On Monday, April 10, 2017, I got a devastating phone call. My friend, my very good friend, Tony Grey, had passed on! On hearing the news, I screamed and my scream attracted the attention of everyone in my residence. I was left in great pain. My pain was not just in the fact that this incredibly committed artiste had died at close to 70, my pain was in the fact that I had let my good friend down.Few weeks before he passed on, I had spoken several times with Tony Grey whose real name was Tony Leonge. He was on his sick bed in a hospital in Warri, the city where for many years he was the undisputed king of popular entertainment. Tony in a disappearing voice had asked for my help to raise money to beat the ailment that was holding him hostage. I promised to do what I could.
Tony Grey had the right to ask me for anything. Despite the fact that he was more than ten years my senior and had become quite famous long before anyone ever heard about me, he always treated me like his buddy.
In fact, I first heard Tony Grey’s big hits, ‘She is my Love’ and ‘Ije Udo’ while in high school in Enugu. At that time, I used to break school rules to go and rehearse with a small band called ‘Life Everlasting’ led by a great drummer, Stoneface Iwuagwu. Life Everlasting was based at Tourist Hotel on Zik Avenue in Uwani. With Life Everlasting and from Tourist Hotel, I did my first ever tour as a performing musician. All of us in the band and our instruments would be packed in a small Kombi bus and we would tour Onitsha, Asaba, Owerri, Aba and villages and hamlets in between. My first song ever on stage was a cover of Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing me Softly’ We also tried our hands on several Nigerian hit songs of the moment, Fela’s ‘Jeun Ku Oku’, ‘Love Rock’ by the Strangers of Owerri, ‘Fuel for Love’ by Wrinkers Experience and of course, Tony Grey’s ‘She is my Love’ and ‘Ije Udo’.
At that time, I could not even dream of any contact with the likes of Fela, Tony Grey and EMI, their recording company. How would a young aspiring musician with bushy hair then called Alex Tony Okoroji in Enugu be thinking of being found in the same room with these big guys? Even if I thought of it, I could not say it loud to anyone. I would have been hushed and told that I was smoking something and living in a fool’s paradise. They were too-too big!
In so many ways, my life has been a mystery. I actually came to Lagos, walked the streets of Lagos for many months, took every lesson I could in the ‘University of Hard Knocks’ somehow became friends with the great producer, Odion Iruoje and with him came face to face with a gentleman called Bode Akinyemi, Managing Director of EMI who probably looked at me with pity and gave me a job as producer at the brand new EMI studios which dovetailed into Artiste & Repertoire Management. It was a chance from heaven. The only problem was that I had a great job with no pay! In my hurry to accept the job and prove that I could do it, I did not negotiate a pay. For months, I worked for EMI completely for free! I used to trek to work because I could not afford the bus fare. And boy, did I work?
It was at EMI that I met Tony Grey, the star that I had admired from afar. When Tony Grey was in town, everyone knew. He used to storm Lagos with two beautiful airconditioned Toyota Coaster busses branded with ‘Tony Grey’s Ozimba’. Surprisingly he was very humble, always had this smile on his face and never had anything negative to say about anyone. I liked him and we became friends almost instantly.
When I became President of PMAN and arrows flew from left and right, Tony Grey was solidly in my corner. When I accepted the responsibility to build COSON into the institution that I believe the intellectual property community badly needs, Tony Grey was there. Anytime, we called a meeting, Tony Grey would abandon all in Warri and come to Lagos and always contributed positively.
When Tony Grey asked me for help from his hospital bed, he had every right to. In an attempt to follow due process and get it right, I wasted too much time. Of course, there is no guarantee that anything I did would have changed the eventual outcome but at least I would have done something for my friend.
On the phone, I promised Houston Grey, Tony’s first son, that if I could not be with the farther on his sick bed, I wish to be with the family as he is led to rest. Tony Grey was laid to rest in Warri yesterday.
I had made plans to leave for Warri on Thursday. On Wednesday, I found out that I had a crazy fever. My body was on fire and my limbs were weak. I could not get away from home. I tried all the self-medication I could but the bad situation just got worse. Thursday morning, with a stuttering voice I called Dr. Jatto, told him there was an emergency and I was on my way to see him immediately.
I begged Dr. Jatto to do whatever he could and get me to travel on Friday to Warri to be with Tony Grey’s family. Dr. Jatto quickly ran a battery of tests on me, shook his head and bluntly said that Warri was not possible. He said emphatically that he would place me on admission for at least three days. While I was arguing with him, I was injected with some stuff and I drifted into some state where I felt like two entities were pulling at me, the living and the dead. When I drifted out of sleep many hours later, the nurse smiled at me and said that while I was sleeping they had pumped about ten different injections into me. My body was still hot and I was wired to some drip.
I called for Dr. Jatto and begged him to at least let me go home at night, sleep on my bed and come back the next day to continue with my treatment. He is a very good man, so, he agreed. When I got home, I could barely get out of the car. I was shivering. About 11.00 pm, I managed to compose a text message and send to Tony Grey’s son, Houston, the COSON Consultant in Edo/Delta States, Prince Biodun Eguahide, frontline COSON member. Stella D’Lyte who had agreed to travel with me and several others who were supposed to co-ordinate the trip. The text read “Tried and tried, flight tickets already bought. Cannot make it. Spent the entire day on admission on a hospital bed. Will be represented by Prince Biodun Eguahide” It was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. Not being there for Tony Grey in life was bad enough. To also not be with his family at his funeral was too much to bear.
I took each of the thirteen tablets Dr. Jatto packed for me and slept off. I woke about 3.00 am Friday and could not go back to sleep. While I felt a little better, I was still very weak. I composed a new text message and sent to everyone I had sent a text to before I slept. The new text read “Your true friend is that one who stands by you when it is most inconvenient. Tony Grey was such a friend. I will be at the airport this morning on the way to Warri to be with his family as he is laid to rest. I appreciate everyone’s concern but I have to do what I have to do” The new text set off a battery of telephone calls begging me to rethink.
Thank you Biodun. Thank you D’lyte. Thank you Tony Emose. My love to everyone who made it possible for me to be in Warri yesterday and be with my friend’s family in their hour of need.
See you next week.