Cecil Bustamente Campbell, the Jamaican musician who, as Prince Buster, pioneered ska and rocksteady music, died Thursday, according to the Jamaican Observer. Campbell’s son confirmed his death to the Observer. He was 78. While the cause of death remains unknown, Campbell had suffered a series of strokes in recent years.
Campbell, dubbed “The King of Ska,” was one of the most influential musicians in Jamaica in the 1960s; a prolific singer and producer whose work would help influence both the island’s massive crop of vocalists and, later, the bourgeoning next wave of U.K. reggae artists. Under the tutelage of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Campbell was equally influential in the rising sound system culture.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 24th, 1938, Campbell earned the nicknames “Prince” for his pre-music career as a street boxer and “Buster” after Jamaican Labour party leader Sir Alexander Bustamante. He fronted numerous now-obscure groups before becoming Dodd’s security guard-cum–personal assistant–cum-selector. It was here where Campbell learned the machinations of Jamaica’s music industry, knowledge he used in becoming his own sound system operator and the owner of record store Buster’s Record Shack. Campbell’s “Voice of the People” system quickly became one of the island’s most revered, rivaling legends like Dodd and Duke Reid.
Campbell produced and released his first single, “Little Honey”/”Luke Lane Shuffle,” under the name Buster’s Group in 1961, the same year he would produce ska group the Folkes Brothers’ beloved “Oh Carolina.” On that track, as on many subsequent songs, Campbell asked guitarist Jah Jerry to focus on the song’s afterbeat — the weaker part of a musical beat — versus the more typical downbeat. The shift, combined with the use of nyabingi drummers Count Ossie and His Wareikas, would mark a huge influence on the development of ska music. Campbell would produce 13 songs during the “Oh Carolina” session, each one becoming a nationwide hit.
Few were as prolific or successful as Prince Buster (both as singer and producer) in the 1960s, with a near-limitless stream of his songs — 1963’s “Madness,” 1964’s “Al Capone,” 1967’s “Judge Dread” — becoming hits. Campbell released dozens of of recordings annually, eventually helping to spearhead ska’s transition to the slower, more sinewy rocksteady in the mid-1960s. He traveled extensively, becoming Jamaican music’s first international superstar, especially in the U.K., before Bob Marley.
In the early 1970s, after producing for numerous Jamaican DJs, Campbell heavily slowed down his output and moved to Miami. He essentially retired in 1973, but watched as his influence took over a new wave of ska musicians in the U.K. (Madness named themselves after Campbell’s hit and their first single, “The Prince,” became a Top 20 hit.) He returned to the stage in the late 1980s, touring with the Skatalites as his backing group, and began recording new music in the early 1990s.
As The Guardian noted, in 2001, Campbell received the esteemed Order of Distinction in Jamaica for his contribution to the country’s music industry.