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The Gorgon Speaks: An Interview with Cornel Campbell

by Michael Turner

The Gorgon SpeaksThe rhythm, the language, and the studio effects initially pulled me into reggae. But the singers really got me hooked, especially as I began to appreciate & recognize great sopranos. There have been many wonderful high-voiced artists: Slim Smith, Ken Parker & Pat Kelly lead the way; and there’s Tabby Diamond, Leroy Sibbles, Delano Stewart, Roy Johnson and Cedric Myton (Congos), Derrick Lara, all the Juniors (Murvin, Moore, and Menns), Eric Donaldson, the Manning Brothers (Abyssinians, Carlton and the Shoes), Bunny Wailer, Dave Barker and dozens more; not to mention the youth singers like Roman Stewart, Errol Dunkley, Freddy McGregor, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown. At the very top of this list I would put Cornel Campbell. Not only because his voice seems to me the sweetest, but because he controls it so masterfully, with none of the strain that can be heard in the work of most others. Cornell’s delivery is always relaxed, the notes true and nicely detailed, the sweetness balanced by the right portion of sadness. His body of work is substantial: over two hundred records, most of them fine covers of soul classics or his own rich originals.

Another remarkable thing about Cornel Campbell is the length of his career. I can’t think of another Jamaican artist who has made hits in every one of its musical eras. Cornell made his first record at age nine, in the late 50s, well before the advent of ska; and he’s still making music that’s heard in today’s dancehalls. During the ska era he voiced for Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid’s brother-in-law King Edwards. In the rocksteady era he was involved in the formation of three important harmony groups: the Sensations, the Cornell Campbell UK advertUniques, and the Eternals. His solo career took off in 1968 when he returned to Studio One to write and record what may be Jamaica’s best two-sider ever: Stars on the A side, Queen Of The Minstrel on the flip. Both are powerful love songs that epitomized Cornell’s music, with their crisp arrangements, interesting chord changes, and feathery vocals. For the next decade he went on to become one of Jamaica’s most popular singers, with big hits for Coxsone Dodd, Joe Gibbs, Ossie Hibbert, and especially Bunny Lee. (We’ll discuss some of these on the following pages.) One of the best things about the music of the 70s was the work Bunny Lee did with singers like Pat Kelly, Derrick Morgan, John Holt, Jackie Edwards, John Holt and of course Johnny Clarke. His collaboration with Bunny Lee was particularly fruitful, resulting in over one hundred recordings, including the first voicing ever done at King Tubby’s studio.

Yet for all his talent and local popularity Cornell has had sparse international success, with no major hits and few concert appearances. Until recently he remained an obscure figure even to the people who avidly collect his music. I had tried unsuccessfully for many years to find him, and feared that he’d ended up in rough straits like so many older Jamaican artists. So a few years ago I was surprised when Elliott Lieb brought Cornell out to San Diego, and gratified when Roger Steffens described him as “really together”.

Three summers ago Warren Smith brought him out to Mendocino for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, and I was able to meet Cornell at his hotel the day before his appearance. Elliott had described him as a “prince”, and that pretty much describes Cornell’s appearance and demeanor. He’s a tall man with dark black dreadlocks and beard and an unlined face who looks twenty years younger than his given age of sixty. He was polite but a bit guarded at first but became forthcoming as I began to play his singles on a portable turntable. Cornell takes great interest in music of the past, the first Jamaican artist I’ve met who collects his own records. He seemed to enjoy listening to his musical accomplishments, particularly a few things he’d forgotten about, and he was quick and sure with his opinions and recollections.

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