Radio 2 folk host Mike Harding wrote of Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell, “I can only think of a handful of performers I have seen in my whole life who have that great and most amazing gift of seeming, effortlessly, to draw an audience towards them and have them hanging on their every breath. Pete Seeger is one, Christy Moore another and Alex Campbell had the gift too…”
One of Britain’s wildest and most influential singers, he was once described as the Elvis Presley of the 1960s fledgling folk scene. In performance, he could be raucous – and then could sing the most tender love song.
Alex Campbell was born in Glasgow in 1931. When both of his parents and his two sisters died from tuberculosis, he spent some time in an orphanage before being taken in by his grandmother. During World War II he met American, Polish and Australian servicemen who were based in Glasgow and he developed an interest in the songs they sang. He started work in the Civil Service but left to enrol for a course at the Sorbonne in Paris, busking in the streets to support himself. He found regular engagement singing Scottish folk songs and playing guitar in cafes. He made regular return trips to Britain in the 1950s, appearing at Alexis Corner’s Blues and Barrelhouse Club and other skiffle and folk music venues that were opening around the country. He played all around Britain in the 60s, and then took his bulging bag of songs to many new venues and clubs all over the Continent for the folk revival. He was briefly and platonically married Peggy Seeger, lending her his name so she would not be deported from the UK.
In a career that went from his home town of Glasgow to Paris, from the rainy streets of Manchester to the festivals of Denmark, with something like 100 albums in between, Alex Campbell became a legend.
Ewan McVicar writing in the Living Tradition said “Alex was The Rambling Scottish Cowboy in ten gallon boots, singing anything from the British or American traditions that took his fancy, American worksongs and spirituals or translations from Scots Gaelic, big ballads or small rude ditties, songs by Guthrie and Dylan and Paxton…”
Alex’s reputation for being the “Big Daddy” of folk music stemmed from his generosity to new and young acts. He recorded with a young Dougie MacLean and with the Tannahill Weavers. In addition, his albums contained a production and musicality which was often not present in most traditional albums of the day, and these studio albums stand out as major examples of his ability to arrange and work with groups of skilled musicians. But Campbell’s legacy to the world of traditional music lies in his art as a performing artist where he would captivate and enthrall with a strong charismatic presence.
Alex Campbell developed throat cancer and died in Denmark on 3rd January 1987.