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Interview: Cornel Campbell part 1

Interview: Cornel Campbell part 1

Interview: Cornel Campbell part 1

By on - Photos by David Corio - Comment

"You had to know how to take Coxsone. How to move with him"


The distinctive high voiced singer Cornel Campbell began his career as a child in the pre-ska era recording for Coxsone Dodd. Spells in harmony groups the Sensations and the Eternals during the sixties gave way to a successful run as a solo artist in the seventies recording for Bunny Lee. Cornel continued to cut hits into the dancehall era and was honoured in 2008 when the US R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan hit number one on the Billboard hip-hop charts with I Need U Bad, based on his classic composition Queen Of The Minstrel. A devoted Christian who has favoured the security of non-musical income sources over singing full time in a sometimes volatile industry, Cornel spoke to Angus Taylor about the highs and lows of his incredible 54 year career...

Cornell Campbell

You've had one of the longest careers in Jamaican music. Did you expect to last so long in the business?

Yes. My career started in 1956 for Sir Coxsone Downbeat. But where it really happened was in the church because I was brought up as a Christian and I always believed in Jesus Christ and Jehovah God as the almighty God. So I used to win souls in the church for the pastor and I used to sing at the altar when people came to be baptised and things like that. Now I had a very good voice but it was my friend who made it possible for me - his name was Kenneth Samuels – and he was the one who really intrigued me by telling me all the time that I should do some recording. But in those days recording was scarce because you didn't have many facilities and I wasn't really educated in how to do it - I would just sing freelance. But then I was introduced to Rico Rodriquez who blew the trombone and Rico said, "I don't do recording man but I can take you to somebody named Sir Coxsone" when I was about 11 years of age. I went to Sir Coxsone and he was impressed with the quality and vibrancy of my voice.

Is it true that you were afraid to audition for Coxsone at first?

It wasn't a matter of afraid but it was like that for true! The pianist was working at the piano, I was in the line, and you had the Blues Busters, Owen Grey, Clancy Eccles, The Charmers, Higgs and Wilson, Bunny and Scully. Everybody was there - the whole family! Because we were the first set of recording artists they had. We made it possible as foundation artists. So a guy was in front of me when they said, "Next!" and the guy went up and when he started to work it sounded good to me. But Downbeat Coxsone looked at him and said, "Jackson, where you come from?" and the guy said he came from Trelawny and Downbeat said, "Jackson you no ready yet! You mean you come so far to mash up my business?" So when Downbeat told the guy that I just got kind of jumpy like and got out of the line and never bothered to rehearse and went home.

But you decided to come back?

No it was my friend who forced me to come back! (Laughs) He said, "Nah man! You come back next week man!" and I said, "No me not going. Just forget about dem things deh". Because I never thought I was cut out for the recording business. I already had a career. But I went back to Downbeat and when he heard me he was impressed and said, "Yeah man. I gonna record you Thursday". So we did the first recording and because I was just a kid Downbeat said to me he could teach me printing so I could print the record labels and learn a trade there. It was through Downbeat that I learned printing. Before I had wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I was taking a correspondence course from the Bennett College in England but it didn't work out because of financial things with me having to pay this tuition fee every month. It was kind of difficult for me to find the fee every month so Downbeat said he would teach me the printing and set me up with a tutor named Cyril who taught me the trade very well. So it was my career at that particular time. But during that time I was recording for Downbeat as well because he would have his sessions every week or so and if he had an idea we'd talk and then record. But after a while I realised I wasn't making enough income from the singing business so I left Downbeat.

You went to record for King Edwards.

I went to King Edwards and did several recordings for him. I did about four recordings with him and then I could leave. Because when you sing for a producer you don't get enough income so you'd go to another producer. I wasn't the only one who did it - Alton Ellis did it, even Bob Marley and the Wailers did it. Bob sang for Coxsone originally, he recorded for Bunny Lee, he recorded for Lee Perry. Why? Because you had no capable producer who looked after our affairs. It was a rip off thing and we had to survive.

Now your voice has been compared to singers like Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson but who influenced your singing in the early days?

In the early days I used to listen to the radio and I was impressed with a lot of great classical singers. I can't remember some of their names right now but some old time singers like Johnny Mathis and some singers that came from even before I was born. But I always liked to hear a good voice. I liked listening to the voice and listening to the lyrics as well and so I tried to write original songs to fit the occasion. I didn't really understand about the recording business. I thought that when you went into a studio you had to write a song. I never thought you could sing other people's songs. It was like when I heard Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis and all those guys sing a cover version - I thought they wrote it! So for that reason the producers would put me on to sing cover versions. Even Ken Boothe was impressed with my career. In the early days he said he used to get beaten by his mother because he listened to Cornel Campbell! When as a little boy he heard Cornel Campbell sing a song for Coxsone Downbeat he'd run away and go to a dance just to hear my records. He said to me I gave him the inspiration and power to become what he is today and I'm very proud of him. It's been a long, long trail of adventure but I am not disappointed in my career. It was an experience. It was challenging too.

You play several instruments. Which was the first instrument you learned?

Cornell CampbellThe organ at church. I also used to do the auditions at Randy's. That's how I came to do the song Make Hay (SINGS) "MAKE HAY WHILE THE SUN SHINES.." I wasn't a really good piano player because there were some chords I didn't know but I could bang and audition the artists for him. One day Randy's told me that Lord Creator was coming from Trinidad and he wanted me to play the instrument. Jackie Mittoo came there one day looking for a job and he asked me if I could ask my boss, Randy's, if he could do recording with him. I asked him if he could play and he said, "Yeah man!" so I gave him the piano and he could play better than me. He really could play - trust me! So I said to him, "Show me a B chord" and he showed me. Then I went to Randy's but he had his own musicians already and didn't need any more musicians for now. And then Jackie Mittoo went to Sir Coxsone Downbeat and in no time he was doing Hot Milk and some big tunes he played. Jackie Mittoo saw me there and said, "Cornel - you no remember me?" and I said, "No - who are you again?" and he said, "You no remember me, Jackie Mittoo, the guy who a check you and tell you fi tell Randy's about me?" and I was like "Raaaaaah!" He got famous after that.

And when did you start the guitar?

I used to play the guitar from church. And when I used to sing old songs by Curtis Mayfield I used to bang the guitar! But I wasn't really a professional guitar player at that time. Ras Karbi took me to a band called the Now Generation and I joined that group and from there I became a professional guitarist, recording at the studios and playing at night. I became so good on the guitar that I nearly stopped singing and took it up as a professional. This was in the late sixties and seventies.

So what happened after Coxsone and King Edwards? What did you do as Ska was turning into to Rocksteady?

When I left Coxsone I worked in the church again and then came back out because I went to Treasure Isle and formed a group called the Sensations with Jimmy Riley and it was doing so well. And it was through that that Duke Reid got the inspiration to build the studio Treasure Isle.

How did that come about in your recollection?

He had the name already but he didn't have the studio. He used to rent studios from people like Coxsone in those days. We gave him the idea and he built it. One day the Sensations were doing a record and he'd rented Sir Coxsone Downbeat's studio. So I told the musicians and singers - and a lot of singers were there, even Bob Marley - to come out of the studio because I didn't want anybody to hear my song that I was singing (because a lot of guys when they're in the studio gets ideas from you singing your song!). And Coxsone said, "Jackson, Cornel Campbell's gonna sing so I want you to clear the studio for me please!" and everyone - Bob Marley and all of them - came out of there and left me and the Sensations alone in the studio.
In the weeks that followed I heard a song similar to mine. I sang a song named Juvenile Delinquent with the Sensations and I heard people following the beat on various occasions. So I reported it to Duke Reid at Treasure Isle and he said, "I'm not gonna rent anymore studio. I'm gonna build a studio 'pon Bond Street". So he set up on Bond Street and Treasure Isle started out and you had various bands with Lynn Taitt, Ernest Ranglin, the Skatalites - everybody came there and it was a successful studio. Then came the end of the Sensations because we had disputes over money to share. Everybody wanted money. And it was four of us so everybody split and went in different directions. Everybody could sing so everybody diverted.

Then you were very briefly in the group the Uniques with Slim Smith. Another great high voiced singer. Why did you leave?

Slim Smith used to play guitar and sing but he wasn't popular at that time. Slim was a recording artist at that time. I used to pass Orange Street and go to Music City and Slim used to say, "Cornel, how will I get anywhere if I can't go to a producer to do some recording?” But one day I took him to Downbeat and Downbeat said he must rehearse. He heard him sing and said, "Jackson, you no ready yet" and he was embarrassed and I was embarrassed. So Downbeat never recorded him because he never liked how he sounded and Slim Smith went away and formed the Techniques with Winston Riley and sang Little Did You Know and those other songs and he got famous big time. So when the Techniques broke up me Slim Smith and Jimmy Riley formed a group called the Uniques. But what happened was there were too many of us and I thought, "You cyaan have too much bull inna one pen" and I left them. I thought, "I'm gwaan form up a group that's better than the Uniques. I'm gonna form a group called the Eternals". And we put out a few hit songs like Queen Of The Minstrel, Stars and more for Coxsone Downbeat again.

Do you think Slim would have been a rival to you had he lived beyond 1972?

No, he wouldn't have been a rival because Slim died under a lot of stress. When he was with Bunny Lee they used to tease him because I had a high falsetto and he couldn't manage a falsetto. So they used to bring the two of us into the camp and they used to tease him saying, "Bwoy you cyaan sing like Cornel Campbell!" (SINGS A GLISSANDO) You hear that high pitch with the melody - he never had that. But still he was a good singer. He had his own style and I had my own style.

How important were the Impressions to all these high-voiced groups at the time?

(Laughs) Curtis Mayfield was a wonderful singer! Just like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. I'm amazed how some of those singers could sing! The stamina they had and the quality they presented. He was a great, great guy. The cool melody that he put out. The albums said it all.

Curtis Mayfield was a wonderful singer! The cool melody that he put out. The albums said it all

Did you ever get to meet Curtis Mayfield?

No, not in real life!

Why did you return to Coxsone in 1969?

It was like family. I didn't really return so much as Coxsone sent for me! When Coxsone had rhythms at the studio he'd send someone to call me because we never had cellular phones in those days. So if he knew someone who lived in the area near where I lived he'd say, "Tell Cornel him must come check me up at the studio" because maybe he'd have a tape and maybe he'd want me to voice it. Some of those producers, when they have a recording, they think of an artist who'll fit the particular rhythm so they'll send for Cornel Campbell. Then I went there and we made an agreement and we'd do recordings. That's the way it would go sometimes. So I didn't really go back to Coxsone, it's just that you'd try your luck sometimes because he'd have some really good rhythms. You'd sing on those rhythms and you'd never know what might happen. Just like how Jazmine Sullivan is singing over my song now and it's number one in America!

Jazmine Sullivan's Need U Bad obviously is based on Queen Of The Minstrel but was Queen Of The Minstrel inspired by the Impressions' Minstrel and Queen?

No I wasn't inspired by that. The reason I did that song is Johnny Nash came to Jamaica and did Cupid and it was a big smash hit in Jamaica at that time. I wanted to have a song like Johnny Nash - something going out there big! - because you have to fit in. So I sat down and I got my guitar and I sang (SINGS) "QUEEN OF THE MINSTREL... I LOVE YOU SO..." and tried to get lyrics together. It took me about two weeks to write that song because I'd rub out and I'd put in and I'd rub out and I'd put in until I got it perfectly. The other flipside was Stars (SINGS) "WHY DO THE STARS STOP SHINING..." and Downbeat put the two of them together, sent them out and both of them became smash hits.

And those rhythms have gone on to be used again and again.

Yes, and I also played guitar on both of those rhythms. I also played instruments for other artists such as Derrick Morgan. I played piano, bass line. You know the song the Stalowatt? (SINGS) "HEY NATTY DREAD NATTY CONGO..." I played the bass line on it but I didn't get the credit for it - Robert Shakespeare got the credit for it. When the album came out they didn't put my name in the list of musicians and they put Robert Shakespeare. Ask Sly and Robbie and the whole of them! They didn't put Cornel Campbell as playing bass guitar. But it's not Robert Shakespeare playing - it’s me.

How involved was Coxsone in the recording process?

Cornell CampbellVery deeply. He loved it very much. But Stars and Queen Of The Minstrel and those songs he was never really involved in. He left the studio to me and I would sit on a box and play the rhythms on the guitar. Now I always say Coxsone was very tight-fisted and mean when it came to money and I told him that before many times! But the thing with Coxsone was he was a good music man. You went into the studio and he'd say, "Cornel. I have idea now", and he'd put on an old time 78 record and he'd give you the idea saying "You know I think your voice would fit this" or "You could write something off of this". He was involved in those things. And other thing he was involved with was if he'd hear a song when we were in the studio and it didn't "reach" him, or if he didn't like the beat he'd have another idea. Take for instance, Jacob Miller and that song that Larry Marshall sang, Nanny Goat. I bet you didn't know it was Jacob Miller who sang that song originally? He sang it for Coxsone Downbeat originally and Coxsone didn't like the voice! He just begged Larry Marshall to sing it over and Larry Marshall sang it! I was there when Coxsone played me the Jacob Miller version originally. This was how the recording business goes. But apart from the music business he was a business man. He was a sensible business man. You had to know how to take Coxsone. How to move with him.

Then in 1971 you began your famous association with Bunny Lee. How did that happen?

I met Bunny Lee because me and Robert Shakespeare and Carlie from Bob Marley used to have a group called Big Relation. I used to play lead guitar and we used to appear at clubs at night time and special weekends also. Then one day Bunny Lee came to hear the band and he said, "Bwoy! Don you can sing you know?" They called me Don because I was the first Don in Jamaica as I was in Don Cornel and the Eternals. So Bunny Lee said, "Don I want to come with me and do some recording" but I said I couldn't leave the guys and desert them. Me and the guys were like family. But he kept coming back all the time and then Robert Shakespeare went off with him so I had to replace him with another guy and then the band deteriorated after that and fell down. So after that I went to Bunny Lee as a guitarist and a singer and worked with him.

Did you give up the printing at this point?

Yes - after a while. I was doing very well in the printing because I was getting a weekly salary. And when Queen Elizabeth, her majesty, came to Jamaica I used to print her invitation cards because the printers used to say I was the only one capable of printing her invitations. Also the governor of Jamaica Sir Clifford Campbell's. So I was a very good printer offering a Gold printing service.

Would you say that you were more concerned with having a secure reliable income than many other singers of the time?

Yes, because it was only due to Alton Ellis that I gave it up. Alton Ellis said, "Cornel, you know why you nah make it? Because you no leave out the work and go sing. Because you a good singer. You no have to work. You just go sing". Alton told me that. He said the work was keeping me down. So when I went to Bunny Lee I did give up my job and I found I wasn't getting my weekly salary and the security like I was used to. But I went on and went on through the struggle and I'm not disappointed. It came off good in the long run. I made an international name and got respect for it.

Now with Bunny Lee you put out a lot of hits.

You can say that again man!

And you also re-recorded some of your old Studio 1 hits.

Yes, because in those days if you sang a song for a man and he didn't pay you much you recorded it again. I mean I sing my songs for the people. But as I say, if you sing for a producer and he doesn't pay you the money he owes you have to go and do it for someone else. Other artists used to do it too before I did it. I didn't sing all of my songs just one or two to do it over man! Over the years I would also do over songs like Boxing and Rope In because sometimes the songs just fit the new rhythms and fit into the new style. But it's not something I love to do. Really I just love to write original compositions and put out new work.

What was Bunny like to work with compared to Coxsone and Duke Reid?

Bunny Lee has this reputation because he was a little bit worse than Coxsone when it came to money. Even though Coxsone had his ways he would still give you the money. I don't tell lies about producers. Coxsone was very mean and everything but while it might not be much but he'd still give you money. Bunny Lee is a pioneer in himself and in his work. A master in his own craft. He had his own style. When he wanted to do something he'd just go and do it. But when it came to money - no no! Forget about it!

Bunny Lee is a pioneer in himself and in his work. A master in his own craft. He had his own style. When he wanted to do something he'd just go and do it. But when it came to money - no no! Forget about it!

And was he very involved in the recordings?

Yes man! Night and day we'd bleech! You see, most of the producers used to love me. They'd just love my presence even if I wasn't recording. They'd want to have me in the studio just to listen. Sometimes if an artist would make a mistake I'd help him out and coach him saying, "Go so". I'd do all these things in the studio. If things come down with a bump if the bass player or the piano didn't turn up to the session, he would say "Cornel you can play guitar" or "Cornel can play piano" and I'd substitute and play you understand?

A good man in a crisis.

(Laughs) Right! The right word that you call there!

It's been said in more than one book documenting the era that Bunny Lee put out your first, eponymous 1973 album, in the UK without your knowledge?

No. I don't know where they got that information from. I know that Bunny Lee didn't put my picture on the album. He told me to get a picture taken for the album and I was tied up in other matters in Ocho Rios playing the guitar so I never came to town. So he said he just couldn't wait any longer so he put out the album without my picture on it. But I knew all about that album with the ice cream on the cover. I just never knew about the ice cream until he showed me the cover! Sometimes people don't listen or they don't understand what people are saying.

And you are reputed to have had a rivalry with Johnny Clarke in the early to mid seventies. How did you get on in real life?

Well it wasn't a real rivalry. What happened is when Johnny Clarke first came to Bunny Lee, his first song was None Shall Escape The Judgement. But at first Bunny Lee gave me that song because he always gave me the first choice for whatever song he would record. I was Bunny Lee's top singer so he gave me the song. But the truth was Bunny Lee owed me some money so I was ever really interested to sing the song. I went home to myself and after two weeks I still hadn't voiced the song. Johnny Clarke was there but Bunny didn't want to give him then song because he preferred for me to sing it. But after two weeks without seeing me, he tried the song with Johnny Clarke and the song became a hit. That's why I did the song None Shall Escape The Gun Court In Dis Time, as a cover. And when Bunny put me on the rhythm he said, "But Cornel, look at how Johnny Clarke buss' and gwaan. If you'd have sing the tune you'd ha gone!" So Johnny Clarke came up over night. But I was there as well and when Johnny came with that he was getting a little bit swell-headed. So I came with hits like Duke Of Earl and the Gorgon, Natty Dread Inna Greenwich Farm, Dance In Greenwich Farm - the whole thing.

Read part two of this exclusive interview on United Reggae here, where Cornel recalls his work for Bunny Lee in the 70s, his dissatisfaction with the business in the 80s and how his music can still set the charts alight today...

Photos copyright David Corio - Cornell Campbell in New York City - 15 September 2000
Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and David Corio is prohibited.

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