MOJO Time Machine: UB40 Become US’ First Chart-Topping Reggae Act

On 15 October, 1988 UB40’s Red Red Wine went to number 1 in the US.


by Fred Dellar |
Posted on

15 October, 1988

Gene ‘Bean’ Baxter looked down on his friend Todd Fisher. Then, at six foot six, the Yorkshire-born DJ looked down on most people. Together, they worked at Phoenix, Arizona’s KZZP-FM radio station. And they loved UB40’s version of Red Red Wine.

The single, which reached number one in Britain in September 1983, climbed to number 34 on the Billboard charts in early 1984. Not good enough, thought Baxter and Fisher. They took the record to Guy Zapoleon, a programme director at KZZP who agreed that the release still had legs. Zapoleon explained to media magazine Billboard, “If the current music wasn’t up to snuff, I would dig into a pile of songs that I thought should have been a hit.” Consequently, during 1988, the song became a regular on the station’s Saturday night show Party Patrol.

And the replay requests came flooding in. Zapoleon contacted UB40’s American label A&M to suggest the single be reissued, but it was only when radio stations picked up on the buzz and began adding Red Red Wine to their playlists did A&M take notice and marketed a re-release - even though they were still promoting the band’s Chrissie Hynde-augmented cover of Breakfast In Bed, first sung by Dusty Springfield.

By October 13 UB40 were readying themselves for a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, with lead guitarist and co-vocalist Robin Campbell declaring, “I’ve been itching for us to play The Garden for about three years now.” The Brummie octet were about to become the biggest thing in Jamaican music ever to appear on the American stage, when the October 15 US charts confirmed that Red Red Wine had become the first reggae single to reach number one.

One band member missing from the New York celebrations was bassist Earl Falconer, just out of jail after serving three months for causing a car crash in which his brother Ray, the band’s soundman, was killed. “It’s weird,” commented Campbell, “We’ve just had this number one single and he’s not here to enjoy it.” Another not permitted to enjoy the moment was Billy Bragg. Initially pencilled in for the support spot at Madison Square Garden, he was ultimately booted off the bill. According to Bragg’s office, two members of UB40 refused to play unless the bard of Barking was given the heave-ho - the dissenters were never named.

The New York Times, meanwhile, proved unconvinced by the gig, arguing that though “the ecstatic audience was out of its seats dancing for the whole 90 minute show, it was that same freneticism and lack of good material that ultimately turned the show mechanical.”

“Even when we saw the writing credit, which said N.Diamond, we though it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond or something…”


A&M Records were in too much of celebratory mood to notice. They took a full page ad in Billboard to proclaim: ‘The Most Popular Reggae Band In The World Just Got A Lot More Popular’, also claiming that they’d released ‘The First No.1 Reggae Single In History’. America’s musical stats-masters agreed with the verdict; there had been reggae-flavoured chart-toppers before – Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now in 1970, and Eric Clapton’s I Shot The Sheriff during 1974 - but Red Red Wine was adjudged the real deal, having been a cover of a hit for Jamaican rock-steady performer Tony Tribe. It had, of course, been penned by Neil Diamond as a ballad in 1969. UB40 were initially unfamiliar with Diamond’s original, trumpeter/ toaster Astro declaring that, “even when we saw the writing credit, which said N.Diamond, we though it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond or something…”

The record brought UB40 immense success beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, such acceptance also resulted in profligacy of equal order. Though they had sold over 70 million records since their inception in 1978, frontman Ali Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue quit the band in 2008 due to what he saw as impending financial disaster. “In the 1980s we were living in five-star hotels,” he reflected. “We got through a lot of money.” The axe finally fell in October last year, when four members of the band were declared bankrupt; Billboard’s website groaningly headlined the news ‘No More Red Red Wine’.

That said, the group endure. Now with a third Campbell brother, Duncan, on lead vocals, in July sax man Brian Travers confirmed they’re working on a new album via his Twitterfeed. Next month they play Switzerland, Holland and Belgium – with Red Red Wine still a vital part of the set list.

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