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Obituary: Ambrose Adekoya Campbell (1919-2006)

Chris May By

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Nigerian singer, guitarist, percussionist, composer and bandleader Ambrose Adekoya Campbell died in the UK on June 22, 2006. He was 86 years old and passed away peacefully in his sleep.

While no single person can be credited with establishing African music in Britain—the process has been gradual and ongoing, and must have begun soon after Africans first arrived in the country many hundreds of years ago—Campbell's influence in the mid twentieth century was massive and unprecedented. Most West African musicians working in Britain today will cite Campbell as their spiritual godfather and the scene's pioneer.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1919, Campbell settled in Britain at the start of the second world war. Arriving in the country as a merchant seaman, he jumped ship in Liverpool and made his way to London. His early years in the city were hard, with paying gigs difficult to find. But Campbell was an extraordinarily determined, charismatic and talented man, and he wouldn't be deterred. In 1952, he and his band, the West African Rhythm Brothers, acquired a longterm residency at the Abalabi Club in Soho's Berwick Street. Campbell's impact on British music began at the Abalabi and with the 10- inch 78rpm singles he recorded for Melodisc while bandleader at the club.

The excellent compilation London Is The Place For Me 3 (Honest Jons, 2006) collects some two dozen classic Campbell recordings from the period. The album comes with an authoritative essay from the distinguished British jazz and African music writer and photographer, Val Wilmer. (London Is The Place For Me 4, incidentally, due out in August, includes the first recordings in the series by drummer and bandleader Ginger Johnson, 1916-1975, a fellow Nigerian expatriate with whom Campbell could be said to have shared the London baton from the mid 1960s.)

Campbell was a key figure in the emergence of Soho as London's louche and edgy bohemian quarter in the 1950s. When the owner of the Abalabi, Ola Dosunmu, moved from Berwick Street to open the Club Afrique in nearby Wardour Street, Campbell moved with him.

The Abalabi and the Afrique are important (if largely unchronicled) links in Britain's countercultural history. Both clubs were informal salons where London's writers, poets, jazz musicians and painters met and mingled with more recently arrived musicians from Africa, to their mutual enjoyment and enrichment. Campbell was befriended by a wide circle of movers and shakers, from George Bernard Shaw and Colin MacInnes to Prince Buster and Tubby Hayes.

In 1972, Campbell moved to Los Angeles, where he had been invited to work with Leon Russell. He was on the sessions for Russell's million-selling collaboration with Willie Nelson, One For The Road (Columbia, 1989). In recent years, however, Campbell had withdrawn from the public eye to such an extent that many believed him to have passed away. But he returned to Britain a few years ago and settled in the southern seaport of Plymouth.

Campbell's grandson, Ron Ambrose Hammond, has put together a web site honouring his grandfather's memory. The site includes a memorable photo of Campbell, taken last year.

Campbell's funeral will be held at the Islington Cemetery and Crematorium on Friday, July 7.


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