Interview: Cornell Campbell part 1

May 9, 2011

Here’s another one from the vaults. My career-spanning 2 part interview with Cornell Campbell…

The distinctive falsetto singer Cornell 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. Cornell 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, Cornell 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.

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