Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Prince Buster 1938-2016

10th September 2016

Prince Buster is a big deal to me. I’ve listened and danced to his music for well over forty years now. As with his fellow countryman Lee Perry, it’s just always been there. Music how I like it: rhythmic, exotic, rebellious. He died this week and the tributes have been pouring in (unsurprisingly I found Richard Williams’ words particularly moving). Here’s one from us, written with love by Lois Wilson (JB).

Prince Buster was my musical hero. I shall never forget the first time I interviewed him in 2000. He cut a striking presence, immaculately dressed in trilby, dark shades, black leather biker jacket and matching leather trousers. He was immediately suspicious when I told him how excited I was to meet him and how much I loved his music. He explained how he’d spent the earlier part of the day “answering questions I shouldn’t have been asked by people who were not reggae fans” and he suspected the same would happen with me. “I only believe you if you answer my 10 questions,” he told me. My heart was pounding, my hands shaking. I can only recall the first three – Why am I called Prince Buster? What was the name of my soundsystem? What was the first ska record? – but thankfully I passed and he began to regale me with tales from his remarkable musical story. “I was put on this earth to entertain the people, to make them smile, to make them jump. I am here to unify the people… That’s what my concerts are about,” he said. And that night, at the Kentish Town Forum to a sold out crowd, he did just that, his set delivering the perfect balance of good times and history lesson with renditions of his classics Al Capone, Too Hot, Enjoy Yourself, Madness, One Step Beyond et al. I met him a handful of times after that. He was always the perfect gentleman, remembering little details I’d mentioned to him previously, and at an awards ceremony once, picking me out of a crowd to make sure he got to say hello.

Sadly, Prince Buster passed away in Miami on September 8, aged 78. That such a huge musical force has gone is hard to believe. A ska pioneer, who was the first to utilise the nyabingi drumming of Count Ossie And His Wareikas on the Folkes Brothers’ Oh Carolina in 1961, he was also reggae ambassador – he was the first Jamaican singer to have a Top 20 hit in the UK in 1965 with Al Capone – and he inspired future generations, most notably the 2 Tone movement. At one point during the 1979 2 Tone tour, all three groups on the bill – The Specials, Madness, The Selecter – were covering Buster’s Madness in their sets.

Born on May 24, 1938 on Kingston, Jamaica’s Orange Street, Cecil Bustamente Campbell started out as a street boxer, adopting the fighting name Prince, before coming to the attention of Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, a leading Jamaican musical figure, with whom he worked as a security guard and selector. While under Coxsone’s wing, he learned the music trade and by the late ’50s, had struck out on his own, helming the Voice Of The People soundsystem and Buster’s Record Shack. He made his recording debut in 1961 on Little Honey/ Luke Lane Shuffle as Buster’s Group. “Rico was on that,” he told me. “He was an inspiration. So were Paul Robeson and Billy Eckstine. I was listening to and learning from them. I was excited. I wanted to be a star. I thought I would be.” That same year he produced the Folkes Brothers’ Oh Carolina. With its use of nyabingi drummers Count Ossie And His Wareikas, it provided a blueprint for ska. “Using Count Ossie was controversial,” he said. “Rastafarians were not welcomed, but I opened my arms to them. His marching drums defined what it meant to be ska.” Buster then proceded to record a series of touchstone 45s, 1963’s Madness and Wash Wash, 1964’s One Step Beyond and 1964’s Al Capone, the latter which made the UK Top 20. “When I first came over to the UK, I couldn’t believe it. The mods treated me like a king. They’d provide an escort for me wherever I went on their scooters. I did [TV show] Ready Steady Go.”

In 1964, he met Muhammad Ali, converted to the Nation Of Islam and covered Louis X’s White Man’s Heaven Is A Black Man’s Hell.

In 1967, however, he was back in his role of reggae enabler, facilitating the move from ska to the more slower, soulful rhythms of rocksteady with 45s like Shaking Up Orange Street, Judge Dread, Too Hot and Ghost Dance.

And although he took a backseat as rocksteady became roots, the emergence of 2 Tone at the end of the ’70s, placed him on the frontline once more. “2 Tone made sure ska would never die,” he said. “Those bands are my friends, they even sang about me [Madness’ single The Prince]. They really gave me an injection of life. I wanted to make music again.” He didn’t until the late ’80s though, returning to the studio in 1992 then the UK charts in 1998 with a reworking of his 1968 single Whine And Grind, which hit Number 21 after it appeared in a Levi’s advert. In 2001 he finally started to receive the recognition he deserves: awarded the Order of Distinction in Jamaica for his contribution to music, then in 2006, the Hero award at the MOJO awards. He is sorely missed.