|It is such a shame that some of the most talented Jamaican artists haven't received the true recognition they're long, long overdue, even until this day. Take the sweet-voiced Cornell Campbell for example. He was always looked upon as one of the island's brightest talents from the earliest stage of Jamaican shuffle, R&B and ska until he finally broke big in 1969 with the songs 'Stars' and 'Queen Of The Minstrel', yet he didn't seem to reach the wider audience he deserved. Somehow Cornell was overshadowed by the late Slim Smith, another contemporary voice he shared the obvious Curtis Mayfield/Sam Cooke influence with, and both were part of the hit-making Bunny Lee stable. Nowadays he is fondly remembered for his strong output for Bunny in the mid seventies like 'Dance In A Greenwich Farm' as well as several songs using the 'Gorgon' theme. He went on to have hits for people like Joe Gibbs with 'Rope In' and 'No Man's Land' until he slowed down on making music in the late 1980s with a few singles for the late dubmaster King Tubby's Firehouse label such as 'Hell In A De Yard' alongside The Jayes, and 'Cowboy Town'. After some years of absence from the music and focusing more on his family business in farming, operating a nightclub in the parish of St. Elizabeth and merchandising, he is beginning to take up the 'task' of creating new music as well as getting out there on the concert circuit in the US and Europe, where he has been more and more in demand these last couple of years. This interview was conducted in the autumn of 2004. My thanks to Cornell, Michael Campbell AKA the original Mikey Dread for setting it up, Tony, Donovan Phillips, David Corio, Tim P, Michael de Koningh, Carlton Hines and Steve Barrow.|
Q: How did you grow up? The Campbell family was a musical family, because I know for instance your sister was involved in the music from an early age too, and your brother Jah Wise in the sound system world, so there seems to be music running through the family veins.
A: Well, yes. What really happen, I started my career in 1956 (more likely a few years later) for Sir Coxsone Downbeat, which is now called Studio One. Many years ago, I was about eleven years of age, and I was inspired by foreign singers, yunno, in those days. It was an inborn t'ing. Naturally I did want to put out what I had in me, to make the whole world hear it, and so I went to Sir Coxsone Downbeat and I did my first recording which was called 'My Treasure'. In those days you didn't have ska or reggae or those t'ing, you used to have...
Q: Shuffle, the R&B.
A: Yes, y'know. And I did in particular - a lot of those type of songs, and then I leave Downbeat and went to King Edwards. You remember King Edwards?
Q: Yes, yes. Edwards was one of the first sound system men in those days.
A: Alright, good (chuckles). Yeah. And from King Edwards to Treasure Isle and... you know? And I did several hit songs for Treasure Isle, including songs by... I formed a group named The Sensations - you remember the Sensations? With Jimmy Riley, Buster Riley and Deego.
A: And we did some great songs. I went back to Sir Coxsone Downbeat in the sixties again. I did 'Stars' and 'Queen Of The Minstrels' which was great hit songs. That was in the early sixties.
Q: Before we jump too fast into your history, how did the whole thing start? Did your parents get you to sing in the choir and moulded your singin' from there, or how did that come about?
A: No, not my parents. It was a church. I used to go to a church, and believe me when I sing in the choir...
Q: Just to interupt you further, where did you grow up in Kingston first of all?
A: Alright, I was born in Jones Town, yunno. Yeah. By Jubilee Hospital, but my parents used to live by Jones Town, like you say by Trench Town. Then we leave and went to what you call Waterhouse, but it was... I live offa the farthest section from Waterhouse, they call it Seaward Drive. But it's still Waterhouse, you understan'. And let's see, I used to go to a church, and the people dem was fascinated over my singin' in the church, and they put me on the choir as a little boy. And from there I move on. The church was a - like I used to when I sing on the choir, people just come and get saved, yunno, 'cause them say, "Bwoy, this child have a type a angelic voice, him sound like an angel", y'know. And babies come and get saved and stuff like that. It's such a long history coming from there so, until I went back to my singin' career regular, offa the church. I leave the singin' in the church because of the people dem was living so good, yunno. What I expect of them, they wasn't really living to that fullness. So I went back into my singin' career. And from there on it went on.
Q: What did your parents work with when you grew up, how did it look like if we get more into your upbringing?
A: Oh, my father now he used to work with the Palace Cumberwell Company (otherwise known as Palace Amusement Company of the Palace Theatre, owned by the Graham family back in those days), he was a kind of jack-of-all-trades. He was a plumber, what you say now (inaudible), those type of work inna those days. But he used to work at the Carib Theatre with the whole Palace Cumberwell Company. My mother now she was a dressmaker.
Q: Both of them sang and played regularly?
A: My father used to love singin', but in those days... in his time recording never involve in Jamaica, so he never really get the opportunity to sing on record. But him just sing freelance at the house. Not really in public, just always hear him singin' sometime.
Q: Not at house parties then?
A: Well no, I never hear him sing at private parties. Him wasn't really a singer, yunno, but him just loved to sing. Some old time singers like 'Muriel' (Alton & Eddy) and stuff like that. Yeah, that's what him used to...
Q: He played anything, like fiddle or guitar?
A: No, he don't play instrument. I was the one who play instrument.
Q: Like what?
A: Guitar and piano and bass guitar. Robert Shakespeare used to be associated with me in the early days before him get famous, right. I used to have various bands, like Don Cornell & The Eternals... No, Don Cornell & The Sons of Thunder. That was a band, right, not my band. But I played in other people's band, like The Big Relations, that's where I met those type of guys, all those. I was the leader for the band.
Q: Before we go further in that direction, the audition at Coxson's place wasn't the best of experiences from what you told Dave Katz. You walked off the line because of...?
A: OK, you wanna hear about that?
Q: I think you just stepped off the line there?
A: Yes, yes, yes. What happen was, I was introduced to Sir Coxsone Downbeat by Rico, who blow trombone.
Q: How did that come about in the first place, the connection to him?
A: You mean...?
A: I'm gonna tell you. Rico told me to go to Sir Coxsone Downbeat, him a near friend to me, so I went to Sir Coxsone Downbeat. And Sir Coxson wasn't lovely in that time, beca' Coxson wasn't really big an' t'ing, Studio One wasn't really involved or nutten like that - remember I said it was 1956, yunno. So, we had an audition there, I saw a guy in the line and him start to sing, but he don't sound good to him, and Sir Coxson said to him, seh: "Jackson, which whe yu come from?" But I was behind that fellow, yunno, in the line, and Sir Coxson seh: "Jackson, which whe yu come from?" And the guy say "Trelawny", and Coxson say: "Deh yu mean fe tell me seh yu come from so far fe come mash up my business?!" And when Downbeat tell him seh, me come out of the line! Beca' I say that guy sing so good, bwoy... And me was jus' a lickle bwoy, yunno, about eleven years of age, maybe he might embarrass me, so I went out of the line. And is a friend of mine tell me I must come back another day, and I never really waan come, but my friend force me, and seh "Come, man!" And I went there a next day, another day.
Q: And that turned into the session for your first record.
A: Yes, I went back and did my first recording named 'My Treasure'.
Q: What about this musician named Hersang? He played an important part in those days for you I think.
A: Hersang was a pianist, he used to do audition for Sir Coxsone Downbeat. And he played on some of Sir Coxsone Downbeat's sessions as well.
Q: He was the one who took your audition?
A: Yeah, he took my audition and it came out very well.
Q: Have you met Hersang since those days?
A: No, no. But believe me, I've never seen him again after so long.
Q: You know what? I think I can link you up, he's living in Canada these days.
A: OK, OK.
Q: He is one of the foundation musicians in Jamaica that deserves more credit.
A: He was a pioneer too in the field, but he don't really get mentioned.
A: And that is very bad, yunno. He was there before a lot of guys.
Q: You always hear about Jackie Mittoo but hardly anyone before him, which confirms just how dominant and important he was, but you have a history before Jackie and they deserve their piece of the history.
A: Yeah, but I remember when Jackie Mittoo just come on the scene, yunno. Jackie Mittoo went to... I used to do audition, I used to play the piano for Randy's and back up all Lord Creator dem and those guys, just like wha' you call it now - audition. And Jackie Mittoo came there one day looking a job from Randy's, and ask me if I can talk to Randy's (Vincent Chin) for him. But I told Randy's and Randy's say to me, him seh he don't need nobody right now because him have musician dem already. And Jackie Mittoo teach me B on the piano because I never know a B, yunno. No, I could a jus'... it was self-taught, y'know. And then Jackie Mittoo went to Sir Coxsone Downbeat and dem a frightened to see and hear the song dem wha' him really put out. Yeah, that's how him really started.
Q: Where did you record 'My Treasure', this was at the radio station?
A: Federal Recording Company, that's where Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone and King Edwards and Highlights did most of their recording.
Q: And they recorded at the station as well.
A: Yes man, I record at radio station, like RJR and those radio station in the old time days. But they stop it one time when I was doing a song named 'Forever More' for Sir Coxsone Downbeat up there. And Don Drummond was blowing the intro and the solo, and Don Drummond say him want to hear a playback, a song I sing named (sings): 'I need you and I want you to be my girl forever more...'. And Don Drummonds come in and say (imitates the trombone) 'pah pah pa pa pa papah', somet'ing like that. And when Don Drummond hear his part, you see him kick down the microphone dem in the studio and start mash up the studio. And Lloyd Knibb dem and Roland Alphonso and the whole a dem, dem say dem wanted to hold him, and Downbeat say: "Don't bother to hold him, beca' him get worse", and dem leave him until him calm down. And from there so now, I think they ban those t'ings at the radio station in those days - through that, you understan'. They didn't want more of that. That's how I really focused on Federal Recording Company.
Q: How did you experience the atmosphere surrounding the studios in those days? I mean you were just a youngster among those seasoned musicians.
A: Yeah, I was a young boy. I was there when all the hits dem and the great guys dem pass through, beca' I used to be in the background, like I was a kinda Sir Coxsone Downbeat's right hand, yunno, in those lickle days. Beca' Downbeat love how I sing, so whenever Downbeat keeping a session, even if I'm not on it, him always mek me come with him, yunno. And so I see everybody come pass through - everybody. I see Toots & The Maytals, you name them, Delroy Wilson, I see them come along. The Gaylads, everybody, I see them come.
Q: You did quite a few tracks for Coxson in those days that saw release, like 'Old Oak Tree' and 'Old King Cole'.
A: Yes man, yes man. I did several songs, yunno, but I was only telling you about the two first songs I did. But I did several other songs for him, like 'Dear Rosabell', 'Each Lonely Night', several other songs.
Q: This is still recorded as R&B before the ska came in.
A: (Chuckles) Yeah. Well, it was wha' you say now, it was a music I was trying to put together, because in those days we didn't have no specific beat, yunno. We didn't really have a trend of beat in those days, yunno. Beca' ska no really come in yet. You just come in and you try to make a beat, like you just hit a piece of board and you seh (sings): 'Pretty girl, you are the one I treasure...' - you know that type of style in those days, until I did 'Rosabell'? 'Rosabell' now, the ska originate from those type of songs, beca' if you notice in those days, those beat faster until the guy dem find a riddim and find a beat and it become the ska. But is not one person involved with the ska, it was a whole heap a other guys like me trying to do other, different t'ings, and dem buck up on it.
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