched in golden letters. Born in 1921 in Ikorodu, Lagos State, this musical maestro rose from humble beginnings to etch an indelible mark on the musical landscape of Nigeria and West Africa.

Bobby received his formal education in Lagos, Port Harcourt, and later trained as a tailor. His career, however, took an adventurous turn when he became a boxer and then a sailor in the Merchant Navy. It was during these explorative years that his journey in music began in earnest, when he left his ship in London in 1944. He joined the Negro Ballet, toured European capitals, and met his wife, Cassandra.

Upon returning to Nigeria in 1947, Bobby and Cassandra formed the Bobby Benson and Cassandra Theatrical Group. Later, driven by the popularity of his music, he established the Bobby Benson Jam Session, a band that ventured into swing, jive, sambas, and calypsos.

Bobby Benson made history by becoming the first Nigerian to own a nightclub, the renowned Caban Bamboo, which he later transformed into Hotel Bobby. This establishment was more than just a place of leisure—it was a crucible for the creation and enjoyment of highlife music, the genre that Bobby Benson pioneered in Nigeria.

One of Benson's most defining contributions was the classic hit song "Taxi Driver," a rhythmic highlife masterpiece that delighted audiences across West Africa. Other evergreen hits included "Gentleman Bobby," "Iyawo se wo lose mi," "Mafe," "Nylon Dress," and "Niger Mambo."

Beyond music, Bobby was a true entertainer—a charismatic comedian, magician, and an exceptional performer. His show on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in the 1970s, where he displayed these talents, remains a fond memory for many Nigerians. He was also a friend to international icons like B.B. King and Hugh Masekela.

Bobby's influence extended beyond his lifetime as he served as a mentor for many young musicians who later achieved fame in their own right. Figures like Dr Victor Olaiya, Eddy Okonta, Roy Chicago, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Bayo Martins and Zeal Onyia all played in Bobby's band at some point. His creative fusion of African rhythms and Western music also influenced the evolution of popular Jùjú music.

Bobby's impact was so profound that his hits like "Taxi Driver" and "Niger Mambo" have been interpreted by international artists, further extending the reach of his music. His musical legacy also includes collaborations with international legends like Eddy Grant.

Bobby Benson passed away in Lagos on May 14, 1983, but his legacy continues to inspire the Nigerian music scene and beyond. He remains an embodiment of passion, talent, and vision, traits that are immortalized in every note of the highlife music he pioneered.

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