‘There’s hardly a man, woman or child in Jamaica who doesn’t know the voice of Prince Buster’, boldly states the first line of the original sleeve notes for the great man’s ‘Fabulous Greatest Hits’ album. That just about sums up Cecil Bustamante Campbell – a man whose career began in the pre-ska R&B era and was still able to pull in the crowds well into the 21st Century.
Prince Buster may not have been the most of gifted of vocalists, but he could coax the best from musicians and singers alike, and create some of the most important pieces of Jamaican musical history that are still versioned to this very day.
Born in 1938 and firstly turning to boxing as a profession, Busterwas soon employed by Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd as a minder for his ‘Sir Coxsone Down Beat’ sound system where his ring-skills were much in demand. The dances could very quickly turn in to war zones with cables and people cut with equal ease by rival operators, so it was essential to have a few able hands available to keep the proceedings running well and guard against unwelcome guests.
A split with Dodd lead him to set up his own ‘Voice of the People’ sound system, record label and record shop. The name was all-important to Buster as he was one of the people, not some high flyer from the better part of town.
This was something he would always be proud of, associating with the working class masses that attended his dances and bought his records. His background stood him in good stead, and there was very little trouble at his dances where he would lure away customers from rival events with his latest productions blazing out in to the night.
His first major production was the Rasta influenced ‘Carolina’ by the Folkes Brothers, with percussive musical backing from Count Ossie. It was a brave move to allow Rastafari to enter the studio and, even more brave to record the very sound that the ruling and upper classes had tried to subdue since the inception of the movement some three decades earlier.
The record was a hit both in Jamaica and the UK where it found release on the Melodisc subsidiary, ‘Blue Beat’. The inner cities of the UK were a rapidly growing market for Jamaican music, so the label was initially set-up with a view to releasing all Buster‘s work, both as a performer and producer to cash-in on the boom.
Not only were the West Indian immigrants hungry for his sounds and home in general, but also the modernist youth movement had taken to Jamaican music as its own, and were happily buying anything that was on offer.
The music soon became known as ska in Jamaica but the UK knew it as ‘Blue Beat’ thanks to the vast amount of releases the label pushed out every month. The generic name stuck right up to the fast pumping reggae era of the late 1960’s when albums still proudly announced ‘the best sounds in blue beat’ on their gaudy sleeves.
So popular was Prince Buster in the UK that he came over on tour in the mid 1960’s and played to ecstatic mod crowds, culminating in a nationwide TV appearance on ‘Ready Steady Go’, the teen-pop show of the day.
Ska blazers such as ‘Al Capone’, its flip side ‘One Step Beyond’, ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ and countess others graced many a mod’s record box and filled Melodisc‘s coffers of, while Busterallegedly taught George Fame how to play ska. Mr. Fame’s Blue Flames certainly did play on a number of UK recorded ska numbers so there may well be some truth in the matter.
And some fifteen years later Buster‘s influence in the UK was still felt as the 2Tone movement’s finest band, Madness, not only took their name from one of his most popular songs, but also debuted with an accolade to the man entitled ‘The Prince’.
Meanwhile, his ‘Ten Commandments (From Woman To Man)’ made it to number 81 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and led to a short-lived deal with RCA Records.
By the turn of the ska to rock steady, Buster had enticed in to the studio some of Kingston’s finest performers like the fervent gospel fired Maytals, jazz masters Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook, with vocalists supreme Slim Smith and Larry Marshall cutting the odd piece of work, although, strangely, Mr. Robert Marley never was to come.
A solo outing from Wailer, Peter Tosh was recorded under his auspices and was issued under a pseudonym in the UK, as were the Slim Smith and Larry Marshall sides. This was besides having laid down on wax blazing jazz-ska semi-instrumentals like the ever desirable ‘Dance Cleopatra’ and ‘Seven Wonders Of The World’, the vast majority of which were lapped up by the mods upon release on Blue Beat in the UK, with odd tune finding its way over on rare and precious import via sailors and aircrew.
Prince Buster’s three spoken commentary discs observing the rude boy situation in Jamaica were particularly well received, ‘Judge Dread’ being the first, and also giving name to the UK’s own rude rhymer of the following decade.
As the sweat drenched ska died away to the cool sound of rock steady, and then reggae, Buster‘s lyrics became more centred on the innuendo, or slack side of things, with his biggest hit being ‘Big 5’, a risqu?? little number based on smooth crooner Brook Benton’s‘Rainy Night In Georgia’. He failed to capitalise on this hit, and seeing the golden opportunity an ex-bouncer from Kent recorded the follow-up ‘Big 6’ for Trojan Records. He called himself Judge Dread, after Buster‘s stone-faced adjudicator, promptly got banned by the BBC and made a fruitful career out of rudeness until his untimely death.
Many consider the Prince‘s rock steady sides some of the best of the genre; particularly the ever-versioned ‘Shaking Up Orange Street’ and its instrument cut, ‘Freezing Up Orange Street’. Even popular soul tunes of the day gained a rock steady lick with tracks such as ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ gaining heavy sales across the island.
With the dawning of the reggae era Buster picked up the beat and once again released some exemplary cuts such as ‘Hit Me Back’ and ‘Ganja Plant’, which rode the fast rhythms so favoured by the UK’s skinhead population. It was a style far removed from the jazzy ska sounds of a few years previously.
At this time he also opened a number of record shops and invested in juke boxes (with plenty of his own releases installed) and the UK saw the appearance of the Prince Buster label alongside Fab, which had superseded the old fashioned Blue Beat imprint.
During the early 1970’s, Buster recorded some of the new up and coming artists such as a youthful Dennis Brown and ace deejay Big Youth, alongside tracks with the more seasoned artists such as John Holt and the Ethiopians, although his output was slowing as his other business activities took precedence.
A couple of years later, as the roots reggae era thundered in, he had all but disappeared from the recording scene, although the lone ‘The Message Dubwise’ album was an attempt to move in to King Tubby‘s new-found territories. It didn’t sell too well, even though it was a reasonable piece of work, and Buster realised his back catalogue was providing more interest than his forward moving projects.
Over the years that followed, he embarked upon a steady and almost continuous reissue programme of his recordings, so much so that collectors have problems distinguishing between the different pressings of the same record, as so many issues have been released.
In 1998, Buster finally returned to the UK charts, some 31 years after ‘Al Capone’ had become one of the first Jamaican-produced recordings to make the pop listings, when his updated version of ‘Whine Or Grine’ for Island Records climbed to the very respectable number 21 position.
By now, he had resumed his live work, illustrating that he still possessed the same sprightly agility that he had many years back, to the young and not so young appreciators of his music, as the ska revival scene took root.
As the 20th Century gave way to a new millennium, Buster continued to tour andwas awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government, but in 2009, he suffered a major stroke that tragically out an end to his musical career. Sadly, he was never to fully recover and on the morning of 8th September 2016, one of the most influential and popular acts in the history of Jamaican music passed away in his adopted city of Miami.
Based on Michael de Koningh‘s sleeve notes for ‘Fabulous Greatest Hits’ (Trojan, 2002)