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Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, 71, titan of highlife music

LOS ANGELES -- Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, a titan of the African popular music known as highlife whose 1984 "Osondi Owendi" was the biggest-selling record in the history of his native Nigeria, has died. He was 71.

Mr. Osadebe died May 11 of lung failure at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury, Conn.

"In Nigeria he's loved not only by one ethnic group but by all the ethnic groups," said Nnamdi Moweta, Mr. Osadebe's manager and the host of Radio Afrodicia in Los Angeles. "When you live in a country like Nigeria . . . people go through a lot to survive, and we look for avenues to soothe this daily pain that we go through. His music played a very important role."

In the United States, Nigerian performers King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti are better known. But in Nigeria, Mr. Osadebe had a long history of hit records. Fans there referred to him as the "Doctor of Hypertension," a reference to the healing power of his music.

That joyous, celebratory music is highlife, the juncture where high-society bands and traditional African rhythms and idioms meet. Although Mr. Osadebe did not create highlife -- it was born in Ghana -- he reinvented it by adding the sounds of merengue and rumba, said Moweta, who co produced four of Mr. Osadebe's albums.

In 2001, Village Voice writer Milo Miles compared Nigerian highlife music to the "fire-in-restraint" sound of the acclaimed Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club, and Mr. Osadebe to its late vocalist, Ibrahim Ferrer.

"Particularly on 'Kedu America,' Osadebe's voice rustles with the parchment charm beloved in Ibrahim Ferrer," Miles wrote.

Mr. Osadebe wrote more than 500 songs and prided himself on being a composer of music and lyrics. "My own belief is that if you cannot compose your song, you are not worth being a musician," he said in a 2004 interview with the Sun News, a Nigerian tabloid.

Born in 1936 in eastern Nigeria, Mr. Osadebe was a chorister in his church as a boy, played in the school band, and was interested in classical music.

"The man who mainly inspired me into singing was the late [Nat King] Cole, an American," Mr. Osadebe said in the Sun News article. "He sang in English, Spanish, and other languages. I loved his music."

Throughout his decades-long career, Mr. Osadebe recorded in English, pidgin English, and Ibo, the language of his ethnic group. He found national success in 1958 with his recording "Adamma," a tribute to a beautiful woman.

Mr. Osadebe leaves five wives and several children, many of whom live in the United States.