Interview: Al Campbell

May 13, 2013

“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 connoisseur’s 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 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.

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.

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