When he was fronting UB40, Ali Campbell would sometimes transform pop gems like Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” and Neil Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine” into hits for the British reggae band, so it’s probably no surprise that for his fourth solo album the popular singer would choose to release a whole CD of covers.
But who would have guessed he would pick classic tunes by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks?
Released in the U.K. in late 2010, “Great British Songs” compiled a bunch of pop and rock hits from the 1960s and ’70s, newly reinterpreted in Campbell’s distinctive reggae style.
Breathing new life into some iconic songs, from the Stones’ catalogue he picked “Paint it Black” and “Honky Tonk Women,” while the Beatles were represented by “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Other songs ranged from Free’s “All Right Now,” to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and an irresistible version of the Who’s “Squeeze Box,” which trumps the original.
“I did a very unlikely cover of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ with the Fun Lovin’ Criminals,” says Campbell, explaining the genesis of the “Great British Songs” project. “They were doing a whole album called ‘Purple Reggae,’ with lots of guests doing the ‘Purple Rain’ album. It worked really well, so I was thinking, ‘What else could I cover that is a million miles away from what people would expect in a reggae cover?’ So ‘All Right Now’ by Free and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ by the Stones.
“I took the idea to Jamaica to (legendary producers/musicians) Sly and Robbie, who were very amused by the idea of doing ‘Baker Street’ and things like that. We banged it up in six days, and it turned out to be very popular.”
Were there any particular songs in which he wondered: Can I really reggae-fy this?
“Well, all of them really are unlikely,” he says. “It’s almost cheeky doing ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ I like the album. I’d love to do a dub album of the backing tracks.”
As for the “Purple Reggae” project, he’s not sure when the album will be released, but he’s been singing the title track in concert.
“I hope it will see the light of day,” he notes. “It’s a fan favorite live. It really lifts the show. People don’t expect to hear ‘Purple Rain.’ It’s wicked, I’m loving it.”
For 30 years, Campbell was the voice of UB40, one of the U.K.’s most successful bands.
Ali, his brother Robin and six school friends founded the group in 1978 in Birmingham, England, and went on to become the best-selling reggae band of all time, with sales of more than 80 million records.
“My dad was a folk singer and he spearheaded the Scottish folk revival,” Campbell recalls. “But I hated folk music and I loved reggae because we lived in a predominantly West Indian area. Our friends were English West Indian kids. Reggae was invented when I was 10 years old and I’ve lived and grown around reggae ever since.”
The high school friends transformed their passion for reggae into a profitable career. Adopting their name from an English unemployment form, UB40 was “discovered” by Chrissie Hynde and invited to open for a Pretender’s tour. This valuable exposure fueled the success of their first single, which sold half a million copies.
The band’s American breakthrough arrived in 1988 in the form of their reggae cover of Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” from their 1983 album, “Labour Of Love.” A few years later, they again topped the U.S. charts with a soulful cover of Elvis’ ballad, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The hit song was included on their album “Promises and Lies,” which sold more than 9 million copies worldwide.
Splitting from UB40 at the beginning of 2008, reportedly over financial mismanagement, for the last few years Campbell has pursued a successful solo career. On his website, he has posted a statement disputing rumors that he might rejoin the band.
“They keep putting the rumors out so they can sell tickets,” he reports. “Basically, they’re destroying the legacy of UB40. They just don’t sound like UB40, and they’ve just done a country and western album, and none of those guys know anything about country music. It’s a joke. I’m quite angry about what they’re doing because I started UB40, and my whole reason for starting UB40 was to promote reggae.”
Set for release in September, UB40’s upcoming “Getting Over The Storm” features covers like Willie Nelson’s “Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain” and Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have To Go.”
According to a recent article in the Birmingham Mail, members of UB40 have declared bankruptcy and will not see any money from the new album, with all proceeds, along with any tour profits, going to administrators. The band’s extensive back catalogue has also been sold, along with lucrative publishing and royalty rights.
Given the strength of his feelings, it’s no surprise Campbell has no contact with his brothers. “I don’t talk to them,” he says. “I think they’re behavior has been revolting. It’s all been very acrimonious.”
While UB40 operated as a democratic unit since their earliest days, equally sharing composing credits, it was Campbell who was the primary contributor.
“Every single original song of UB40 I wrote,” he points out. “Since I left, UB40 haven’t done anything original. I wrote every tune on 24 albums apart from two that Earl (Falconer) and Astro did. I was always the force behind UB40, and it was crazy that I left my own band. I couldn’t get on with the management and the band was doing things I didn’t agree with.”
Of course, as a solo artist he’s still singing all the UB40 favorites, honoring his many years fronting the band by highlighting their hits in his own shows backed by the Dep Band, which includes former UB40 keyboardist, Mickey Virtue.
“I’m not self-indulgent, I don’t turn up and do all new material that nobody knows,” he says chuckling. “I think that’s rude. Audiences have paid good money to see you and they want the songs that they know. I do the songs as close to the records as I possibly can, because that’s what people want to hear.”
Campbell is just completing work on a new album, “Rhythm Method,” which will be released in September. “It’s some originals and some very interesting covers,” he explains. “I’ve got a Bob Dylan number, ‘I Want You,’ and a brilliant cover of what I thought was a Dennis Brown song, ‘Sillhouettes.’ I never knew Peter Noone sang it with Herman’s Hermits.
“I’m on my fourth solo album and I think it’s the best thing I’ve done so far. We always produced our own album and with four that I’ve done I’m finally getting to a place where it sounds like I want it to sound. I’m not trying to be all modern and groovy with it. It’s a reggae album for people who love UB40-style reggae.”
Knowing reggae’s massive popularity in Hawaii, Campbell is looking forward to returning to our shores.
“I love Maui and all the different islands,” he enthuses. “The people are lovely and I love the island reggae as well. In Fiji and Samoa and the Maori all have their own style. I’ve watched that grow over the years. It’s just another form of reggae and I love that.”
* Ali Campbell headlines “Reggae In The Valley 2013,” beginning at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Pavilion/Amphitheater. Also performing will be Fiji, Maoli, Mana’o Company, Jordan T. and Josh Tatofi. Tickets are $40 in advance, or $50 day of show.
The third annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival will open on Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, with music by renowned New Orleans band, The Iguanas, and the zydeco music of Dwayne Dopsie.
Like the Meters and the Neville Brothers, the Iguanas combine many styles into their exuberant Latin-infused, rock and roll funk. “The Iguanas play with some of the more conventional New Orleans sounds – swinging jazz horn arrangements, greasy funk, Latin shuffles – but the result is something that skews more toward the possibilities of roots rock and that genre’s own hard-to-find boundaries,” praised Offbeat Magazine.
The youngest son of zydeco pioneer, Rockin’ Dopsie, Sr., Dwayne Dopsie is known for his unique, high energy style of zydeco. He first played with his father’s band at Mardi Gras at the age of 7, and by 10 he performed at a Super Bowl half-time show. “Dwayne takes the instruments and traditions of zydeco to new levels infusing blues, soul and funk with a driving rub-board rhythm,” praised the Toledo City Paper.
Show opens at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25, available at www.mauijazzandbluesfestival.com.