Mr.T at Reggae Vibes | Dec 3, 2017 | 0
Interview with Cornell Campbell
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.
“THE GORGON SPEAKS!”
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.
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…
Shuffle, the R&B.
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?
Yes, yes. Edwards was one of the first sound system men in those days.
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.
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.
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?
No, not my parents. It was a church. I used to go to a church, and believe me when I sing in the choir…
Just to interupt you further, where did you grow up in Kingston first of all?
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.
What did your parents work with when you grew up, how did it look like if we get more into your upbringing?
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.
Both of them sang and played regularly?
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.
Not at house parties then?
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…
He played anything, like fiddle or guitar?
No, he don’t play instrument. I was the one who play instrument.
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.
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…?
OK, you wanna hear about that?
I think you just stepped off the line there?
Yes, yes, yes. What happen was, I was introduced to Sir Coxsone Downbeat by Rico, who blow trombone.
How did that come about in the first place, the connection to him?
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.
And that turned into the session for your first record.
Yes, I went back and did my first recording named ‘My Treasure’.
What about this musician named Hersang? He played an important part in those days for you I think.
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.
He was the one who took your audition?
Yeah, he took my audition and it came out very well.
Have you met Hersang since those days?
No, no. But believe me, I’ve never seen him again after so long.
You know what? I think I can link you up, he’s living in Canada these days.
He is one of the foundation musicians in Jamaica that deserves more credit.
He was a pioneer too in the field, but he don’t really get mentioned.
And that is very bad, yunno. He was there before a lot of guys.
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.
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
Where did you record ‘My Treasure’, this was at the radio station?
Federal Recording Company, that’s where Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone and King Edwards and Highlights did most of their recording.
And they recorded at the station as well.
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.
How did you experience the atmosphere surrounding the studios in those days? I mean you were just a youngster among those seasoned musicians.
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.
You did quite a few tracks for Coxson in those days that saw release, like ‘Old Oak Tree’ and ‘Old King Cole’.
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.
This is still recorded as R&B before the ska came in.
(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.
Let’s see if you can recall this one, an early track. It doesn’t sound like you at all somehow, but this is how you start until you find your voice and developing the style we know you from.
(Laughs) Yeah, I know. Yeah man, a lot of songs don’t sound like me, because I sing with a inspiration, sometimes I don’t even sing like myself, I just sing. A cause of the fusion of…
Listen to this one (playing ‘Don’t Need Your Loving’ off Heartbeat’s ‘Ska Bonanza’ CD).
Oh yes, I know this one, ‘I Don’t Need Your Loving Anymore’. Sure, for Coxson Downbeat. That’s me and Don Drummonds dem and the whole crew, the Skatalites. You see, what’s interesting with ska and those guys…
Is that really you (chuckles)?
Yea, you see, that’s where the ska was coming from. Yes man, yes man. That is where the ska was coming from in those days. Yeah.
The early stage.
Early, early, early before the ska really develop. But you see, the musicians dem learn from those type of recordings, until they come with the faster beat. I remember that song. Let me tell you this straight; me na give him the album fe distribute nor nutten. I remember years ago, now that you talk of it, years ago I went to Gilly house one day an’ was playing a cassette, an’ him seh to me say “Bwoy, me love that, y’know, Kong! Give me a cassette now, man”. An’ that’s how it come in, with a cassette! You understan’ me?
It sounds like the music is at a breaking point there, not really sure where to go yet.
Yeah, you have the name of the record?
‘Don’t Want Your Loving’ was taken from a compilation CD titled ‘Ska Bonanza’.
Yeah man. That’s Coxson in the early, early, early days.
But your sister was around at Studio One as well?
Well, my sister now she… I took her to Sir Coxsone Downbeat, she insisted that I must write a song for her. I didn’t want her to get involved in the singin’ business, because I was thinking her more like some sort of working – because she could sew, and y’know she could work, doing dressmaker and stuff like that. But she insisted and I took her to Sir Coxsone Downbeat and she did several songs for Sir Coxsone Downbeat, and she get involved with Rita Marley, and they formed the group named The Soulettes.
What was your sister’s name again?
Yeah, and they formed the group The Soulettes with Rita Marley and another friend of them.
I think this guy ‘Vision’ was in that group as well, also known as ‘Dream’, Constantine Walker.
OK, yeah. I don’t remember all the songs dem too, since this was a long time ago.
But she didn’t last long in the business?
After they sing several songs and do quite a few appearances, stage appearances and television, she had migrated to America, and she’s living in Queens. Yeah, as some nurse or somet’ing like that. I think she went to school there and everything.
If we move up a little in time, I actually spoke to Ras Karbi…
Yeah, Ras Karbi?
Ras Karbi, yes. And he told me about forming the first line-up of the Now Generation band, which was more of a club act in those days, didn’t record.
Yes, it’s true. What happened was…
Apparently it was you and Chenley Duffus who shared lead vocal duties in the band.
Yes, that’s right. True, true, true.
This is before the brothers Geoffrey and Mikey Chung joined the band, right?
Yes, that’s true.
What kind of stuff did you play at that time? How come you joined this band, you knew Karbi from before?
No, what happened was, I was learning to play guitar in those days, right, I was tuning the guitar, I was self-taught by guitar-books and learned the chords them and stuff. And Ras Karbi heard me play at my home, like him passing me yard yet, and him heard me play, so him seh: “Bwoy, you can play, yunno. What I’d like is me and you form a band, a group an’ t’ing”. But I wasn’t really interested, because I wasn’t really a professional guitar player at that time. But him forced me and say: “Yeah man, you can play, man”. And after a while I went to them and we formed the group Now Generation, with the Chiney guy named Chung. And Ras Karbi was playing bass, I played guitar and… you know? And we start doing a lot of appearances, appear at nightclubs. The band they get big now, the Now Generation. It is a big band in Jamaica.
After that you left to form a couple of…
Groups, yeah. Like the Belle Stars.
Right, who was in that group?
A friend named Lloyd Shaw, but him was inspired by the Blues Busters. Him used to adore the Blues Busters dem very much. So he wanted me and him, both of us to do like a duo group in those days, so I agree with him and we did… we start to work with King Edwards. And when that group defunct, I think I formed a group named – with Jimmy Riley again and I think it was Dave Barker, I formed a group named The Links. And from there now The Sensations, for Treasure Isle. Yeah. And then I met Bunny Lee after, about 1972 me and Bunny Lee team up and I went back as a solo artist.
So what about the Eternals, you had a lot of success with this group?
Oh yes! Fabulous group. Yeah, that group now, since when I break up with the Sensations, I did want to have a hot group that would sound better than the Sensations, right. So I form a group named The Eternals with a guy named Errol Wisdom and the other guy Ken Fay. And I rehearsed them, and I write three songs, one named ‘Stars’, ‘Queen Of The Minstrel’, and ‘Just Gone Find Loving’. And we took them to Downbeat, Studio One, where I play the rhythm guitar, yunno, and arrange and direct them. And it was successfully, all those songs were great hits.
One you didn’t mention is ‘Let’s Start Again’, that’s one of my personal favourites.
Yes, yes – for Harry Mudie.
That’s great, yeah. That ‘Start Again’, we did all that too. And several other hits, y’know. It’s coming from a long, long way with hits an’ sting.
The title for it escapes me at this moment, but there’s another great tune for Mudie that was a lot slower…
We did ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’, let’s see now… ‘Christmas Joy’, something like ‘Now The Days Are Gone’, I did like two Christmas songs. But I’m trying to remember some of the songs them that I did for him, but I did several songs for him. I don’t remember them right now at this particular moment.
But the tradition of forming vocal groups in Jamaica has been slowly fading out over the past twenty years or more, how do you see it? That tradition reflected pretty much what black American music looked like, and when harmony groups no longer is going well in the States, that meant that Jamaicans no longer wanted the harmony sound from vocal groups, is that something you would agree with, or you see it differently?
No, what happen… it not only that. Beca’ when you have a good voice and you have a good back-up group, you feel sure of what you’re bringin’, yunno. But what happen is that sometimes you have disagreements, each individual might pull in different directions. Sometimes you want the business to go in the right way and one guy… Another problem with groups, yunno, that’s why I become a solo artist, beca’ everybody have different conception. You might want to do this and them want to do that, you might want to rehearse and a next man want want fe play football, him no feel to rehearse – you understan’ me?
And them not dedicated, and a next time again everybody all right again, and you are thinkin’ about your career and you cyaan mek nobody pull you back. Beca’ if you form a group and everybody have the same mind, you just want to go out there and do some good work – all is fine. But when you have different conceptions – some people slow, some people fast – it don’t work, you understand me?
Right. Things you experience over and over, that’s just group dealings for you I guess.
Over and over again, everybody have different… some man love girls and because – y’know wha’ I mean? And every night them gone with a different girl and through dem t’ings deh you cyaan get them come rehearsal. And now the group get backward beca’ nobody inna that tradition.
I think the tune for Mudie I was thinking about was ‘Push Me In The Corner’ by the Eternals, that’s another great song by this group.
OK, yes, yes. Great, by the Eternals, yeah.
You had ‘Reach Out My Darling’ for Mudie as well.
I don’t remember, but we did some songs. The name, only if them play it I might remember them.
(Chuckles) I guess you’re right. ‘Secrets Of Tomorrow’ was another one.
But apart from the internal conflicts of a group, it seems as if it was just a part of the times. But you wish it could be more than just a trend, harmony groups. It’s something timeless about it.
Yes, beca’ everybody in those days… You see, like if you have a guitar you’re playing or you singin’ a song, two other guys do get fascinated and might just come an’ jus’ sing a harmony, and back you up also. And if them sound good, you just use them. But I think all those change now.
For the good or for the bad? The music shall not stay the same in order to get further, in other words things like losing the harmony tradition isn’t for…
No, no, no. It’s good to have a group. I mean, it all depends on what you’re really offering to the world, to your knowledge, what you want to put out to people. But you see, the breaking of a group, if you know that the group is unstable, it don’t make no sense to start somet’ing that you’re not going finish.
Right. Did you ever record for Leslie Kong, Beverley’s?
I’ve never record for Leslie Kong. What happen was, I went to audition with Jackie Opel – you remember Jackie Opel?
Deceased singer from Barbados, yes.
And Jackie Opel say: “Bwoy, this guy can sing, man”. But I pass the audition, but through Jackie Opel, beca’ him told Leslie Kong about me an’ t’ing, but I never showed up there to record. Yeah.
It could be a name rip-off too, I seem to remember seeing a Beverley’s record with your name on it, but possibly a different artist. Just to make the record sell.
They actually do that, but not with… Every song that I sing is I sing them, but Bunny Lee did that with me. You remember when Slim Smith – is another history that, and Slim Smith had a big tune that was going, it was me sing it, yunno. But Bunny Lee put it out and put Slim Smith name on it, and I was quarrellin’ with Bunny: “Why you put the man name on it?!” And him say is not him make the mistake, is the man who press the label, put the wrong name ‘pon it. And I tell him him must take it off, and then him seh: “Mek it gwaan so, it’s on the road a’ready” – you understan’ me?
Yep. Both you and Slim had that similarity in voice and style, owing a lot to Curtis Mayfield. This is how you shaped…
No, I was singin’ before Slim Smith, yunno. Yes, of course, I start sing 1956. Slim Smith used to adore my singin’, beca’ I used to sing for Coxson and him always want me to carry him to a producer, and I took him to Sir Coxsone. Him used to sound like Jerry Butler, and I told him him must change his style and become natural. And I took him to Sir Coxsone Downbeat, and Downbeat turned him down. But him never name ‘Slim’ Smith, him name Keith.
Keith Smith, right.
And Sir Coxsone Downbeat say: “But Keith, you no ready yet”. And him did feel embarrassed, and him went to Treasure Isle and formed a group named The …
The Techniques, with Winston Riley and a bredda named Derani and Daddom, right. That’s how him get him break, and then Downbeat draw after him, when him get big. And then me and him meet up in the sixties, seventies for Bunny Lee. We used to sing for Bunny Lee, you understan’ me, along with Delroy Wilson and the whole t’ing, John Holt, etcetera. Yeah.
What one can read in certain books or articles is that you somehow got in the shadow of Slim’s success, even was the one ‘inspired by’ Slim, like as if trying to rewrite or turning the history or facts over. I believe it was the opposite.
No, no, no. I was the one who took him to Downbeat (chuckles). What happen really, you see, a lot of people in those days, them don’t really come to the artists and ask the artists for interview, them jus’ insinuate and just write.
Some people think me start sing 1972, some say me start sing 19-… So them don’t know when, ‘But hear when me start sing…’ – you understan’ me?
But if you look on some of the CD’s them, you see different year, yunno. All me years is wrong too, you didn’t know that?
Awoah! Yes, some a dem, some CD’s you see wrong name… not wrong name, wrong age. Wrong time when me start sing. But if you look on Downbeat, Studio One album, you see my mark on ‘Magic Spell’, read the back and then you see. You know that album?
Yes, but I haven’t heard it yet though.
Look at it again, then you see it’s 1956 that I sing, right. Yeah, that is a true true copyright, is not the one dem whe you see come up after, people just hustle and write lickle t’ings beca’ dem don’t understan’ your background or where you’re coming from. Dem just deal with a false t’ing.
Don’t take time to go to the facts, right.
No, them don’t do that.
You were a member of The Uniques too.
Well, The Uniques was formed by me, Slim Smith, Jimmy Riley and another bredda named Donovan – originally formed, right. But I rehearse with them and I came out of the group, beca’ I say so much bull cyaan reign in one man pen. That’s how me go form the group named the Eternals. Beca’ we had the group named the Sensations, right, and then Jimmy Riley went and team up with Slim Smith.
There is a few versions floating around of how he died and how he really was, but I guess you have to take some of this with a nip of salt, some just make up a story or twist and turn it to make it sound more ‘sensational’ or whatever. I mean, you knew him, were close to him in those days, what was Slim really like back then?
Yes, I knew him very well. Him was just a person. I know him used to box a guitar and sing and seh to me, seh: “Cornell, you know any producer I could really record for?” And I told him about Sir Coxsone Downbeat and took him there. And him was… him was quiet, right, and him smoke a lot of them marijuana stuff.
Would you say he was that sort of introverted, moody type of person in private?
Well, when you say ‘moody’ it all depends, because guess what – in those days him was working with Bunny Lee, but him wasn’t really getting no money, right, to all of that. So him was kinda, well, moody out of those circumstances. Because I think him had some problem with Bunny Lee, singin’ so much songs and wasn’t really getting no good income.
About Slim’s passing, some suggest it was out of desperation for not getting what he was due and this contributed to his neurotic behavior and suddenly this happened, that he broke a window and laid there bleeding without any help coming his way. Others say it was some voodoo business, a curse on him, or that it was because of a love affair.
It’s so much different deal a going there, you understan’ me?
But remember, all of us used to sing, yunno, so I know the whole indoor stories. But there is things whe you don’t really talk and bring down people, you understan’ me?
I know what you mean.
But it not so him die. Him don’t just die of a love affair, but is another t’ing that you no really publish out. But he was dying by the… how you say now, is the whole circumstances of him being underpaid, right, wasn’t getting no money.
So him took it to heart and after that, one night we went to Dynamic Recording studio where I was doing a record, I sing a tune on the same session named ‘My Confession’ (sings the chorus) – you know that song, and Slim Smith sing a tune named ‘The Time Has Come’, and another tune whe Billy Stewart used to sing named ‘Reap What You Sow’… no, not ‘Reap What You Sow’ – ‘Sitting In The Park (Waiting For You)’. Him call it ‘Wait Any Longer’, and him went home and him and his… whe you call now… grandparents was having some dispute, beca’ dem was saying like ‘a big singer like you’, dem old life been a whole a (inaudible) and Slim Smith wasn’t really doing any money. And him punched the glass, the window.
And subsequently bled to death.
Yes, him bled to death, beca’ they was…. you know? They should have rushed him to the hospital immediately, but they send a man on a bicycle to call Bunny Lee, who was in Greenwich Farm for the night, and by the time Bunny Lee come out there him die. Is such a long… is a whole heap a history, a long story.
So you cut your self-titled debut album for Bunny around ’72?
Yes, yes, yes.
How did that happen, you knew Bunny from way back in the sixties?
No, no, no. I never knew Bunny Lee, Bunny Lee saw me and Robert Shakespeare in my band, was playing at a nightclub and he came there, and him seh him love the band and if I can come there and play for his session, and Robbie too. And then I say I can’t do it, beca’ I didn’t waan to desert my (inaudible) on them, right. But Robert Shakespeare went to him, and then after a while now my band defunct and I went to Bunny Lee for myself, beca’ Bunny Lee call me all the time and… y’know?
So I just went and so… I used to work as a team with Robert Shakespeare and everybody, until Robert Shakespeare break out and become famous. But he was playing in my band before.
You did so much music for a lot of different producers in those days and like most of the artists I assume you didn’t get the right amount regarding compensation, what you deserved out of all that work. Did you ever try to do your own production, set up a label and so forth?
Yeah man, I did several recordings, like ‘My Country’ which I give to a man named Phil something…
Phil Mathias from Cactus?
Yeah, is I give him, is not him produce. I just give him to distribute, you understan’ me?
Right, that one came out in England.
And it came out in England, yeah.
What else did you produce apart from that song?
Yeah, song I wouldn’t remember now. If not so I remember them I have them on my computer, but (chuckles)… you haffe jus’ remember the right year so, yeah.
But did you gather enough material for an album on your own from those days, music that could be put out now?
What I do, I work with the musicians dem and I have album that I could put out, but I never really put out an album for myself, you understan’ me, I just put out a few singles or so.
Apart from your singing, did you play guitar on sessions for others? I know you did some guitar work on several recordings in any case.
Of course – for Bunny Lee, mostly. I played on a lot of sessions, back up all Derrick Morgan, Johnny Clarke, all those guys. Yeah man. And play for myself, I play bass guitar. Like sometime when the musician dem don’t come up, don’t come at the studio, and I see what’s going on, I just fill in. Like Bunny Lee might say: “Cornell can play the piano, yunno”, so I just play the piano. And some days I play bass, if the bassman don’t come, if Robbie dem don’t come. But what they do in those days now, you’re not going to see my name on none of those songs dem that I play.
No credit whatsoever.
Beca’ dem give it to the other musician dem. Beca’ I did albums that I play and I see Robert Shakespeare name on them, you understan’ me? So a so it go, it was just a mix-up thing in Jamaica. You play a t’ing and you look an’ see ‘Earl Chinna’, and you see those men name on your t’ing dem, yunno? They don’t really give no credit. Beca’ the reason I think dem don’t give me no credit, beca’ I wasn’t really… dem focused on me more as a singer, ’cause I came with another hit record so. But I just fill in and drop in and play bass, dem don’t really bill me as, y’know, a great musician, like.
Were you able to tour anything back in the seventies for all those hit records, or you were more or less stuck in Jamaica?
Yes. Yeah man, I’ve been to a lot of places, England, America, y’know, Japan and such and such.
But back then?
No, not in those days, not really in those days. It came after, after. Yeah, but not in those days.
If he was able to tour in those times, who knows where his position would’ve been by now. A few shows in the UK in the seventies certainly wasn’t enough. Cornell Campbell was and is an astonishing, remarkable talent who never got the true recognition he deserves. Just one listen to that sweet voice and you’re hooked. But he is getting back there in his rightful position, finally, largely thanks to excellent compilations such as Westside’s ‘The Minstrel’, issued ’00 and mainly based on his self-titled debut LP from 1973, and Blood & Fire’s ‘I Shall Not Remove’, perhaps the best one to start with regarding collections of Cornell’s vast output for producer Bunny Lee. His effortless tenor glides easily over tracks like the hard roots of ‘Two Face Rasta’ on the latter CD and the jazzy ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ on the former, irresistable both of them. If only Mr Lee could repress Cornell’s ‘Stalowatt’ and ‘Turn Back The Hands Of Time’ LP’s as well as the debut album in its original form, then we have a treasure of vintage material on the market few can compete with. Cornell and Bunny churned out some of the best recordings of that era, and the proof is to be found on these (nowadays) hard-to-come-by records. If only Cornell himself could collect some of the best of the enormous output he’s had over the years on the 7″-inch format and get a slice of the cake he, probably, never got at the time, then we’d have a feast of some of the greatest reggae music ever made, and available (finally) on CD. Take the brilliant ‘My Country’ or his Wackies killer ‘A Yuh’ to name just two, they simply must come out again. How about it, Mr Campbell? Please make an effort to collect this timeless music. I should not end this article without mentioning the brilliant but perhaps a bit unexpected Rhythm & Sound-collaboration which appeared on 10″ a few years ago, ‘King In My Empire’ showed that he can just as easily adjust to a stripped down modern beat as he could from all previous eras in Jamaican music. Call him what you will, soulful, elegant, expressive, powerful, or call him simply the great ‘Gorgon’ if you want, but he’s truly a musical chameleon. A vocalist of the highest calibre, that might sound like a cliché if anything, but in the case of Cornell Campbell it’s absolutely true. His recorded output speaks for itself.