Cheated By Paul McCartney And “Killed” By British Immigration: The Unfulfilled Life Of Jimmy Scott Emuakpor
In the 2014 documentary Finding Fela, one of the talking heads featured was Sir Paul McCartney, co-lead vocalist of the British rock and roll group, The Beatles and one of the most successful singers/songwriters the world has ever seen. His role in the documentary was to illustrate the power of Fela’s music which McCartney said made him “weep”- along with the obligatory anecdotes of Fela’s eccentricity, exemplified by his use of “ganja” and his “thirty wives”. He claims that after meeting Fela, the two of them became close friends. However, for the Afrobeat icon, it wasn’t friendship at first hello. As a matter of fact, Fela didn’t even want to meet him at all. It was said- by McCartney himself- that Fela accused him of coming to steal the black man’s music.
“The first thing that happened to me was that I was accused of stealing the black man’s music. So, I said ‘Who’s doing that?’ Because it was in the newspaper and it was Fela, of course! So, I got his number, and I rang him up and I said, ‘Hey man, come on. I’m not here to do that I just love the idea of it. I love African music. I just want the kind of atmosphere, but I’m certainly not stealing any of your stuff,” he said.
Now, this was 1973: Fela was just transitioning from making happy inconsequential music into political, black movement inspired anthems. Sandra Isidore who famously set him on the path of activism and black struggle recalled on the aforementioned documentary that she once expressed her disappointment in the fact that Fela was making music about “soup”. (Listen to Stew from The ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions).
The point is, Fela’s wariness about Paul McCartney wanting to meet with him was not later into his career when his anti-neo/colonialism was at its peak and he could have been accused of being unreasonably distrustful. After all, he was friends with Ginger Baker from the rock group Cream and them two had jointly worked on and released a couple of albums. What’s more, even Ginger Baker was no fan of McCartney’s and was said to be disdainful of the Beatle because he couldn’t read sheet music.
Fela wasn’t mad and his reluctance wasn’t without reason: for many years and long spells of their career, The Beatles were accused of helping themselves to generous amounts of inspiration by black musicians, something that often strays into the realm of appropriation and sometimes, outright thievery. From having to settle out of court with Chuck Berry’s publisher for the song Come Together, to Bobby Parker to The Lovin’ Spoonfuls, there is no shortage of records of The Beatles taking other people’s songs, melodies, words- and passing them off as theirs, so much that there’s a whole book about their plagiarism. John Lennon defended his band’s propensity to be thusly inspired by saying “It wasn’t a rip-off; it was a love-in.” Paul McCartney simply said, “We pinch as much from other people as they pinch from us.”
So you see say Fela no dey craze? His music was -is- sacred and solely his, and he was well within his rights to protect it from the C̶o̶l̶o̶n̶i̶z̶e̶r̶s̶ Beatles.
In 1948, the first wave of post-war migration to the United Kingdom began. WWII had just ended and even though Britain and its allies won it, much of the country needed reconstruction and labour was in short supply; so the Clement Atlee administration which succeeded Sir Winston Churchill, opened up the borders to immigrants from the Commonwealth countries, ostensibly offering them a new life in England but needing them to work. Although most of the arrivals were from the Caribbean, there was a healthy contingent from West Africa as well. In any case, many Africans had fought for the British Empire in a war that had little to do with them but more to do with the continued reign of the colonial masters; an invitation to move to Britain was more than welcome. Think of how many Nigerians today are desperate to relocate in light of the dwindling hope they have in the country. Seventy years ago, Nigeria was a “British Colony” and the process wasn't as complicated as it is now.
Lucky immigrants travelled on steamliners such as the MV Accra and MV Apapa, older siblings to the famous MV Auerol which started its own operations in 1951 and ferried thousands of Nigerians to Britain in the 1950s and 60s. (If your grandparents travelled to the United Kingdom around that time, chances are that they went on the Auerol. I know: my grandfather did, as did several other relatives).
Less fortunate travellers went as stowaways on these vessels. Desperate enough for another life elsewhere, they endured the two-week journey it took back in those days. There was even yet another level of less fortunate pilgrims: those that stowed away on cargo ships. At least the people who travelled on passenger boats had food and company: cargo stowaways suffered a longer journey- the cargo ships took about a month- and fewer supplies; and those were the least of the dangers they faced. Many stowaways died on the treacherous journeys. The ones who didn’t die were handed over to the police when they were found. Others were killed at sea: by crew members who cold-heartedly tossed them into the sea. The most prominent cargo ship in 1948 was the SS Duke of Sparta and that year, the matter of stowaways being tossed overboard got as far as the House of Commons after an allegation was made by a Eusebius Tunde George of Lagos that six of his fellow travellers were treated that way. It was refuted by MPs and the case was closed.
One of the 1948 stowaways on a cargo ship was Anonmuogharan Emuakpor, a twenty-six-year-old Nigerian from Sapele, in present-day Delta State. As his story begins when he lands at Kingston-upon-Hull, not much is known about his life before then. Without documentation or money or even a change of clothes, he decided to go by his English name, Jimmy Scott and set about his new life in this new country.
Oh, by the way, he had one gift: he was very adept at playing the drums, most notably the conga. Growing up in the Urhobo swamps, it must have been second nature to him: people from that area of Nigeria are extremely musical and the percussion of the peoples of southern Nigeria on both sides of the Niger, is highly rhythmic.
His next few years in Britain are a blur. One could make a conjecture by the happenings later in his life that he might have survived by busking on the streets. There’s no record of him working in the dockyards of Hull or heaving coal in the mines of Newcastle. But by the mid-1950s, he had found his way into playing drums at various Jazz clubs in London and before that decade ran out, he was playing the conga for Edmund Ros, a Caribbean musician and bandleader whose band was entertaining the Royal Family in the 1940s and who was invited by King George (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) to perform at Windsor Castle in 1950. No record shows Jimmy Scott was part of that contingent though.
What is known for sure is that as of 1964, he played with the British blues group George Fame and the Blue Flames and in 1965, he was a backing musician for Stevie Wonder (who was only 15 years old) on the Motown Tour of Britain that year.
It was about this time that Jimmy Scott Anonmuogharan Emuakpor crossed paths with Paul McCartney.
The 1960s was the decade of Beatlemania. Fans across the world couldn’t get enough of the boys from Liverpool and in later years, Ringo Starr said he realized that the fans came to see them, not listen to them. John Lennon’s infamous statement that the Beatles were more “popular than Jesus” came about this time too. (The full sentence went “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity”).
Yet, it was about this time that Paul McCartney struck up a friendship with a lanky middle-aged Nigerian man who hung out at the clubs playing drums on whatever gigs he could get. Jimmy Scott was the stereotypical happy-go-lucky Nigerian dude who had no worries in the world and was always up for a good time. If you ever read the book The Lonely Londoners, you could envision him as the character Captain- who was Nigerian and was a jolly fella, even though he had little money or a fixed job but was always, always laughing.
Paul McCartney spent a lot of time with Jimmy Scott, enough to learn the drummer’s mannerisms and expressions. One of such was “Ob Ladi, Ob Lada.” He has talked about it in several interviews and explains it in The Beatles Anthology. “I had a friend called Jimmy Scott who was a Nigerian conga player, who I used to meet in the clubs in London. He had a few expressions, one of which was, 'Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra'. I used to love this expression... He sounded like a philosopher to me. He was a great guy anyway and I said to him, 'I really like that expression and I'm thinking of using it…”
And so, Paul McCartney liked the expression and decided to make it a song. By 1968, the Beatles had been having internal issues and it is said that John Lennon especially detested the song. It wasn’t real rock and roll; it leaned more into ska and white reggae that slowly was spreading across the UK music scene. He called it “granny music shit” but softened after marijuana breaks, and played around with it. It eventually took 48 hours to record and the opening chords show Lennon’s impatience with having to work on this track. Eventually, it was completed and added to the Beatles’ eponymous ninth studio album, The Beatles (also known as The White Album). Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was released as a single (except in the UK and the US) and it became very popular, topping charts in Australia, West Germany, New Zealand and Japan.
On the song credits, however, only the Beatles were listed as the personnel that worked on it: Jimmy Scott was nowhere to be found, even though he had been on the first session where the song was recorded and even played the conga on the demo track. It was his saying, it was his line and now it had been taken from him without any compensation or acknowledgement. He reached out to his “friend” McCartney to ask for a composing credit- he not only inspired the song but the entire chorus was his full saying: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on bruh. The Beatle flat-out refused and without a hint of irony, disagreed that Jimmy Scott had anything to do with the song itself. In 1984 McCartney told Playboy Magazine, “He got annoyed when I did a song of it because he wanted a cut. I said 'Come on, Jimmy. It's just an expression. If you'd written the song, you could have had the cut.'"
Jimmy Scott tried unsuccessfully to get the Beatles to credit him. He even started his own band called Ob Ladi, Ob Lada and released his version of the song. It made no dent at all on the Beatles humongous machinery. He could very well have been throwing pebbles at the waves of the ocean and hoping to stop them. Unfortunately for him, that same year he ran into legal troubles and was jailed at the Brixton Prison for failing to pay his ex-wife. He had no funds and his only recourse was to ask for help from the Beatles. Paul McCartney obliged- on the condition that he dropped all claims to any ownership or connection to the contentious song.
Broke and broken, Jimmy Scott Anonmuogharan Emuakpor let it go. He was freed and continued his career as an itinerant musician, providing his services to whoever needed them. He’s seen in this video playing the conga with the Rolling Stones at their Hyde Park concert in 1969. Disingenuously, McCartney would refer to this bailout as payment for Jimmy Scott’s contribution. “I sent him a cheque in recognition of that fact later because even though I had written the whole song and he didn't help me, it was his expression,” he said in The Beatles anthology. Worse still, the original version of the song which features Jimmy Scott on the congas- and was claimed to have been “discarded”- was included on the 1996 compilation album Anthology 3.
Over the next two decades, Jimmy Scott continued playing with various bands in the UK, touring America between 1969 and 1973 as well as giving workshops on African music when he got back to England. He was married twice and had sired twelve children. During this period, he lived mainly off his income from gigs anywhere he could find them. In 1983, he joined the ska-rock band, Bad Manners and featured on two albums whilst also touring extensively with the band until 1986.
The band had been playing in New York and even if Jimmy Scott never revealed his true age, it was obvious that the man was no spring chicken. Clearly, he was in his 60s by now and this particular tour took some toll on him. The stage was hot and his dressing room was cold, and by the time they made their way back to England, he was already experiencing some ill-health. But it wasn’t until they landed in Heathrow that he was truly finished off- by overzealous, if not racist immigration officers. For some reason, he was singled out for a strip search; perhaps to look for marijuana on his body. The officers found none and yet, left him naked for two hours. The leader of Bad Manners Doug 'Buster Bloodvessel' Trendle said at the time, “We'd just done this tour of America and he caught pneumonia. When he got back to Britain he was strip-searched at the airport because he was Nigerian. They left him naked for two hours. The next day he was taken to hospital and he died. Nobody is too sure how old he was because he lied about his age when he got his first British passport. He was supposed to be around 64.”
The legality of strip searches has long been debated. At what point does police/security work cross over to blatant disregard for the personhood of the “suspect”? And even when all of that is done, what is the point of leaving the person stark naked if not to completely, thoroughly humiliate them? In the case of Jimmy Scott, it was all of the above. British immigration officers had no regard for him and practically killed him with their excessive heavy-handedness. There was no inquest into the case after Jimmy Scott died, no apology for how he was treated, no sympathy for the life lost.
Ikú ò d'ọ́jọ́, àrùn ò d'óṣú. Death and illness do not inform one of their schedule.
There’s no guarantee that if the Beatles, specifically Paul McCartney, had given Jimmy Scott Emuakpor his due credit- and compensation- he would not have died when he did. He could have even have died earlier. What is certain however is, he would not have died that way and his life would have been much easier. The Beatles are the highest selling band of all time. If McCartney could own up to the fact that he didn’t come up with the line, why was it impossible for him to credit the person who did? Was it because the Beatles itself as a group was disintegrating already and he didn’t want to rock the boat further by including an outsider in their processes, especially as the other leader of the band John Lennon wasn’t too keen on the song to start with? Or were they unappreciative of Jimmy Scott’s talent and person- and simply took his material as they had done with several other musicians?
I lean towards the latter. It would not have cost them much to include Jimmy Scott on their split sheet. A tenth of a point on the publishing alone (0.001%) would have done the drummer from Nigeria a lot of good in his life. The Beatles album sold 24 million copies. When one considers that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was further covered by other acts who also sold millions of the record- and then was used as the theme song for the television series Life Goes On on ABC- it becomes more troubling that the Jimmy Scott never saw one red cent of all of that revenue. It’s not fair.
Shortly after he died in 1986, his band Bad Manners and other friends organized a memorial concert to raise funds for his widow Lucrezia and his twelve children. One of the people that provided a quote in the programme brochure was Paul McCartney. “He was a great friend of mine," he wrote. "In the 60s we used to meet in a lot of clubs and spent many happy hours chatting until closing time. He had a great positive attitude to life and was a pleasure to work with."
He was a pleasure to work with. Yeah, right.