Tribute to the Toughest
Dave Chapple, Bridgwater postman and Jamaican music DJ, pays respects to ska/rock steady king Prince Buster, who died on September 8th
Cecil Bustamante Campbell, aka Prince Buster, was born on May 24th 1938 in Kingston Jamaica, British West Indies. Buster’s father was a rail worker, and, one suspects, a trades unionist: on that auspicious birthday, Alexander Bustamante, the leader of the historic workers uprising that had begun on the Frome Sugar Estate a month before, had been jailed. Bustamante became Cecil’s second name!
The young Prince Buster, living in Orange Street where he later moved his Record Shack, was a child of the West Kingston ghetto. He was a keen amateur boxer, a music lover from the outset and child performer at the Glass Bucket Club. Later in the 1950’s, frustrated at failing to get a job cutting cane in the southern states of the USA, Buster became a go-fer for Downbeat Sound System owner Coxson Dodd: checking out rare records, providing muscle on sound system nights against rivals such as Duke Reid, and, occasionally, sabotage of Reid’s sounds.
Encouraged musically by drummer Arkland Parks (Drumbago), Buster set up his Voice of the People Sound System in 1960, and started to record other singers as well as himself. Buster encouraged his chosen musicians to develop their own Jamaican version of USA Rhythm and Blues, and by 1961 had helped to create the ska, a sound that still, 55 years later, reverberates around the world. Those early ska musicians, called “Buster’s All Stars” included Ernie Ranglin, bass; Jerome Haynes, guitar, Rico Rodriguez and J. Nelson, trombones; Hedley Bennett, alto sax; Stanley Notice and Roland Alphonso, tenor sax; Raymond Harper and Oswald Brooks, trumpet, and Gladstone Anderson, piano.
Buster’s “My sound that goes around” and “These are the times”’; Derek Morgan’s “Shake a leg”; Eric Morris’ “Money can’t buy life” and “Humpty Dumpty” were some early, slightly slower, pioneering, Voice of the People ska sounds.
Race, class, sex, crime and political controversy were always present in Buster’s musical visions. Those early, brave collaborations with Count Oswald William’s Rastafarian drummers: “Oh Carolina”, “I met a man” and “Chubby”; a musical feud with Derek Morgan, after Derek left Buster to record with Chinese Jamaican Leslie Kong: “Black Head Chinaman”, “Praise without raise” “One hand wash the other”; the famous original version of “Madness”, complete with a wonderful Raymond Harper trumpet solo and a dig at unscrupulous politicians (“Propaganda Ministers, they’ve got an aim in view, they are going to walk all over you!”); “Big Boss Man”; “Under Arrest”, and many others.
By 1964 Buster and his musicians had fully developed their classic ska style: faster, sometimes furious tempos, to test the best ska “legs men” around: three or four instruments hammering that ska off beat, Buster and others adding strange but exciting mouth-percussion effects; wild, sometimes beautiful ska-jazz brass and reed solos; topped by a vocal or Buster himself scatting, referencing TV or movie themes: “I’ll get the man who killed my wife, till then I remain The Fugitive”; “Al Capone Guns don’t argue!” and, uniquely, inventing his own dramatic musical monologues on his key themes: “Ten Commandments of Man”; “Drunkard Psalm”; and later into rock steady, “Free love and unity”; “Black Man must be Free”;, with “Train to Girl’s Town”, and “Earthquake on Orange Street.” 1964 was also the year he met his hero Mohammed Ali, who inspired him to join the Nation of Islam and change his record company label from “Voice of the People” to “Islam”.
During 1966 Buster released his classic rock-steady “Judge Dread” monologues, serious-humorous tributes/attacks on armed and extremely dangerous “rude boys” of the West Kingston gangs like Blue Mafia, Phoenix and the Toughest, whose leaders Buster befriended. Buster/Judge Dread, who is from Ethiopia, sentences the tough rude lads to 400 years and 500 lashes, for “shooting black people.” Prince Buster, the Godfather of Rap?
Buster was already unpopular with most politicians for supporting the sufferers of the West Kingston slum of Back ‘O’ Wall when it was raised to the ground on the orders of the Syrian-Jamaican Eddie Seaga; by the late 1960’s Jamaica’s own Black Muslim musical militant was grabbing the mike off a national radio DJ to protest the expulsion of Marxist history lecturer Walter Rodney, or arrested after leading a march through Kingston against the white regime in Rhodesia.
Buster linked up with London’s Emil Shallit, the legendary Jewish owner of Melodisc records, to release hundreds of his records on the iconic Bluebeat Label. He toured England on several occasions, recording with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames (“Wash wash”) and Rico (“Barrister Pardon”), and even posing in African costume alongside his slave-namesake, the UK-based highlife band leader Ambrose Campbell. There is even a rumour that in 1967 Buster played the Newmarket Hotel for a Xmas dance in Bridgwater!
Prince Buster was also the first king of sexy rude ska, rock steady and reggae: “She pon top”’ “Rough rider”; “Wreck a pum-pum”; “Big Five”, are horny (and funny) as hell, with words I cannot repeat in a family newspaper!
Prince Buster had lost his popularity by the time of the roots-rasta reggae trend of the early 1970’s. He put out a few golden oldies LP’s, sold juke boxes for a few years then retired to Miami. Re-discovered by the Two-tone generation, he was persuaded out of retirement: once again, as he had been for the Mods in ’64 and the skins in ‘67/68, a Jamaican musical working class hero!
Prince Buster and his All Stars leave us with a huge legacy of recordings, most of which are well worth a listen, many of which are brilliant, while twenty or so are unique, original gems of popular music. Here is my Prince Buster top ten: “My sound that goes around”; “These are the times”; “The Fugitive”; “Al Capone”; “Ten Commandments of man”; “Drunkard Psalm”;” Judge Dread”; “Ghost Dance”; “Train to Girl’s Town”, “Walter Rodney, Black Power!” Happy listening!