Ali Campbell on UB40's Reunion and Staying True to the Band's Legacy
Photo by Edward Cooke
After Bob Marley, no reggae act has sold as many albums as UB40. To singer Ali Campbell, this is a great honor. On his day off in Palm Springs from an American tour, Campbell made it clear to New Times how important he takes the band's legacy as an ambassador of reggae. He got angry when he spoke about the other version of UB40 that is touring and recording with his brother, Duncan Campbell, as the replacement singer.
To stay true to the UB40 legacy, Campbell is touring with original members, percussionist/trumpeter Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue, on a tour that will take them to Pompano Beach Amphitheater on August 15. Campbell was much happier to reminisce about his childhood in Birmingham, England, and the incredible success the group has found reggaefying classic songs like Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine” and Elvis Presley's “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You.”
New Times: When did you first fall in love with music?
Ali Campbell: I grew up listening to the Jackson 5 and the Wailers. My father was a Scottish folk singer, so I did what all sons do — I went against my father and sang reggae. It was the music of the streets that all the Jamaican and West Indian kids listened to. I loved reggae and thought everyone did. Then I went to secondary school, and everyone was listening to David Bowie and Marc Bolan, which was over my head.
Your singing voice is quite different from your speaking voice. How do you manage to still hit the high notes?
I sing through my nose. It bypasses my throat, which is why my voice still sounds the same from when I was a kid and sang at the playground [to] Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. I'm the same age as Michael Jackson. Before my balls dropped, I could sing "Ben." Singing through my nose is why doctors say I never had polyps. I don't know how I started singing that way; maybe it's because I had water in my lungs as a kid.
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Your bio says you have sold 70 million albums. What was the peak of stardom for you?
Must have been playing to a million people. At Live Aid, the Bollywood Awards, you had to pinch yourself... you're playing for a million people. I've been doing this over 30 years, so it's a lot of peaks and troughs. I'm lucky I chose reggae as it's universally beloved. It's a young, vital music that only started in 1968. Reggae's influence is bigger than ever in dance beats.
Is it strange for you that your cover versions of classic songs like "Red Red Wine" are more well known than the originals?
Yeah, it's funny. Neil Diamond now does a reggae version of "Red Red Wine" in his sets. That makes me laugh.
Was it hard for you to let bygones be bygones and reunite with Astro?
I had an acrimonious split [with UB40]. People say I wanted to pursue a solo career, but I had grief with management. I was touring for years as "Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40." For five years, I had to deal with my brother murdering my songs. When he put out a country music album under the UB40 name, it was a slap in the face to me and the fans. We started as a reggae band; not playing reggae destroyed good will. I haven't spoken to anyone in that group but Astro since then. I hope if I ignore them long enough, they'll go away.
What else is in UB40's future?
We have an unplugged album coming out. It used to be gigs were adverts for CDs; now, CDs are adverts for gigs. We had an arena tour that sold out in England. We played the O2 dome in London and filmed it in virtual reality. It's in the can, and we're waiting to release it. It's like being at the gig. I'm scared it could kill live music. It's too convincing. People will be able to stream it and might say, "Why go to the gig?"
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