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Interview: Cornel Campbell part 2

Interview: Cornel Campbell part 2

Interview: Cornel Campbell part 2

By on - Photos by Elliott Leib - 1 comment

"It never mattered to me who the public thought I was. As long as I know I am a decent person I'm fine."


Read part 1 of this interview.

The distinctive falsetto 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...

In the early seventies you sang a lot of love songs. Then in the mid seventies you sang some Rasta lyrics like Natty Dread Inna Greenwich Farm and Two Face Rasta. Did you become a Rastafarian?

No. I believe in Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. The reason I came with those songs is because in those days the trend was changing in Jamaica. When Bob Marley and all them came with rhythms that were very serious and then the other artists like Jacob Miller responded to them, the beat started to change in the dancehall. In the previous time when I came with those sophisticated love songs you're talking about, people used to love them. But after a while the dancehall changed and some roots thing went more raggamuffin. Because when I'd stand up at Randy's records I'd hear my love songs playing but I'd see the people buying songs like (SINGS) "THINGS A COME UP TO BUMP..." - the dancehall people loved those type of songs. So I said to myself, "You know what? I'm going to change my style. Just for a little while, not for long. I'm going to go into the dancehall and sing some dancehall things". That's why I sang Natty Dread In A Greenwich Farm.

How did you come up with the concept for Natty Dread In A Greenwich Farm?

Well, when I heard songs like Things Come Up To Bump and saw the dancehall was changing I went home and grabbed my box guitar and I wanted to write a hit song. I used to live in Jonestown a little above Trenchtown, and you have Greenwich Farm down the bottom. The reason I got the idea is because I used to go and check Bunny Lee down in Greenwich Farm. I was popping down there routinely to check Bunny Lee. That's why I called it Natty Dread In Greenwich Farm because it was were Bunny lived and I was there most of the time. So I sat down with my guitar and sang (SINGS) "NATTY DREADLOCKS UP IN ALL THE STREETS.. BABYLON THEM CANNOT KEEP THEM FEET... SO THEM CHECK I MAN IN GREENWICH FARM... YOU COULD A HEAR THEM COME WITH THEIR LOUD ALARM". Of course you don't write it perfectly at first. You put in little mistakes and you have to rub them out again. But I thought I'd try this line out, "But I and I... Natty Dread Iyah..." you understand? You pick out and you put in.

But it was worth it in the end...

The people loved it. When I came with that song it was an instant hit. When I came with A Dance In Greenwich Farm instantly it was a hit again. So I realised the people loved those types of songs in the dancehall rather than the nice pretty ones I used to sing. I wanted to associate myself with society. I was versatile. So I'd sing both songs - love songs and raggamuffin songs. A mixed variety. Some people like one and some people like another. It was my idea that some of the people don't like some of the nice songs I sing! (laughs) And you have intelligent people who like the nice ones! So I don't let go of any of my songs: I sing the nice ones and the raggamuffin ones for the man who jumps up in the dancehall.

So when you sang a song like Two Face Rasta did the public know you weren't actually a Rasta?

The public don't think you are anything! And it never mattered to me who the public thought I was. As long as I know I am a decent person I'm fine. I just see myself as an ordinary person. You see the locks that I wear? I wear the locks because it is original. Even when Jesus was on earth he never trimmed. None of the disciples ever got a trim. But if you want to trim - it's no problem! If a man trims I haven't got a problem with that. And if you don't trim it's not a problem so long as it's clean and you get a good bath. Every day you bathe at least two or three times a day and fix up yourself and brush your teeth and so on. As a human being in society you keep your hair and your locks long and pretty and clean. So I just appear to people as a person - not as anything different but as a person.

When I see school children pass and stop and start dancing I know a song is a hit!

How did you decide to sing as the Gorgon over Derrick Morgan's old hit The Conqueror?

It was through Johnny Clarke. He came with Enter Into His Gates and some other hits and I said "I'm the Gorgon in this yah dance. Me no care what him a gwaan with, I'm the Gorgon in this yah dance". I didn't think it was going to be a hit. The guitarist Jah Jerry he played that guitar on it (imitates the intro) "Bring bring bring bring". I just sang it ordinary and asked Bunny Lee, "What you think of this song?" and he said, "This song BAD man!" but I never believed him. I never believed Bunny until several days after he pressed the record and started playing it in record shops. I went to hear it and heard people responding to it. When school children were passing they'd dance to it. That's how I know I have a good song - when it's played in the record shop and you see people dancing to it. And when I hear my song and nobody moves I get really nervous and think, "Maybe it nah gwaan wid nuttin here!" but when you see school children pass and stop and start dancing I know this is a hit!

But where did the Gorgon idea come from?

There was this movie named Gorgon. Some woman who had snakes on her head. Medusa.

Was it your hairstyle that lead to the name?

No, no! Gorgon was a challenging name! It was an aggravating name. It means you stand up. You're strong. You're powerful. Nobody can beat you. You are the Gorgon means you are the baddest. The toughest.

Can I just ask you about one of my favourite "one away" tunes you recorded in the late seventies? African Woman on the Ultrasonic label in 1979?

Oh that was a beautiful record man! The guy I did it for, Garfield Potter, he works on a boat now, living in Philadelphia. He came to my house back then and said he had got some money off an insurance thing where he'd had an accident and been awarded some money from the insurance company. He said he'd always liked the recording business and he selected me as one of his favourite artists. He said he sued to hear my songs play all the while but he never knew he'd have the opportunity to ask me to do a song for him. So me and him moved as two brethren and we went over to Channel One studio and recorded the song African Woman and another one by a singer whose name I don't remember.

Ronnie Davis recorded Run Around Girl on the same rhythm.

Yes right. I wrote that song African Woman you know? And the public really loved it. They played it every day in the jukeboxes and all of that.

After a run of albums in the seventies you took time out from Bunny to make the Boxing Round album for Joe Gibbs which was released in 1982. How did that come about?

My association with Joe Gibbs began when Joe called me and said he wanted me to do an LP for him. I didn't have any songs in mind at the time so it was a quick rush thing. Joe Gibbs asked me if I could start work like tomorrow! I said I couldn't come tomorrow because there wasn't time to write even two songs so he said, "What about the next day?" and I said "Alright". I went to him immediately, I grabbed my guitar and started to bang it and you know what I came up with? (SINGS) "YOU'RE BOXING OVER HERE... AND YOU'RE BOXING OVER THERE..." that was the first thing that came to my mind. So I wrote the song, Boxing, went to the studio and recorded it for Joe Gibbs and he was pleased with it. So we carried on working and we did Rope In (sings) "ROPE IN..." and some more until I had eight songs. But the album deal I made with Joe Gibbs for that LP was very poor. He offered me a certain amount of money to do the album and the reason me and him fell out was because the deejay Trinity said to me one day "How much did Joe Gibbs pay you for the album?" and when I told him he said to me, "Nah man! You crazy!" So I went back to Joe Gibbs and said, "Joe - that deal you and me we make? I cyaan work for that deal you know? Because I realise I get rip off". And he said, "Alright then! No bother with the album again!" So we had a little quarrel and I never recorded with him and I never bothered with the album so me and Joe Gibbs "mashup"! So we only did eight songs and it was a shame and Joe Gibbs said "Play no more Cornel Campbell songs again". I was blacklisted as far as Joe Gibbs was concerned.

So how did the album get released in the end?

One day Jack Ruby, he used to come to buy dubplates for his sound system, and one day he came to the studio to hear the latest recordings. They never wanted to play any Cornel Campbell but they made a mistake and played him some of Boxing and then paused it and tried to speed up the tape. Jack Ruby said, "Stop there! Let me hear that song again!" and Errol Thompson said, "Nah man we have better songs than that you know?" but Jack Ruby said, "No, this one I haffi hear" and when they played him it again Jack Ruby said, "Gimme that song!" So they cut him a dub and gave it to him and everywhere he carried that tune he killed sound with it! Every time he'd play that song he'd kill the sound system in a competition and after he'd killed the sounds with Boxing Around, some of them would ask him where he got the song from. So after a while it leaked out that Joe Gibbs had it and he got busy selling plate after plate off it until it forced him to put it out on 45 and it became a hit. So one day he drove over to my house and said, "Cornel I want you and me to have a talk but you such a hard difficult person" and I said, "Nah man! Me no difficult. You difficult because we have business and you supposed to give me some more money". So he said, "We're going to forget that now. Here's wh'appen. I'm going to give you some more money and we are going to finish the album". Because we needed four more songs to finish the LP because an LP was 12 songs.

But that album has eight songs on?

And if you notice, once again, there was no picture of me that album - just a boxing glove. That's because Joe Gibbs gave me some money to go to the studio and record the remaining songs to finish the album and take a picture for the cover. But when I saw the little amount of money he gave me I said, "Bwoy me no gonna voice no tunes me just go with the money!" and I never went back. So he put out the album still with only eight songs and without my picture upon it.

Now you said you didn't get to meet Curtis but in 1983 you did get to meet Michael Jackson didn't you?

Yes - in Jamaica. This was due to the Prime Minister Edward Seaga. When he came to Jamaica I was supposed to be on the same show at the National Stadium. Bunny Lee went to Edward Seaga and said "Book Cornel Campbell" but unfortunately I didn't get to appear on the show because I was late! I guess in those days it was a form of irresponsibility! When you're young and at the studio you don't really put those things in your mind. Plus in those days everybody used to rub shoulders so you never knew who was going to become a superstar from who. For instance, I never knew that Bob Marley would have become the great Bob Marley because everyone was at Studio 1 and seeing one another every day. Bob Marley sang a song, Rat Race, and it was me in the lyrics of that song (SINGS) "SOME A GORGON, SOME A GINNYGOGGA ... IN A THIS HERE RATRACE!" because I was singing, (SINGS) "COMING FROM THE NORTH WITH MY FACE TO THE SOUTH... I'M QUITE SURE I CAN KNOCK YOU OUT... I AM THE GORGON". So when I was talking to Edward Seaga round the back of King's House he said, "Cornel, I'm sorry that you were late and you should have come" and then he said "Meet the Jackson Five" and I said, "Nice meeting you" and shook all of their hands and wished them well. It was just an ordinary thing. Not a great big deal. But they were great singers. I used to rate them. In fact a lot of Jamaicans used to rate them because they came with a lot of hit songs in Jamaica. They were on the air just like Diana Ross and the Supremes and all those groups so we admired and appreciated them.

I don't sing foolishness

Why did you stop recording for Bunny Lee after so many years?

I wanted a house for myself and Bunny Lee promised me a house. But when I moved into the house I found Bunny Lee hadn't paid enough money for me to own it. So I just gave up the key and moved a different place in Ewarton and bought six acres of land up there. And then I left there and went to St Elizabeth and I bought some land there. I used to have nightclubs as well. I have to do other things to survive. I have a chicken farm and I have a clothes store in the town. I have a nice complex too and I have workers who work for me. I started to make a life for myself in the country buying land and things like that. And through those things I did kind of get hurt, when I found I had to do these things and when Bunny Lee was the one who owed me money. Bunny Lee just kept everything for himself so I just went and did my thing and God helped me to be successful because I'm successful now. I didn't have to depend on Bunny Lee and all those guys so I just cut them off.

But you did carry on working. You did some work for both King Jammy and King Tubby during the eighties, and later in the nineties for Don Moodie at Don One in New York.

That is correct and very true. Because Tubbys was an all time inspiration for coming so far. Jammys came from far too - all of us came so far. If Jammys said to me, "Cornel. Come and sing a song" if I am available I'll do it even now. Don One was a great guy too.

You also reformed the Uniques for the album Niney Presents The Uniques.

Yes, we tried to reform the Uniques and see if we could go back there as a group because the people were clamouring for the group! People still loved the group so we reformed with Jimmy Riley and Al Campbell. But Niney the Observer, he wasn't on the right track. What Niney did was thief up the publishing and put his name on the whole recording as publisher when he didn't write anything so we got frustrated. Niney didn't write any of those songs. After that, that version of the Uniques became defunct. But maybe that's just for the time being because Jimmy Riley checks me all the time about wanting to restart the Uniques. All we need is another partner. I leave that up to Jimmy because he was suggesting various singers he was associating with but he didn't really give me their names. I always like working with Jimmy Riley because we're both coming from far. I can still go solo as Cornel Campbell but have a Uniques record out as well.

Are you a fan of Jimmy's son Tarrus?

Yes! That tune he did about the black princess [She's Royal] is a perfectly well written song. The words and the lyrics couldn't be put together any better and the style that he sings it in is excellent.

And you're still touring in Europe and all over the world. Europe is a big market for reggae these days.

Well, I've been to various places like Rome in Italy and Japan is a regular stop. I've also been to France, Germany, Belgium, America, Canada. In those countries I'm well appreciated because the people - the foundation people who keep up the good works and love the vintage - respect that Cornel Campbell comes with and my shows are sold out. They come to see me and I try to the best of my ability to please them. About three years ago I came to England with Linval Thompson and we did a very good show over there and the place was sold out. The world appreciates reggae but we the artists have to come with what the people want. We can't just say, "The people there don't love reggae." If they hear the right reggae they love reggae.

So is modern Jamaican reggae the wrong reggae? You think reggae artists should make the reggae that foreign markets want?

The artists nowadays have distanced themselves from the foundation roots of the music and they've switched and become commercialised. Jazz reggae. Hip Hop reggae. It waters down the reggae and makes it weak. But if we come to the foundation thing people will understand what we're doing. People love it.

In 2003 you stepped outside of traditional reggae to collaborate with German producers Rhythm & Sound for the song King In My Empire.

That was a very wonderful experience. I was in Germany at that time and I went with somebody I knew to the studio - just passing through - and the man that operated the studio realised that I was Cornel Campbell. He said, "Cornel! Glad to see you here in Germany. Could you do a recording for me?" I asked him how much money he had and when he told me I said I couldn't do a recording for that kind of money. So while I was in the studio seeing my brethren the man asked me how much money I wanted and I told him. He said he couldn't find that money so I paid him no mind, until a little while later he came back and said he'd see what he could do. So he put me onto this rhythm, this beat, and when he paid me I said, "You see this money you gave me? You're not going to regret it none at all. This song going to be a hit because I don't sing foolishness". And about six months later, when I was in Jamaica, he sent me a message saying, "Cornel! Cornel! This song BIG! This song buss! It a gwaan!" and I said, "Congratulations man. I did tell you seh you should fret 'bout the money you give me because this song was going to be a good song!"

The artists nowadays have distanced themselves from the foundation roots of the music and they've switched and become commercialised. It waters down the reggae and makes it weak

And of course, as you've already mentioned, Queen Of The Minstrel was used by Jazmine Sullivan in 2008 for her number one song Need U Bad. How did you find out about that?

I was on the internet one day when I got this surprise message saying, "Cornel Campbell you have just won an award". So I thought "Won an award? and I read some more, when I see that Jazmine Sullivan had sung over one of my rhythms, Queen Of The Minstrel and it was doing very, very well. So they said they were going to give the award in California, Beverly Hills, and that I must come to receive it. But I never went to the ceremony. I asked them to send the award, which was a gold medal, to Jamaica through Fedex and they sent it. I have it hung up in my living room in my house right now. I haven't got any royalties as yet but the publishing company is sorting it out.

You've seen every era of the music from rhythm and blues to dancehall. Which was your favourite?

Let me tell you how it was: In the early days we used to carry our instruments to the studio and if we felt a beat in our minds, I would bang the guitar and get a rhythm to it. And when you went into the studio you'd show the musicians how to play it. Then it would come out and if somebody liked the beat it would go on from there. But it wasn't like you'd have a special favourite beat. Now during the process of time, people would get really into the beat and would name them such as "the ska" and "the rocksteady". But before the rocksteady you had other beats but in the studio they never really came to anything. I remember when they had the John Crow skank, the shuffle, and the hill an' gully beat. A lot of things passed through Jamaica. But the dominant one that really hit the public was the ska, and then the rocksteady and then the reggae. Those were the three dominant ones. You'd have other beats but they just weren't appealing to the public but these there domineer and become lifetime. Because nobody has surpassed the reggae as yet. The reggae just stands still and nobody has invented anything to surpass it so that the dancehall can have another beat. Instead of having another beat we divert the reggae and call it "classic reggae". "jazz reggae" "this reggae" - all kind of reggae but it's still reggae. Nobody is finding a new beat or inventing anything.

Why do you think this is?

I think the reason is because sometimes the artists and the producers get lazy. These days it is pure cover versions they are doing. They see somebody come with a song and then everybody just does over the same song. It's something ingrained in them that has become a habit. Nobody is making any real rhythms any more. They are writing songs but they write them off other people's rhythms too. There are one or two real artists who go in the studio and compose their own stuff but generally it's always a cover version.

Which artists do you consider to be the real artists? What music are you listening to these days?

(laughs) I couldn't say but there are some artists who I really like. I appreciate good music, whether it comes from Africa, Japan, Germany, once I hear good music or lyrics I appreciate them. Good music is good music. Mostly it's vintage. I always liked the old time stuff. It makes me relax more than listening to the fast jump up jump up things. I like music I can listen to. What I do when I go to my house is just pick up some old time songs. I play a few Cornel Campbell too but a few other artists as well. Sometimes I play jazz and even classical and just put myself into a mood - a kind of nostalgic mood that I can get sentimental with.

Finally who has been your biggest inspiration in your career?

Jesus Christ. I always say Jesus because I can't do anything without God.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by QueenHigh on 05.13.2010
Very good.......Bless......

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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