Each week, Music Week profiles the brightest new talents in the biz. Here, Atlantic Records' junior publicist Ebi Sampson tells her story...
How did you break into the industry?
I started my career working in fashion PR for a company ...
After doing press for punk bands such as Blondie and The Stranglers, Alan Edwards became a music biz legend through his work with David Bowie, Prince and many more. A presenter of recent BBC Four series Hits, Hype and Hustle, he looks back on a starry career…
I knew I wanted to work in PR because…“I used to love talking, and by about 12 years old I knew I wanted a job where I could talk about music. I got a job working at [music magazines] Sounds and Record Mirror and I managed to blag them into letting me do reviews because no one else wanted to go to Dingwalls at 2am. I was at a gig reviewing The Who and the PR, Keith Altham, who was the original rock PR who had done Jimi Hendrix and The Stones said to me – and I must’ve been bending his ear – ‘Do you want to become a PR?’. I was a teenager, and three days in, he sent me on the road with The Who.”The most important thing in PR is…“Relationships. Bands come and go, but the relationships you develop with the media will probably last you for your whole career. One thing I learnt from the beginning was to be as straight as possible, just be clear. Even if you’ve got no news, I always find it’s better to ring someone up and say so. Never leave a space. I also learned a lot from [client] Marc Bolan, he was a hipster and was really into the media.”I went with a hunch and it paid off when…“I was trying to get David Bowie to go on Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman was the anchorman at the time and he had a fearsome reputation, politicians used to quiver in their boots. David was saying, ‘I think it will go wrong and it will be really bad’. I convinced him, but then of course I lay awake thinking, ‘What if this goes wrong?’ Because you can get yourself fired over that sort of thing, especially with an artist of that stature. But my hunch was right - you’re not going to have a row with David Bowie about politics! They ended up having a fantastic conversation about arts and music and got on really well. David walked over to me afterwards and said, ‘OK, that’s one to you’, and then he just walked off.”A press trip took an unexpected turn when… “I took a party of journalists out to Jamaica once for Island Records, it was before Bob Marley was really, really big. We were all wearing T-shirts and shorts looking like a real bunch of tourists and Suzanne, who worked for Chris Blackwell said, ‘Would you like to meet Bob?’
She gave us the address on a bit of paper and we went round to his place, 56 Hope Road, Kingston. There was a game of football going on, and someone said, ‘Join in’, so we played for two or three hours with Bob Marley And The Wailers which was pretty amazing.
At the end, Bob said, ‘Did you want to learn about Rastafarianism?’ So we went into his house, a bungalow really, and sat in this little room and after a few minutes I couldn’t really see Bob properly because there was so much dope smoke.
We were peering through it, and he was talking very interestingly about Ethiopia and Haile Selassie and it was great. After a while, we were a bit hazy and we got up unsteadily to leave and couldn’t work out the way to the hotel.
I was driving the hire car, and we drove down a hill and went into a ditch - we were accidently stoned! We didn’t know what to do, so I just left the car and we wandered off and somehow found our way back...”
We thought we had written all the songs we needed for Toto IV: We had Rosanna and Make Believe, and we thought we had the makings of a great album. But then I got this new instrument called the CS-80 [synthesiser] from Yamaha - it was one half of what Stevie Wonder called ‘The Dream Machine’ - and it’s a very special sounding instrument. You can hear it at the beginning of Africa.
I had an idea for the lyric and title, and I asked [drummer] Jeff Porcaro to co-write the song. I wanted him to do a percussion track first, which would be an indigenous part of the hypnotic heartbeat that we would base the song around.
Jeff added bottle caps and African musical instruments because his father’s a professional percussionist and had all these authentic instruments.
We made this little arrangement - it was almost like world music before world music [the term was popularised in the ‘80s].
It was an experiment and the guys in Toto have such vast prowess at producing and arranging records because they’re all songwriters, musicians and producers, so everybody brought something to the table.
The hardest part was coming up with the lyrics. I got the chorus and then it took me about four or five months to construct the verses.
It was almost done in the manner of Brian Wilson and the way he used to overdub instruments one at a time, like on Good Vibrations, so it was fun. We’d done that before, but never to this extent.
Africa popped up in a disco in New York City and Sony, or CBS, alerted us that it was making some noise. This pulse was making people dance and then it sprouted some legs on the charts and started getting radio play.
Never in a million years did we think it would be our calling card single. At the time, it seemed like just an extra album cut - a little ditty - and yet it became this popular song that makes crowds go wild.
Every night it’s a different crowd, but they all get together to sing this song. You see people from different cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, all singing as one, and it’s truly heart-warming to see the human spirit collaborating on a vocal together.
Our goal was to make timeless music instead of music that just sounds good for March of 1979 or 1983. We wanted to make stuff that, in 20 years from now, you could still put headphones on and go, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that little thing before, it still sounds good.’
It is just like when I see Ridley Scott’s movie Alien and I go, ‘It still looks incredible, even though it was made back in 1979.’
Africa found its way onto Family Guy and then Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did it on The Tonight Show, where they played boy scouts singing in their tents at night after curfew.
Without the production, it’s basically just a folk song and I think people like sitting around the campfire singing folk songs.
Like Elton John used to say, if you put some good lyrics, an inspired track and a good melody together, there’s something in it for everybody.
We’re very blessed that the track still has legs and people still love to sing along to it in concert. I don’t know why it has caught on to such an extent, but we are very glad that it has.