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.
It’s something more than charisma and certainly something far richer and more diverse than that hackneyed expression “star quality”. People like Alex had the rare ability to communicate, to make things simple, to involve you and draw you into their world.
It is quite the most amazing of gifts and, like Christy and Pete, Alex had it in spades.
In a career that went from his home town of Glasgow to busking on the streets of Paris, from the rainy streets of Manchester to the festivals of Denmark, with something like 100 albums in between, Alex Campbell became a legend. Watching Alex perform you always felt not just his integrity but a complete involvement with his songs.
I worked with him a good few times and once, supporting him in Manchester, I watched him introduce the song, Wild Mountain Thyme. When he talked about the McPeake Family of Belfast, who he had learned the song from, you knew that he was mouthing no platitudes – they were his friends, he knew them, and, of course, when he sang the song he had every voice in the room with him.
Many of us watched him working with more than a small degree of envy. All of us who followed him learned some of our stagecraft from watching Alex perform. I know I did and so did Billy Connolly, Rab Noakes, The McCalmans, Dick Gaughan, Barbara Dixon and many others. We might not have copied him slavishly but we learned how to be on stage by watching him.
He was one of the greats and, sadly, the recordings he left behind will, of necessity, fail to capture the impact of the man live on stage. I once watched him get up on stage very much the worse for wear and yet within minutes he had the whole room hanging on his words and singing along with his every line. As they say in Ireland “We shan’t see his like again.”