Although hard-core fans of reggae's golden era have generally come to grips with Jamaica's 15-year-old dancehall revolution, many still see a glaring lack of singing talent in today's scene. Oh, they recognize the impact of such recent crooners as Luciano and the late Garnett Silk, but they point to Cornell Campbell — the subject of German label Moll Selekta's collection Original Blue Recordings 1970-1979 — as the real McCoy.
Campbell's gentle, grainy falsetto and gift for interpreting American soul vocals garnered him a couple of hit records during the '60s ska period. But he really came into his own in the '70s when he began working with producer Bunny Lee, one of reggae's masters of catchy songcraft. Lee's arrangements countered razor-sharp guitar chords with liquid horn riffs and warm rhythms, perfectly boosting Campbell's sweet notes, melodic hoots, and breezy ad-libs.
Unlike I Shall Not Remove — an excellent 2000 Campbell/Lee anthology that focused largely on the singer's boastful and militant Rastafarian sides — Original Blue offers a wide range of lyrical material. Featuring a clutch of defiant street anthems (including the fierce yet mellifluous “If a Fire Make It Come”), the collection also showcases covers by Jamaican chanteurs John Holt and Gregory Isaacs and American heroes Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Indeed, Campbell's take on Sam Cooke's “I'm Just a Country Boy” positions him as reggae's version of the late soul pioneer.
But Campbell is at his most inspired during the mournful original “Jah Jah Me No Horn Yah.” Over a yearning, minor-key flamenco vibe, the singer delivers a quasi-Mediterranean vocal chant, reflecting a subtle class and skill unmatched by dancehall's new-school ragamuffins.