I can usually tell how a phone interview is going to go by the first question. Sometimes there’s a long, quite, reflective (or bored, indifferent) pause, other times the answer’s coming before I’m done with the question. When I called drummer/producer Fred Campbell at his home in Florida, I had barely said hello before he laughed and started in on a winding and wonderful story from his very storied past.
And he kept it up for close to an hour, sharing memories of his youth in Jamaica, the many bands he played with, the artists he knew, the songs he loved, the musicians’ craft, his current projects and the keys to a good and happy life. He’s a gifted raconteur with the kind of soft, melodic voice you can listen to all day, and the kind of stories that make it time well spent. I suggest you do what I did—grab a cold drink, sit back and enjoy.
A note about the links in this story. Fred may or may not be the drummer on the music tracks. He’ll be the first to tell you that his memory isn’t what it used to be. So think of the tracks more as a soundtrack to an era than as an artist’s discography.
RSS: I’m just trying to put together some questions. You played with a lot of people in the early days of Ska.
Fred: Oh yes, I went around the block a few times! I played with Kes Chin and the Souvenirs, Carlos Malcolm and the Afro Jamaican Rhythms. I sat in with many of the little bands, mostly an ego thing I think. Then I moved to the north coast hotel bands [and played with] Leslie Butler, Ernest Ranglin, Headly Jones and Sonny Bradshaw. After that I led my own band for more than five years before migrating to the USA.
When did you know that music was going to be a constant part of your life?
I didn’t know that until I actually left school. By then I had been playing a little around. Just making some pocket money, you know? I got a job. I was an accountant. Learning the business of accounting at a big firm. I was making, at that time, I think six pounds a week. That was big money then.
I was walking around Kingston one night and I heard a band rehearsing. They didn’t have a drummer. So I went over and said, “Hey, I can play drums.” Never saw a drum set before in my life.
You’re kidding, right?
I’m dead serious. But I thought I had good hand/eye coordination. So, I got a few tips and I climbed on and I played. I got the job. We were doing birthday parties and weddings and things like that. We worked Friday and Saturday night. I would be coming home with like 18 pounds. Nine pounds a gig! Can you imagine that?
I’m saying, I don’t need to be an accountant. But I didn’t come to that conclusion right away. I kind of simmered on it a little, you know? After a few months, I said, what if I knew music. Knew something about music. I don’t have to know a whole lot. But a little more. Because I know nothing now! I started meeting with older musicians who started to get me along the way. One of the first bits of advice I got was, “Fred, have you ever seen a plumber go on the job without his tools? Well, you’re a drummer. Get your own tool. That band leader that you have now he can say to you any night, “Get up and leave my drums and go about your business.” But if you own your own drum set, he’s gonna think twice before he tells you to leave.”
I took that advice very seriously. I went out and bought a drum set the next day. I found it to be very true because in those days, the band leaders sorta owned a lot of the instruments themselves. The PA system, the drums, the amplifier. They sorta controlled the band through that. Eventually musicians began to buy their own instruments.
I was 19 at the time. I had to go to high school. I had to go to college. But my music career sidelined my college. Years later, my friends that I went to high school with became doctors and lawyers. You know. They went to college. They would say to me, “Fred, you want to swap?” I said, “Swap what?” “You come to the office and you be the doctor today. I’ll go and play music.” They were so envious of me. Being able to play music. It’s amazing. I never could figure that out.
I’ve learned to appreciate the profession of music when I decided to do music. I grew up with my aunt and she told me immediately, “If you’re gonna do music, you gotta move out. You gotta go on your own.”
Yep! So, I moved out. Never looked back.
When did you start recording?
I had some young friends who were fooling around in the studio. When I say ‘studio’ I use that word loosely. We had two track machines at a time in a little house. They said, “Man we got a single, hey Fred, let’s go.” Everybody wanted me to go with them. I was an uptown guy. In Jamaica that means I wasn’t in the ghetto. But I went down into the ghetto, daily. All my friends were down in the ghetto. And the lovely Jamaican girls! I had a good rapport with them. So they roped me into playing drums for them. It’s not something I did because I wanted to do it. It’s something that just happened. My whole music career just happened. I was in the right place at the right time.
The recording side of the business was growing alongside the creative side, it was moving from two tracks to 24 tracks and a huge board that took up half the control room, all in a matter of less than 10 years.
I would go down and play and get paid afterwards. I’d get paid two pounds a side. Every time you do a track, that was two pounds. I got so cocky afterward. Young fellow, you know, 18 years old. I thought I was it. Stupid of me, but hey, that was it. When Mr. [Linden O.] Pottinger would call, I would tell him, “I’m not coming unless you have at least 10 tracks.” Can you imagine that, man? And he’d say, “Oh yes, sir, we got 20!” Okay, I’m coming. You grow old and you realize, they should have told me, “No. Goodbye.”
But I was lucky. Because there weren’t too many other drummers around who owned their own instrument as well. I was able to go and do things immediately. A lot of things worked in my favor, you know. I had transportation. So I used to pick up a lot of the guys and take them to sessions and take them back home. He [Mr. Pottinger] used me for transportation too. I didn’t think of it that way then though. Eighteen years old, you’re not thinking anything like that.
Let’s talk about your time with Granville Williams and the Granville Williams Orchestra. What a band that was!
Sammy Ismay, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Williams, Ernest Ranglin, Cedrick Brooks, Audley Williams. Audley and Granville were brothers. Lloyd Wilks was a singer, a great singer. It was an all-star band. Definitely. Earnest did the arrangements. He was with the band, and at the time, he was going through a difficult spell in his life. But everybody loved him and encouraged him. We were there for him. He’s officially retired now. By the way. He’s 82 and he’s officially retired. I tell him that he’s joking, but it’s okay. But I do know that his fingers move a little slower now. He was very fast. He was rated in the top three in the world at one stage, you know?
Did I tell you when I was young, the first time I got the opportunity to play with him? Earnest Raglan, Lester Butler, Rolland Alfonzo, and Harold “Willie” Williams was on bass. That’s a bass player you’ll never hear about but outstanding. I was playing at The Glass Bucket Club. Earnest started his solo and I was so engrossed in the solo that I stopped playing. And he just walked over to me quietly and he said, “You know, you can join in, too. It’s your time.” Other players would get angry and stomp their foot and shout. He was never like that. He was very easy to get along with.
There are a lot of great guys that never recorded. Like Tidy Moat. He played bass. Today he’s still playing. And he lives near me now, too. And he’s still playing. Not as fast. There’s a guy named Rupert Carpet [sp?]. He died. He was a piano player that Monty [Alexander] respected. If you can imagine! I played in a group with Rupert, Tidy and myself. A trio. One night, Monty came around and so Rupert got up and said, “Hey Monty, come on and play a little.” And Monty said, “Hell no. You think I want to embarrass myself?”
Rupert used to play with all the top guys in Florida. He was in demand. He’s the best reader that I know. I have seen some really great musicians … There was Don Drummond, of course. [One night the] trumpeter didn’t come to work. Don leaned over from his position and played the trumpet part. As a musician, you know that the trumpet and trombone are two different parts. And he sight read and sight transposed one time. And played the part! We were on stage, so there’s no room for mistakes. You talk about great musicians. I have seen a few.
Who do you like to listen to?
You know, it’s amazing. I am fond of singers. And my favorite singer is Boris Gardner. Anything by Boris Gardiner will be good for me.
What’s next for Fred Campbell?
I’m a late bloomer. Until in my 40s before I started writing music. You know? I was just tagging along the whole time. On for the ride! I have just started being myself though. Skajamz [and here] is the first venture into being myself. The music that Skajamz played all the stuff that I write. I’m interested in building a thing, establishing a song. Everybody is into gigging. I’m not used to that so. I love the hard jam.
I’ll be in the studio next month [March, 2017]. I have it booked. By the end of next month, I’ll have a couple more things out. There’s a piano player, his name is Kiki Sanchez. He’s Spanish he’s from Peru. Excellent! Young piano player. I have a young drummer I just met, 18 years old, and he’s born in the states but of Jamaican parents. I’m gonna have a female singer do one of the songs I wrote. Which is a sort of, fun sort of, political statement sort of speak.
You also have your Ska Is Back podcast on CRS Radio. How did that come about?
I was interviewed on a station and then one of the owners asked me if I like to do a program for them. I don’t know anything about broadcasting. He said, “Man, this is the modern world of internet radio. We can teach you.”
They did a little couple of sessions with me and I started the program. Not one program has gone smoothly yet. I have had glitches all the time. I’m still waiting for the perfect program!
[Note: After the interview, Fred and I stayed on the line, just chatting. He’s so easy to talk to that the time just flew by. Eventually he said, “Charles, that is just the start of the “me” story. But as I said there would be no me without all the other musicians. I don’t think I was an outstanding drummer. Everybody thinks so, but I don’t. I really don’t see the point in focusing on me when I’m not half the musician that many of them are and were.” Sorry, Fred. I have to disagree.]