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Interview: Al Campbell

Interview: Al Campbell

Interview: Al Campbell

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"When Rodigan sees me he says "This man has a bag of history!""


The smooth voice of the singer Al Campbell is one of the most distinctive in reggae. It has been gracing records since the late sixties when his group, the Thrillers, tried out at Studio 1. Having gone solo under Coxsone Dodd, he would create connoisseurs' 45s for producers such as Phil Pratt, Bunny Lee, Linval Thompson, Sly & Robbie and many besides.

In fact, if you count the number of killer tunes he has recorded – particularly in the late 70s and early 80s – it’s surprising that he isn’t as big a name outside the music’s inner circles as the likes of Cornel Campbell, Linval Thompson, Horace Andy and Johnny Clarke. But what is really surprising when you talk to him, is how much music he was involved in behind the scenes – including a crucial role in Prince Lincoln’s Royal Rasses.

In 2011 Al went back to where he started by recording an album with the UK’s Peckings brothers - The Man From Studio 1, although this tantalising project has yet to be released. Last year Angus Taylor spoke to one of the great singers’ singers while Al was in Switzerland with Little Lion Sound. He found a rightly proud man, far more outspoken and rockstone-tough than his silky, sophisticated urbane singing tone would imply.

Al Campbell

Your father was a preacher and you used to sing while he was preaching.

They always tried to make some money for the church so they would keep a little concert. Christian songs like Jesus Will Get You There and all those songs. Some guy would say "One dollar put him up" and then the next man said "Two dollar take him down" and they would take him off! So you'd keep going up and coming down but you'd still keep making money for the church.

How did you move into secular music?

At school we used to have a concert every Wednesday. Wednesday was a half day so we'd take the half day and keep our own stage show and boost up our own little artists. I was one of the ones who put it on although my friends used to boost me and say "Yeah man, you can sing!" One day I decided to sing Up On The Roof by the Drifters and everybody started looking at each other and saying “This youth can surely sing!" So the teacher hugged me up and said "You have a lovely voice" - I never realised how good I was. My grandmother had a radio so we used to crowd round and listen to RJR Radio Fusion, Ronnie Williams and Miss Lou so music was a natural thing to me. My father was a tough singer - he was dangerous! His favourite tune was His Eyes On The Sparrow and They're Always Watching Me.

How did you join your harmony group the Thrillers?

My friends Sweety Pea and Bozzy - a rude boy from down south - and Michael Black who came from my year as well and a brethren named Ossie, formed the Linkers with Ansell Meditations and a next youth named Bar. But we used to joke that every time Bar would sing a song he would take a box of the records to the country and no one would see him for about a month! He'd go promote it in the village he came from and say he was a big singer! But it was me and Sweat Pea that got it together. They were singing but no one had ever recorded them. Me and my young voice coming into the group made them decide to go do some harmonies. We went to Treasure Isle first and they said "Come back and record" but we never went back. I don't know why! They got cold feet! (laughs) The sight of Duke Reid with a big gun at his side maybe! But me as a youth I was scared of nothing!

Treasure Isle said "Come back and record" but they got cold feet! (laughs) The sight of Duke Reid with a big gun at his side maybe!

Your father was a police officer before he turned preacher so Duke Reid and his gun didn't bother you?

Yeah he was a police officer, so from born and grow I had seen guns already. No gun no fear!

Instead in 1968 you auditioned for Studio 1, which took a lot of nerve for a youth too. Did you audition for Coxsone himself?

Coxsone himself. I think Leroy Sibbles was there was well. A youth named Biggie who was supposed to play the guitar for me had cold feet and ran! So I said "Come back out, bwoy, and sing some harmonies. Put on these dark glasses on so you don't have to look him in the eye". I sang Don’t Run Away and he sang the harmony well. So Mr Dodd said “You have any more songs?" so I sang Heart For Sale and Mr Dodd gave me a sheet of paper saying "Come Wednesday and record!" We did Don't Run Away, Heart For Sale in one cut like we are professional! I fear nothing so we just chucked them on - and then we did The Last Dance Is Over.

Who was passing through Brentford Road at that time?

The reigning champions were Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, John Holt and Ernest Wilson. I met Ernest because he used to live just up the road from me. I knew the Chosen Few and Tinga and Roman Stewart. I carried Roman Stewart and Jacob Miller to Coxsone as well. Coxsone said "Leroy, the lickle man carry the next lickle man fi sing!" (laughs) Then Freddie McGregor sang two tunes with Ernest - Hey Girl No Bother Me and Why Did You Do it - and then no one heard anything about him again until I went to the country and brought him back to live in my yard for three years. Me and him started singing then he took the whole of my tunes and started to go sing it for people. Most of the time you're good to people and then they're bad to you.

Most of the time you're good to people and then they're bad to you

Who was the other Al Campbell who famously sang Take A Ride at Studio 1 where there was a mix up over the name at the studio?

A youth named Alan Campbell. Mr Dodd said "Al, did you sing that tune?" and I said "No sir, Mr Dodd". But I did a version of it as well. I sang two different tunes upon the one rhythm for him. It was supposed to go on a Studio 1 LP but he died before it was released. That version has never been heard but I sing it back on my tribute to Coxsone [The Man From Studio 1]. But when you listen good to that other Al Campbell he sounded like Freddie McKay, because he came from Linsted. Freddie McKay was his enemy because he said "That bwoy ah try sing like me!" But these singers they'd think they'd sing one song and become a millionaire! When they see it doesn't work like that - they disappear! But I think he was sick in his head anyway, that one there. Before he died Mr Dodd asked "What happened to that other fella?" and I said "Mr Dodd, he's one those kind of madmen that come lean up on yuh car! Try to wipe it up!" (laughs)

You left Coxsone and sang for Phil Pratt in the early 70s. How did you link him?

When Ernie and Freddie and everyone left Studio 1 I left with them. Mr Dodd said I shouldn’t leave but me, Ernest and Freddie just sparred up and down. We went to Orange Street and Ernest and Freddie went to Bunny Lee and I linked up with Phil Pratt. He said I looked like a salesman so I took the salesman work and I was so good at it that this was where I met Bingy Bunny. I had a little box guitar I would play and Bingy loved the box guitar. I started teaching him the keys and so I first taught Bingy Bunny to play the guitar for Roots Radics. Then I said to him “Go sit down beside Dougie and learn from him” - that’s Rad Bryan - because I could teach him the basics like C,D,F,A minor and so on. So Dougie and Chinna taught him proper. Chinna is one of the wickedest guitar players in the world – the Jamaican Santana. Because Chinna, he had a good mind. Some musicians don’t want to teach anybody because they see them as competition. Chinna, Tony Chin, Santa, Fully they were a wicked band and they played pure hit tunes but they didn’t get the recognition they deserved. So anyway, I started working with Phil Pratt. Me and Ernest Wilson were singing in a band in Ochie – Leroy Horsemouth was the drummer – and we played bare Santana tunes like Black Magic Woman.

Chinna is one of the wickedest guitar players in the world – the Jamaican Santana

That Dennis Brown licked over for Phil Pratt? You were the one who came up with the idea to cover it?

Yes! It was me that carried it over to Phil Pratt. How come you know about this tune there? When I went and sang the tune for him he got Dennis Brown to record it. Also, Horace Andy wrote What About The Half because Dennis Brown could sing but he couldn’t write tunes too good. Kind of like Freddie – who is a good singer but can’t write tunes so other people’s tunes he will sing. That John Holt tune Strange Things? Horace Andy wrote it. John Holt sang it. That’s how it goes.

You had a big hit for Phil with Gee Baby in 1975 – some people call that the first lovers rock tune. Since that time you’ve had a lot of Lovers Rock number ones in the UK.

I’ve had 14 number ones. Really Love You, Gee Baby, Late Night Blues, No More Running, a whole bag of them! Yes, that tune made people in England talk about Lovers Rock. You have some guys come and try to claim the word like it’s an English thing. Look upon people like Derrick Morgan who brought the music over there and they don’t mention the man.

Horace Andy wrote What About The Half because Dennis Brown could sing but he couldn't write tunes too good

As well as being a solo singer in the 1970s you were close with Prince Lincoln Thompson and, like Cedric Myton, you were a crucial member of the Royal Rasses.

Prince Lincoln was my brethren and all his friends were my friends. We and U Roy were good friends. U Roy used play dances and we would ride our bicycles to Gregory Park or wherever to the dance was and come back. Prince Lincoln used to sing with the Tartans - him and Cedric Myton and Devon Russell and a youth named Preps [Linbergh Lewis]. But after he sang a couple of songs - (People Gonna) Dance All Night and Far Beyond The Sun which went to number one in Jamaica - he stopped singing and resorted to badness.

What kind of badness?

He was in a gang named Pigeon Gang who would work with politicians to go and paint up posters. There was a political campaign and one day I saw him on his bicycle and said "Socks, wh'appen?" and he said "Bwoy, me deh yah pon a hustle". I said "What kind of hustle?" when I saw some men coming with some cutlass up the road! (laughs) So he drew his knife - he was a man who was not afraid of people - and threw his bicycle on one of the boys and I think he cut the other boy. So they bust up his head and made him run away and then they came upon me now! I said "Mi nah nothing to do wi nothing. Mi just a pass by and know the man so hail up the man" and Brooksy from Cultural Roots said "No, no trouble him" because the whole of us were friends. The Jays, Black Uhuru, Wailing Souls, all of us were brethren. Sometimes we used to hang out at night with them and rehearse at Waterhouse too. In politics time they never troubled artists really. It was different  in those times - they would kill you now.

Prince Lincoln was a man who was not afraid of people - he threw his bicycle on one of the boys and I think he cut the other boy

How did Lincoln come out of badness and get back into music?

I invited him to Hunts Bay Lane and gave him a guitar Alton Ellis gave me. It was Dennis Brown's guitar and Alton gave me it because it was me who arranged the harmonies on If I Follow My Heart. I did enough things. I worked with everybody. Burning Spear - the whole works. I gave him the guitar and sang Freedom Justice and Equality and When The Grass Is Green then I showed him the key and how to sing it because he liked the melody - and you'll notice Humanity was in the same key. We sat down and me and him wrote the song - everyone put in their little parts - and I decided to carry him to sing for some people and get some money because things were bad with him. He said he didn't think he wanted to sing for anyone. I said "Go tell Mr Dodd it's me who sent you and he'll record you". So he sang about three songs for Coxsone and got himself some gear and some clothes that looked good and then he came back.

How did you come to work on the Humanity and Experience albums?

Him and Cedric saved some money and recorded the Humanity album. They put out Kingston 11 first and they told me they wanted me permanently in the group. So I converted the next youths named Cap and Johnny Cool to sing harmony - two rudeboys who I said "Watch ya, leave that thing deyah alone". I was like a saviour telling them to leave the politics and come. I guess the politicians never liked me because I used to draw the men away from them! We started to rehearse but Johnny Cool and Cap couldn't sing too strong so I had to teach them to sing the bass notes and me and Cedric would sing the falsetto. But I said "Watch ya, my name has been Al Campbell for a long time - I'm not going to leave that to come join a group". The money would have to be split between five different men - none of that! I would stick to being Al Campbell because I wouldn't give Al Campbell away for nothing! So I would cool with my thing but if they’d ever get a tour and I wasn't doing anything I would come with them. So we went to record those tunes - Henry Kissinger, They Know Not Jah, with me singing on all of them.

You and Cedric are a big part of that album’s sound. It was a shame you parted.

Al CampbellHumanity went to number one and Mojo [Mo Claridge] from United Artists came down to sign up the group. But Socks was a man who would go back to badmanism. I have noticed all those badman when they’d come out and into music, when they started to make money they’d go back into badmanism! He took all the money and forgot that Cap sold his car and Errol Thompson put in a whole heap of money for studio time. He bought a house up in Havendale but could never pay the mortgage – and it got pop down. Nobody wanted to sing with him again. Cedric had gone and formed his own group so he went to me. I have a soft heart and he was a man who when he talked you’d listen so he convinced me he was sorry. So me and him sang harmonies on the next album with the two Rasta pickney on the cover [Experience]. John Holt once said “Who ah the Royal Rasses? Them you deh!” because John Holt used to come into the studio and watch us sing. Did you know I sang as Tamlins too? I sang I Can’t Get Over Losing You the Channel One version and If I Were A Carpenter - me and Junior Moore sang that tune because him and Carlton had some eruption.

You would have some success in lovers rock but by the late 70s you were recording some of the greatest roots anthems with Linval Thompson – songs like Unfaithful Children and Jah Shine On Me.

Linval Thompson came with some money and wanted into the music business but didn’t know how to do it. So he called Trinity who called me and then we went into the studio with some musicians. That’s how the Roots Radics formed and I made those tunes with him. It was me who produced most of those tunes. Because if you listen to Linval Thompson productions – how come in all this time since me and him stopped sparring and doing things he never produced any more hit tunes?  He doesn’t produce any new tunes because the man who did the big things was gone! He can’t go no further because he wasn’t the real man. I made those tunes. Every one of them. And when they get a write up in the magazines I never get a mention yet.

How involved was Scientist as an engineer? The dub versions to those tunes went on his Dub Landing Volume 1.

Dub Landing is bogus. Scientist never mixed some of the tunes there. I can tell you that straight. Jammys mixed some of them. Let me tell you about Scientist’s history. No man ever wanted to use Scientist. When we used to go to Tubbys we never wanted to use Scientist. Jammys was the one we wanted to use because Jammys was an old friend from school days. One day we booked studio time with Tubbys and Dillinger booked at the same time – so Tubbys took both the money and we had to work it out. I had studio time booked on the Saturday and had to fly to England the Sunday evening and when I saw Dillinger and Trinity they said they had paid Tubbys for the time as well. So I started saying Tubbys he tricked me and Tubbys came out and said “Al, you come tomorrow at eight o’clock and you can use this youth Scientist”. I said “No man, you send this idiot for what we come to do?” and Tubbys said “No, man he’s good man. Don’t watch nobody – just come use him”. I came back the next daythey opened the grill and I put on the tape. I found I worked well with Scientist and we did the Late Night Blues LP. I voiced ten tunes in an hour. I gave Scientist the two track and said “Mix the singing and then the version”. But when he started mixing he put bare drum and bass that ruined my voice! So I started quarrelling and threatened to bust up his head! But I allow him still because I never knew he was going to create a new thing in the music business. Because I was the first artist to sing upon drum and bass. The father made that happen. So when we finished I took the tapes from Scientist and gave him a little drink because Tubbys had taken the money already.

Dub Landing is bogus. Scientist never mixed some of the tunes there

The song Late Night Blues was a big success in England in 1980.

I went to England and found this youth, Soprano B sound and cut off Late Night Blues and a couple of the other tunes. They took them to a place named Ballyhigh Club and licked down [Sir] Coxsone’s sound and Shaka. So I said “Wait? These tunes them bad?” and went to Greensleeves with Late Night Blues but the young boy there said he didn’t like it. So I said he was an idiot and didn’t know what goes on! (laughs) So I found this youth named JB. I had done two tunes for Duke Reid – not the Jamaican Duke Reid, the one in London – and JB had put out one of the Duke Reid tunes and then heard I had more boom tunes for him. So we worked it out 50/50 – he said that was too much money for me and I said “I made the tune!” – so he said it was all right. He cut the Late Night Blues and, believe you me, I never looked back! Because of bare money from Late Night Blues alone. Then Bunny Lee came and collected too much money behind my back – from JB too. The whole pirate thing. I’m not afraid of any man. I can say anything. You know all those lovers rock LPs Count Shelly put out? Me and Pat Kelly sat in the studio and did it. Bunny Lee never did it. I’m not afraid of them – the man never gave me any credit at all. He said I could take some old rhythms and he gave me the little idiot rhythms there –and just because of my voice it started to sell. When I sing upon the rhythm I lock with it more.

In 1983 you recorded a very great underrated anti coke tune for Sly and Robbie called Back Off With Your Cocaine. You knew Sly and Robbie from the days when you were voicing for Bunny Lee or before?

I knew them before Bunny Lee days. Sly used to play with my bredda in Skin Flesh and Bones – a bassman called Earl Tony Campbell. He became a bad disc jockey and taught lots of youths to be disc jockeys down in Texas. He first carried Sly round my yard. Nobody knew about Sly back then. Sly never started to play drums yet. In my yard he came and learned. Sly came with a butter pan and I had a box guitar and I would sing Gee Baby. Then my bredda took the guitar from me and played it with Sly on his cheese pan until a crowd gathered including some pretty girls from next door. My bredda loved pretty women you know! So I carried Sly to Orange Street where he met Bunny Lee and played on a couple of tunes. The drummer named Tin Leg used to play on their tunes first but he disappeared. Sly became one of the biggest drummers down there. Robbie, me and his bredda [Lloyd] used to spar. He used to sing with Max Romeo in the Emotions. That’s how I knew Robbie.

Enough badmind and enough evil in this business. I'm not afraid of people!

How did you record Back Off With Your Cocaine?

I was in the studio with them and they wanted to do an LP with me. I sang that tune, one named Screwface People and I was the first man who sang upon Herb Man Hustling rhythm on a tune called Set Them Free. Then Sugar Minott and Peter Chemist went in the studio when no one gave them authority and took out the 24 track and wiped my voice off it and sang Herb Man Hustling! If I was a wicked man I’d make someone beat them but I just let it go on. You have some people in the business who inch pinch and they are bad minded too. Look at Good Thing Going. I recorded it in Jamaica because I did some research and found the Browne Bunch copied Michael Jackson. I said “This tune can come back and hit” so I went to Jamaica and recorded it with Sly and Robbie then came back to England and gave it to Hawkeye. So Hawkeye went to Jamaica and made back the rhythm behind my back then asked me to make the tune! I said “How can you do a thing like that? I made the tune already”. So he goes to Sugar Minott and gets him to voice the tune. Enough badmind and enough evil in this business. Some people do interviews and you tell them about it but they don’t put it in the interview! I’m not afraid of people!

How have things changed since you were a young artist coming up?

Back then we were on a pilgrimage. We’d oppose our parents who wanted us to be a doctor or a lawyer and we wanted to do music. But now music is so big that bare uptown people after Bob Marley came into the business to take over the thing. Make their Dropleaf and thing and then say they’re rich! When we were Rasta in rags singing they would fight the thing so bad. Now they’re all happy but people forget the real heroes like me!

People who collect the music remember though.

Yes and I appreciate it when a youth like Little Lion carries me to a show. But Jamaica is a clan business. If the big man says no then you are stifled. Jackie Mittoo used to love me. He used to say “You are more original than them. You know music. Even when they don’t know the key to play we can bring you in and you’ll sing it”. I used to sit down with a young Sanchez and teach him to sing in key. We teach the young artists because some of them are unruly. When Luciano first started he loved Lady Saw. But Lady Saw said “A who this little big nose bwoy?” (laughs) So I said to him “Don’t worry about Lady Saw because when you have the first hit tune women are going to throw themselves on you!” (move) Every time he sees me up to now he laughs!

I used to sit down with a young Sanchez and teach him to sing in key

In 2011 you announced an album with Peckings The Man From Studio 1 where you revisit the Coxsone days – when is it coming out?

The album is tough. I keep saying to him “This album is a bad album. Why do you take so long to release it so?” I think he wants to release one more tune off it. Two singles have released from it. [Cruising and Ebony Eyes] One entered the charts at number two and one entered the charts at number ten. Two sides of the same 45! I have another album with Willie Lindo on iTunes called Get Ready. We did it about 2 years ago and lots of people are downloading it and it is getting played on the radio but it hasn’t been released properly.

What have you got coming on your own labels?

We’ve got a whole heap of stuff coming. We’ve got about 500 songs. I just sing for the future! (laughs) So if something goes wrong with my voice I still have enough tunes to put out for the rest of my life!

If something goes wrong with my voice I still have enough tunes to put out for the rest of my life!

Thanks for your time. I’ve learned a lot.

For real. I am a teacher. When Rodigan sees me he says “Bwoy, Al. You and me need to go in a corner and siddung! This man has a bag of history!”

The opinions expressed below are the opinions of Al Campbell and do not necessarily represent the views of United Reggae or Angus Taylor in any way.

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Posted by The Scientist on 05.18.2013
Al Campbell has been putting out my records "The best dub album in the world", and when I asked him about my money he made threats to me, you all don't know these dirty artists how they full a shit, I will be cumming to the UK and want to see what the hell Pussy hole Al Campbell can do.

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