I distinctly remember the South African divestment protests and sit-ins that rocked my college campus in the late 1980's. As news that our University (along with many other universities and corporations) had money invested in the apartheid regime in South Africa, students demanded that the administration immediately divest. As protesters staged a sit-in in-front of the student center, effectively closing it for a time, the song "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special A.K.A. played regularly over a sound system that had been brought in.
As an impressionable young ska fanatic, I was deeply affected by the song and it moulded my world outlook and personal politics. I also remember thinking that the song might finally bring the band the recognition they needed to help mount a comeback and that I might finally get to see them perform live in the U.S. (despite the fact that they had effectively dissolved after the release of their album "In The Studio"). Nevertheless, I played the song constantly and it was a staple of the many mix tapes I made for friends at the time. The lyrics were simple and direct and told Mandela's story powerfully. It was sung with grace and determination by Stan Campbell who had been recruited by Jerry Dammers to replace Terry Hall. Indeed, looking back on the impact of the song, Dammers commented that "Maybe Terry Hall wouldn’t have been as convincing as Stan Campbell singing "Free Nelson Mandela" anyway." As much as I love Terry, I have to agree with Jerry.
Campbell joined The Special A.K.A in 1983 with a hope to make it rich and famous, but his plans were thwarted by endless time locked in the recording studio with Dammers and then the lack of commercial success for the resulting singles. In fact, he left the group right after the recording of "Nelson Mandela" and the release of the video for the song and had to be co-erced into rejoining briefly for a live appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1984. Following that one TV appearance, Campbell left for good, skipping out on a live appearance on Channel 4's "The Tube"where he was replaced on short notice by Elvis Costello who sang instead. Here is video of Campbell's performance with the band on Top Of The Pops in April 1984:
Campbell then had a try at solo work after signing a deal with WEA in 1986. The self titled album was recorded at UB40's DEP Studio in Birmingham with local musicians and included originals and covers of various musical styles - reggae, jazz, soul, blues. Campbell's debut came out right about the same time as the first release from another pop/soul artist by the name of Terence Trent D'Arby, but unlike D'Arby's debut, Campbell's album never built up much momentum and quickly faded. And that's a shame because the songs still stand up, after twenty years. Campbell's renditions of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Crawfish" and "Strange Fruit" are memorable and his smooth, smoky vocal delivery ranks with among the best soul singers of all time. While garnering some good reviews - his versions of Elvis Presley's "Crawfish" has been said to be better than the King's - the album and its singles failed to chart and Campbell disappeared from the musical scene.
Here is a video of Campbell's 'Years Go By':
Unfortunately Campbell's story takes a very sad and tragic turn. According to news accounts from Coventry papers and information I've gathered from a variety of web sites, its been reported that Campbell's mental health began to take a turn for the worse following the failure of his solo record and while in London, he was involved in a number of sexual harassment cases. He later returned to Coventry where his mental health deteriorated and its been reported there were times that he was homeless. In 2002, he was arrested for his involvement in a sex crime against a young woman, and was convicted of the charge. Campbell has been sectioned indefinitely under the UK Mental Health act to a psychiatric hospital to serve his sentence. The sad irony is that Campbell sang the song that helped to free Nelson Mandela but is now imprisoned himself. The Special AKA song "Bright Lights" proved to be prophetic for Campbell with its warning about the seduction of fleeting fame and the hard reality of what can happen.