Frederick “Freddie” Campbell
(Writer, arranger, musician – conga drums, drum set, keyboards)
Compiled with the assistance of Fred Campbell from numerous interviews throughout 2020, © by Rich Lowe 2020. www.reggaejamaicaway.com
Small group, band, and orchestra memberships:
Noel Seal (mentoring and teaching)
The Caribs (first live performances)
Kes Chin and The Souvenirs
Carlos Malcolm and his Afro Jamaican Rhythms
Leslie Butler Trio
The Granville Williams Orchestra
Ernest Ranglin Trio
Freddie Campbell Trio
The Skajamz Band
Frederick “Freddie” Campbell is a Jamaican musician best known as a drummer. He was first trained on the conga drums and moved to “traps” - commonly known as a drum set. Campbell played the top drum manufacturer at the time, Ludwig.
I didn’t work with the earlier bands from the 1940s. I came in at the tail end of the greats – the Bertie Kings, the Aubrey Adams, the Taddy Mowatts, and the Ernest Ranglins. For instance, I didn’t know Eric Deans or his band, but I heard about him, a lot! Those guys told me about all of their experiences – the eight hour gigs and all night gigs. They laughed at me when I told them playing on a four hour gig was too long. I came into it working at hotels for four hours and whittled it down to an ideal three hours.
As a youth, when these things were happening you never think that someday, fifty years from now, people would be interested in what we did. I understand more now because the music was the soul of the people. These people give up their jobs, to go and sing. I grew up with my aunt and when I told her I was gonna do music, she said, “Well you can now my Fred, but you can’t live here. You gotta go find somewhere to live, because I didn’t spend all that money on school to have you become a musician.” I had to leave. I packed my bags at night and left and I had no idea where I was going.
When I was in school in the early-1950s, there was this guy named Noel Seal and I was hearin’ him practice as I would pass his gate. I would stop to listen as he was playing his conga drum. There was something that caught my attention, it was very striking, as if the sound of his playing was amplified to my ears. It was as if there were no other sound – other than the sound radiating his drum. I wasn’t even a teenager – I was twelve or maybe even younger. I remember because it was before the entrance exams at high school. I took my exam at age eleven and passed. I passed, but didn’t get a scholarship, until the second attempt. Me being that age, Noel was also still a young man - he was probably twenty-six, and not married yet. I stood at his gate and was so excited to hear him playing his drums. One day he saw me out there leaning against the tall metal gate and say, “Come on in! Come on in!” I went in and he taught me how to play the conga drum over a period of years. Noel’s conga drum? He taught me all of the basics, the different rhythms from the rumba to the meringue, and the cha to the mambo, and the samba to the bossa nova. These were patterns that were basic patterns. Noel said if you can play these, you can work in any band, and that was true! Noel learned from working on the ship and going to Cuba. I still think that as far as conga playing is concerned, he is still one of the greatest conga players that Jamaica has produced. Larry MacDonald is another great and is one of the best conga players around.
It was Noel Seal that encouraged me to play a full drum set. He knew there were more jobs for the full kit, as compared with the congas alone. Not a lot is known about Noel because he is such a laidback fellow. So relaxed and easy going that people took advantage of him. I’m sorry to say that, but I found it to be true.
With all the training from Noel, I still had never played in a band or anything. A few years passed and by the time I reached age seventeen I was still practicing with Noel. There was a time where Noel got a boil on his hand when he was playing with The Caribs, and he couldn’t play. He told me that if he didn’t play, he would lose his job, so could I sit in for him. I was surprised and said, “Noel I have never played.” He said, “You know enough, man. Just keep the beat. You don’t have to solo or anything.” For two weeks I sat in for Noel with Dennis Sindrey, Lowell Morris, and Peter Stoddart. When I was done and Noel had healed, he said to me, “Y’know, I can’t give ya everything, because I have still have bills. I can give you something, so hold this and thank you very much.” With what he gave me, I thought this is a lot of money!
When I left school, I was making six pounds a week as a junior accountant at a big firm down in Kingston. I made twelve pounds per week sittin’ in for Noel, so I thought about which I prefer and decided to do both.
In 1960, at age nineteen, I joined Kes Chin and The Souvenirs. Earlier, I had heard them rehearsing in my neighborhood. I went further and look, and I saw two guitars, a bass, and a drum set was there, but no drummer. I walked in and told them I can play the drums for them. They asked if I was sure. I told them “Sure – I can do that,” even though I had never played a drum kit before. I sat in and got by, and I got the job. I worked with them on Friday and Saturday nights at parties and weddings. Again, I was making more money than a whole week working as a junior accountant. I stayed with that band and met Winston Turner, Ska Sterling, and I already knew Boris Gardiner from home because he lived near where my girlfriend lived. I asked Boris Gardiner to join Kes Chin because they really needed a singer.
My mentor – who is still my best teacher, is Carlos Malcolm. I’ve taken music courses at El Camino in California, it was just a little college at the time and I was one of the early students, but no matter how much studies I do, Carlos continues to be unsurpassed in knowledge and advice. We talk often and I share my work with him, and he makes suggestions on arrangements. From those suggestions, that’s the equivalent of a whole semester at a university!
After I left Carlos Malcolm, I was playing with Leslie Butler on the north coast of Jamaica. I had worked with Leslie Butler in Jamaica for quite a while and when he traveled to The Bahamas for a three-month thing, he just brought me with him.
My next big move was when I became a member of The Granville Williams Orchestra, but I’m not quite positive when I starting playing with Granville Williams. I think it was Ernest Ranglin that called me to play with Williams after Carlos Malcolm and after I came back from the Bahamas with Leslie Butler. I got into that circle because Williams’ brother Audley Williams played bass guitar with Carlos. I had known both Ernest and Audley, so I was a natural to be the drummer. Williams was an organist who played the top of the line Hammond B3 organ, made famous the jazz man, Jimmy Smith. Williams was a white Jamaican from Spanish Town, tall slim, attractive. His brother was also a musician - Audley Williams, who played bass for Carlos Malcolm and the great Ernie Ranglin. When I was with Granville Williams, Ernest Ranglin played guitar and did all of the arrangements that the group played. As a result, our music was upbeat and bouncy. We also covered this tune called “Night Train” by Jimmy Forrest, and that song was one of our hit tunes. Additionally, we played songs by Glen Miller and Artie Shaw, along with some mento and a lot of ska. We did not play much American music.
I want you to know about the first time I worked with Ernest Ranglin. I was so amazed when he played, that I stopped playing and just listened. He walked over and said, “Fred, ya can join in y’know.” That’s when I realized that I wasn’t even playing. Other players would have gotten mad at me, but not Ernie. Ernest used to regularly keep a cigarette in his mouth, but he would never light it. He would say, “Fred, this is temptation. It’s building up my confidence.”
One of the first recording that I did was with the Jiving Juniors. It was Derrick Harriott singing alone on one called “John Tom.” If you get a copy of the original recording, you can find out everyone that was in the studio, because he was calling out all of the names of the people that was in the studio – Larry, Trevor, Freddie, Keith. I was playing drums on that song and it wasn’t ska drums yet, it was more mento. I played on recordings by Owen Gray and Derrick Morgan and also recorded for producer Sonia Pottinger. We were recording at Federal when it was just a little one-house thing, before they built the big studio.
When I was working with Granville Williams, my friend Cedric Im Brooks got an offer to work with Teddy Greaves. Greaves was a popular singer and band leader that played at the West End of The Bahamas. Cedric was a little upset that he’d be leaving the band and he didn’t want to break up the band. I say, “Man go! Cuz I know you’re gonna call me when they need a drummer” [laughs]. I just threw that out there y’know. It wasn’t three months after that, I got a call from him that they need a drummer. Teddy is Jamaican, a very good entertainer, but never really did anything in Jamaica. When he was in Jamaica, he made barrels as a cooper, and somehow he ended up in The Bahamas as a singer. We played at The Jack Tar Hotel in the West End, Grand Bahama. Jack Tar was a hotel chain, but that location in The Bahamas no longer exists.
I worked with Ernest Ranglin on and off quite extensively over the years. Much later in my career -in the 1970s, I played with the Ernest Ranglin Trio. The formal name of the trio was “The Ernest Ranlin-Hedley Jones Trio” and it was just Ernie, Hedley Jones, and me. We played hotel gigs, like the Holiday Inn in Montego Bay.
I assembled my own Trio in the 1970s. It was the Fred Campbell Trio and I was playing drums. Our trio would play one set and then they had entertainment like crab races to get the people involved. Afterwards we did another half hour set to clean up. My last job before I left Jamaica was at The Trelawny Beach Hotel. Trumpet player and pianist - Billy Cooke, was another great that played in my trio at the Montego Beach Hotel in 1977. He could play trumpet and piano at the same time! He would play the chords with his left hand and thereby accompany himself. This is challenging because the trumpet was in one key and the piano is in another key. Of course, if someone else was soloing, Cooke would play the piano with both hands.
After I came to the US, I did one tour playing American music standards with some old men affiliated with the US armed forces. We toured Las Vegas and played at area gigs out west in the US. I also worked with Cosmic Force Records in Miami in the role as C.E.O. In collaborating with Cosmic Force owner Paul Chin-Quee, we successfully opened international distribution for our music.
Having been in the States for so many years, I stated to get bored and began to write more music and make some musical arrangements. This is how my band, The Skajamz Band was developed. I play keyboards with the group and we have recorded a number of singles “Run for Cover,” “Wood and Water,” and “Simmer Down.” I like good players that site read, interpret the music, and are familiar with the genre. Just like language, certain words in one language don’t mean the same thing in another language. Music is similar, so you have to get musicians that are familiar with the genre. We do a collage of music, a little ska, reggae, mento, and African music. It’s not just one thing on the album, it’s what I have to say.
Originally my key people with The Skajamz Band were Richard White and Arthur McCloud – both on bass. They were both excellent bass players. Arthur was so good at reading music, that if a fly pitched on a line or space on the sheet music, he would play it! We also had Devon James on guitar, and he played with The Skatalites for twenty-two years. On trumpet I had a young fellow named Yamin Mustafa, whose father - Melton Mustafa, played with the Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman Orchestras. There are a couple of young guys playing trombone and saxophone that are fresh out of college. They were with the Florida A&M University Marching Band, “The Marching One Hundred.”
Freddie Campbell continues to play the drums and is writing and arranging new music. His goal is to be back playing on the north coast of Jamaica with his Skajamz Band.