Prince Buster: NYT Obituary


An obituary by Jon Pareles for The New York Times.

Prince Buster, a performer and producer who transformed Jamaican music in the 1960s as a trailblazer of the ska beat, died on Thursday in Miami. He was 78.

His wife, Mola Ali, confirmed his death to The Associated Press, saying he had been hospitalized with heart problems.

Under his own name and as the producer for many singers, Prince Buster released hundreds of songs in Jamaica. Sessions he produced as the 1960s began are widely credited as the first ska singles. They introduced a distinctively Jamaican emphasis on the backbeat, underlined on guitar and saxophone, that would persist as Jamaican pop evolved toward reggae.

In the late 1960s, Prince Buster had another influential guise: hit singles in which he spoke as Judge Dread, ruling harshly against the criminal exploits of Jamaica’s “rude boys.”

Cecil Bustamente Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 24, 1938. He performed with teenage groups in Kingston; he also became a boxer, taking the name Prince Buster.

In the 1950s he began working for one of Jamaica’s top producers and sound-system disc jockeys, Coxsone Dodd. By the end of the decade he had opened a record store, Buster’s Record Shack, and was playing street parties with his own sound system, the Voice of the People. He decided to start producing songs as well as spinning them.

Jamaicans were listening to, and imitating, the American R&B that reached the island on radio stations from New Orleans and Miami. Prince Buster’s productions were more deliberately Jamaican. His production of the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh Carolina,” recorded in 1959, meshed the traditional Nyabinghi drumming of a Rastafarian musician, Count Ossie, with what would come to be known as a ska beat.

That beat, in songs like Eric Morris’s “Humpty Dumpty,” made for huge hits in Jamaica and also had an impact in 1960s Britain. Prince Buster’s instrumental “Al Capone” was a Top 20 hit there in 1965.

By the end of the 1960s ska had given way to the slower rocksteady beat, a closer precursor of reggae. Prince Buster adapted, notably with his series of singles using his Judge Dread character. But in the early 1970s he gave up producing music and concentrated on business ventures, including record stores and a jukebox company, and moved to Miami.

Punk-era rock fans were introduced to Prince Buster through “One Step Beyond,” the title track of the 1979 debut album by the English ska-revival band Madness, which was a sped-up remake of an instrumental Prince Buster released in 1964. The group had taken its name from Prince Buster’s song “Madness Is Gladness,” and its first single was “The Prince,” a tribute to him. Other ska-revival groups like the Specials and the English Beat also recorded Prince Buster’s songs.

Prince Buster returned to occasional performing from the 1980s into the early 2000s, and he made some new recordings in the 1990s in a modest comeback. A commercial for Levi’s helped him get a Top 30 hit in Britain in 1998, a remake of his song “Whine and Grine.”

Beside his wife, he is survived by their three children and several other children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s