The name of Prince Buster simply came at you from all angles if you are of the same vintage as me. After being a firm favourite of the latter day Mods and early skinheads of the 1960s, his influence on the youth of the UK of the late 70s/early 80s just cannot be denied. A whole crop of bands from Madness to The Specials to The Beat all bowed to the man and used his music to give us spotty ‘erberts a healthy musical education, one that many of us are still imbibing from to this day.
Over the past few weeks, Smiler Anderson and myself have been finally putting to bed our book ‘Scorcha!’ which examines the world of the original skinheads and then the suedeheads that followed. The Covid crisis and other admin problems have caused a delay in getting published, but things are now moving in the right direction, so timely then for me to give my take on the man Buster through the pages of Art Gallery Clothing.
He was born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in May 1938 in Jamaica, on Orange Street in Kingston to be precise. His somewhat unusual middle name came from the statesman and later to be Jamaican Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante. As a youth, a young Cecil sang in church, whilst first living with his grandmother out in the countryside of the country.
Back in Kingston a few years later, and by then the leader of a tough street gang, he picked up his performing name Prince from his boxing skills, with Buster being corrupted from his middle name. His first gigs were at the Glass Bucket Club, a very popular venue at the time. He then became an avid follower of the sound system run by Tom the Great Sebastian and it was there that he heard the tunes of the R’n’B scene in the US.
His reputation as a very decent fighter and a clued up streetwise operator also brought him to the attention of Coxsone Dodd. Buster began working for him and his sound system covering a range of ‘security’ jobs, as well as sourcing and then selecting the tunes for him to play. Thus having learned the ropes of operating a sound system to a high level, he struck out on his own and his own Voice of the People sound system operation began.
He also opened his own record store ‘Buster’s Record Shack.’ Legendary figures such as Duke Reid and Coxsone himself soon learned they had a rival to contend with as Campbell’s system went from strength to strength very quickly. Tensions run high, but Buster was not one to back down. Having failed to get to the States on a record-buying trip, after applying to work as a farm hand out there, Buster instead decided to record his own music from 1959.
His first single was ‘Little Honey’ with ‘Luke Lane Shuffle’ on the B-side. Attributed to Buster’s Group, the songs featured one Rico Rodriguez on trombone, someone of course that those of the same generation mentioned up top, would get to know very well in the years to come, through his work with The Specials amongst many others.
Buster went on to produce ‘Oh Carolina’ by the Folkes Brother, a tune that would go on to be a hit in the UK on the Blue Beat label. Ska as a thing was thus born as tracks like ‘They Gotta Go’ and ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ emerged from the Buster canon of tunes.
Other tracks soon followed including the classics ‘Madness’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself’ in 1963 and ‘One Step Beyond’ ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Al Capone’ in 1964, which later went on to top twenty success in the UK in 1967.
He toured the UK in 1964, with sell out shows all over and appeared on the seminal TV show ‘Ready Steady Go’ performing ‘Wash All Your Troubles Away.’ Also in that year, Buster converted to the Nation of Islam after a meeting with Muhammad Ali, becoming Mohammed Yusef Ali.
As the Ska sound developed into a more Rock Steady beat, ‘Prince of Peace’ ‘Too Hot’ and ‘Shaking up Orange Street’ landed in 1966. ‘Rude Rude Rudie’ and ‘Judge Dread’ closely followed in 1967 both highlighting the Rude Boy culture prevalent in the Kingston at that time. ‘Wine and Grind’ or ‘Whine and Grine’ (the spelling of which depends on what record label you have) ‘Rough Rider’ and ‘Scorcher’ dropped in 1968.
Over in the plain brown wrapper ‘rude reggae’ section, ‘Big Five’ from 1967 and ‘Wreck a Pum Pum’ from 1968 are among his, shall we say, more risqué tunes.
Buster worked on the production side for artists like Dennis Brown and Big Youth as his
own releases became less and less frequent as the Roots Reggae sound dominated the airwaves from the early 70s and Buster struggled somewhat to fit in to it.
The film ‘The Harder They Come’ from 1972, features a cameo appearance from Buster playing a DJ.
For the rest of the 1970s he lived in Miami running a juke box business and preaching at his local mosque staying out of the music business for many years, even when his catalogue formed much of the early music of the 2 Tone explosion here in the UK in the late 1970s, early 1980s and a cry of ‘bring back the prince’ could be heard all over. He finally reappeared in the mid 80s and then began touring and recording once again from the early 90s. Now travelling the world with his songs, it was perhaps no real surprise; he was quite literally big in Japan.
Back home in Miami, the pace slowed down and he loved his garden, planting seeds from his overseas trips.
In 2001, he received the Order of Distinction in Jamaica, and then sadly he suffered his first stroke in 2009 and from then his health deteriorated.
Heart problems in 2016 finally hospitalised him in Miami and he died that year.
He left a wife Mola Ali and their three children.
Prince Buster, The King of Ska was 78 years old.
The Mumper of SE5
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