The band One World was formed after the breakup of The Strangers, so what was Owerri's loss technically became Aba's gain. But despite losing the amazing songwriter Bob Miga, the new band arrived relatively intact and ready to fire on all cylinders.
The transplants from The Strangers included Anii Hofnar Umebuani, Gab Chuma Ozani, Samuel Eze McKing and, of course, the effervescent Samuel Nkem Mathews.
Treated like royalty in the elephant city as soon as they arrived, they became the best cover band in the region and could reproduce any song with an unbelievable exactness. But more on that later.
Although they had already made such hits as 'Love Rock' and 'Nobody Called Me' as The Strangers, their first two singles as One World, 1973's 'I Am Not a Fool' and 1974's 'Familiar Face', caused a mere ripple on the local music scene. With the advent of jazz-fusion and dub-reggae, almost every listener had become a critic and certainly more discerning in terms of what they deemed 'good'.
All that ended in 1975 with the release of the LP Victory. It became their magnum opus and remains not just a classic in the Afro-rock genre but has spawned a cult-like following for the band, fondly referred to as Otu-Uwa. Even though they would release four other LPs, Peace (1976), Rejoice (1977), Mama & Papa and This Baby is Mine, both in 1978, nothing could replicate the success of Victory.
A brief glimpse into Nigerian 70's Afro Rock
Released two years ahead of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Victory was our version of the American band's classic record. It was a perfect mix of pop and rock and yet infused with an African twist. Even today listening to Anii Hoffnar's exploits on the guitar, especially on 'Look At the World' reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham. Like the Fleetwood Mac guitarist, there was a certain aloof brilliance to him.
Such was not the case with the singers. Both Gab Ozani and Samuel Mathews were as engaging as they sounded. Especially so was Mathews who was a crooner of such quality that people looked forward to when he sang lead. In those days in Aba, there were three Samuels. Samuel from the Bible, Dede Sam Mbakwe, and Samuel Mathews.
How good was One World at covers? Well, take 'Daniel' by Elton John from 1973. Sam Mathews would deliver it with such detail that, upon hearing it play years later in the US, I would debate who sang it better. Sir Elton or Oga Mathews? I still haven't made my mind up, and considering how brilliant Elton John is as a vocalist, then and now, that conflict speaks volumes for Mathews.
Mathews used the microphone as a prop and yet almost never held it. It was always affixed to the stand, sort of like what Steve Perry does with Aerosmith, but without the stupid scarfs. I can still remember him the last time I saw him perform. Eyes closed and covered by a thin sheen of sweat, he wooed us for almost four hours, non-stop.
The place was Doris Hotel in Umuahia and tons of us had snuck out from Government College Umuahia to watch him and his mates perform. We would all get suspended for it later on, but I would gladly do it all over. Most of my fellow culprits would do likewise.
Mathews loved caps and hats and that day he wore one of the blue and white skullcaps with a pom-pom. Normally, I hated them because they were so popular and suggested conformity, but on Mathews, it didn't look vulgar. Instead, as he delivered song after song, he looked like he had just stepped out of the album cover of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On.
Mathew moved his hands a lot. He used them as props calling us to attention or inviting us to follow him on his journey. One moment he would be like a Mbamiri dancer without her flapping hankies, the next he would box the air with an Ali-esque jab. He was the ultimate entertainer.
Samuel Nkem Mathews died a few weeks ago closing a chapter in a storybook that will be forever embedded in my mind, as well as in those of the thousands of fans he spoiled silly with his gift.
I personally will never forget him and will use the same words he sang to me so many times before to say my final goodbye. It is a line from 'The Victor':
"And I ask myself, shall I be the victor? Are you truthful, are you truthful that you will be good in my life?"
In both cases, I am proud to say yes. Samuel Mathews, you were a victor, and while I don't know if I affected your life, you were good in mine.
Rest in peace Sir Sammy and thank you One World.