A superstar in his native Nigeria since the late '60s, juju bandleader King Sunny Ade was hailed by American critics in 1982 as the next Bob Marley. While Ade, who sings in his native Yoruba tongue, never achieved that level of popularity in the U.S., he and his 20-piece African Beats band did whet American and European appetites for "world music." In addition, Ade helped open the door for other Afro-pop artists, among them fellow Nigerian juju stars Ebenezer Obey and Dele Abiodun, Zaire's Tabu Ley Rochereau and Papa Wemba, Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, South Africa's Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and Madagascar's Rossy and Tarika Sammy.
Born into the royal family of Ondo, the youthful Ade horrified his parents by pursuing music, which was considered a profession for commoners. He dropped out of school in 1963 to join semipro bands in the capital of Lagos, playing juju, a popular Nigerian guitar music style since the '20s, which had been radically altered by the infusion of electric guitars and Western rock influences. Within a year Ade was a guitarist with a top juju outfit, Moses Olaiya's Rhythm Dandies. By 1967 he had formed his own band, the Green Spots (taking off on the name of longtime juju king I.K. Dairo's Blue Spots band), and recorded his first single, "Challenge Cup," which celebrated a local soccer team's championship and became a national hit.
By the early '70s Ade's Green Spots had grown into the African Beats, an orchestral ensemble with four or five vocalists, just as many guitarists, a Hawaiian guitarist (inspired by the pedal-steel heard on records by de's favorite country singer, Jim Reeves), keyboards or vibraphone (in the '80s, he added synthesizers), bass, trap drums, and a half-dozen or so percussionists, including the talking drum players so central to the distinctive juju sound. ("Talking drums" are small hand drums with variable pitch.) Ade's style of juju music is a gently hypnotic, polyrhythmic mesh of burbling guitars, sweet harmony vocals, swooping Hawaiian guitar, and throbbing talking drums.
By 1975 Ade was a certified superstar in his homeland; by decade's end, he'd released a half-dozen albums a year, selling around 200,000 copies of each. He set up his own Sunny Alade record label and Ariya nightclub in Lagos. The early '80s found Ade building a substantial European cult following, leading Island Records to sign him for both Europe and North America, where his influence had already been felt on such albums as Talking Heads' Remain in Light (1980) and King Crimson's Discipline (1981). Juju Music, featuring new recordings of tunes from Ade's vast repertoire, got universal rave reviews, as did his first of many U.S. tours; the album sold well enough to graze the bottom of the pop chart (#111, 1983). Synchro System, with a harder rhythmic edge and more prominent synthesizers, fared slightly better (#91, 1983), but when Aura failed to chart, despite a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder, Island dropped Ade. The African Beats then broke up, amidst dissension and claims of being underpaid (though Ade was reportedly losing money on tours, supporting his large band while playing undersized venues). Back in Lagos, Ade formed a new band, Golden Mercury, retaining his trademark sound and continuing to record and tour internationally, periodically returning to the U.S. Ade's 1995 album, E Dide (Get Up), was his first U.S. studio recording in a decade. It was followed by the Grammy-nominated 1998 release, Odu, and 2000's Seven Degrees North.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).