Sunday Adeniyi (later to become King Sunny) was born in 1946 in Ondo in the Western reaches of Nigeria. He was born into a Christian family, his father was a minister of the local Methodist church, and his mother was a part of the local choir. You would have thought both parents being musically involved would have paved the way for a career in music for Sunny, but this wasn’t the case. Both of his parents were heavily against him forging a vocation as a musician. You see, Sunny is of royal blood, he is a prince, and princes do not become mere musicians in Nigeria. When you are from such a privileged background, the expectation is much higher, and many in Sunny’s position have gone on to have careers in blue collar surroundings such as law or medicine.
With the weight of expectation on Sunny to become a high-flying member of society, it was to come as a huge shock to the family when he decided to drop out of school aged just 17. He started his musical journey with a niche group of nomadic artists who, although they were very talented, had decided to mix music with comedy. After his travels with the group, Sunny decided to try his luck in Lagos and joined a dance music crew. He found himself yearning to make music with a little bit more substance and shortly after teamed-up with a band by the name of The Rhythm Dandies which was far more in line with his musical influences at the time.
Sunny had begun to expand his musical horizons, but he was also always aware of his Yoruban roots, and with this, in mind, he started to play with Juju groups. Specifically, it was the ‘So wa mbe’ style that had piqued his interest. These styles were made famous by another Juju legend Tunde Nightingale.
Hitting The Big Time
After the civil unrest in Nigeria in the late sixties, Highlife begun to migrate back towards the East and this left a sizeable void in the music scene. Looking to take advantage of the spaces left by the departing Igbo artists, Sunny started the Green Spots in 1966. It didn’t take the band long to gel, and by 1967 they had their first major hit which was called ‘Challenge Cup.’ The song was made for the local football side and sold well over 500 000 units, easily the most of any Juju single ever made. This was to kick-off an era of huge success for Sunny and the band, and by 1976 he was crowned the best musician in Nigeria and with it the title of ‘King of Juju’.
Going It ‘Alone.’
Sunny spent eight years with the Green Spots (later becoming The African Beats) and recorded 12 albums with the band. Deciding he had achieved all he could with his beloved group, Sunny then began his own record label in 1974. When Sunny and the African Beats go on the road, they do so with anything fro 20-30 individuals who all contribute to the music played on stage. Lots of harmonising, plucky guitar chords, traditional drum work and typically lively percussion combine to give them a unique Juju sound.
King Sunny as he was now known, had given Nigeria almost a hundred recordings but was still largely an unknown quantity outside of Nigeria. This was to change when he signed on for a three album deal with the renowned Island Records. It was after these releases that Sunny was credited with putting Nigerian pop music on the map.
The Rise Of ‘The Chairman’
King Sunny was dubbed ‘The Chairman’ as his investment portfolio grew and he was involved in a plethora of business ventures. Anything from oil, to nightclubs and even a film production company, were all part of The Chairman’s empire. But Sunny wasn’t your average businessman and was incredibly philanthropic through all his successes.
He started the King Sunny Ade Foundation with the intention of lending support to the music industry that had given him so much in the past. The Foundation is built on a piece of land that was donated by the local Lagos government and houses a recording studio, a hostel for young musicians, a performing arts wing and even financial assistance to elderly musicians who have fallen on hard times.