Rita Campbell is one of the hardest working people in the music industry. Having started writing songs at the age of 14, she learned her trade as a backing singer on the live music circuit. Her vocals and live performances made her famous in Russia and her songwriting skills took her to number one in the UK. The success of being top of the charts should have been sweet but the unfortunate coincidence of life turned the experience bitter-sweet.
Hey Mag caught up with Rita in London
Words_Darren Haynes [First published in Hey Mag, September 2019]
“A top line songwriter, like me, is someone who writes the melody and the lyrics” Rita explains. “People send me backing tracks and then I write a top line over it … the verse, the bridge, the middle eight, the chorus and then I send it back to them.
It’s really weird but as soon as I hear a piece of music, I can start making a tune over the top. Once I’ve got the tune made up in my head, I will then start adding lyrics to fit the melody. Some people have lyrics first and then write a melody to fit the lyrics, but I work the other way round.”
Rita Campbell has earned her songwriting chops. Her elder brother was already a songwriter, signed and working in the music industry. She served her early apprenticeship by singing on his demos and in his recording sessions. As her 15th birthday treat, he gave Rita studio time to record two of her own songs. She took these demos to Radio Lincolnshire and “bold as brass” handed the cassettes to the “Lincolnshire equivalent of John Peel on a show called Live Wire”. The DJ interviewed her on air, the broadcast was heard by a local manager who was looking for a singer and before long, she was earning £15 per week, singing in working men’s clubs and various other venues.
Through Hobsons, an agency for session singers, she found work singing radio jingles and TV commercials, whilst in the evening she continued to tour with her band and sing backing vocals for The Original Songwriters house band at The Orange in West London; a showcase evening for singer-songwriters.
Rita was the first signing to the Hed Kandi label with her version of ‘Warm Weather’ and ‘You Know How To Love Me’ — the success of these led to collaborations with Chris Bangs (Galliano & Acid Jazz) resulting in the huge WMC Miami track ‘Runaway Love’.
Her dance tracks for Hed Kandi and co-writing partnership with Swedish DJ and producer, StoneBridge, led to some unexpected success in far away places.
“I started to get hits in other territories that I wasn’t aware of. The track Warm Weather was picked up in various clubs around the world, so I’d be flown over to Moscow to do a 20-minute show. I didn’t even know I had hits in Moscow. The same in Kazakhstan. There would be people waiting for my autograph and I’d think, how do you know who I am? I went out to Paraguay one time with Hed Kandi and people were chanting my name before I went on stage … I was thinking f**k, do they think I’m Rita Ora?”
Conscious of this unexpected level of fame, she made some investments in her image.
“I thought I’d better start looking the part when I land. I can’t rock up looking like an old minger. I bought a big faux fur leopard print coat and dark glasses so when I walked into arrivals I looked the part. They didn’t need to know that I’d been flown over in economy class.”
She was in Poland on tour with The Brand New Heavies when she received a call inviting her to do some writing with Pete Waterman’s PWL songwriting team of Mark Topham and Karl Twigg for the band Steps. Directly after the Heavies’ gig, she took a stand-by flight back to London and armed with a bottle from Duty Free, went straight to the studio and wrote ‘Stomp’ with the pair.
“They had the music, the backing track. They’d already written the chorus but they didn’t have a verse; they didn’t have a bridge and they didn’t have a middle eight which is where I came in. So, I wrote the melody and did all the vocals that night. I got home about six o’clock in the morning and when I sat down, I thought, we’ve written a brilliant, banging track.
The 878th UK Number One, ‘Stomp’ by Steps, was released in October 2000 and knocked U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ off the top slot. The disco-influenced song, which the sleeve stated was a tribute to Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, sold 48,000 units in the first week and went on to be certified silver (200,000 units) by the BPI.
Driving back on the North Circular from an overnight songwriting session in Hertfordshire, she received a call from the PWL office saying, “who’s a clever girl then? You’ve only gone and bagged yourself a number one.”
“I nearly crashed my car. I couldn’t believe it.”
The celebrations sadly came to a crushing end with the discovery that her mother was not well. She had received a diagnosis that she had terminal cancer and had been given just weeks to live.
“It was the highest high getting to number one and the lowest low in the space of 24 hours. It was a tough, tough time; very bitter-sweet” she says.
As a number one songwriter, Rita was in demand. She even received a call from one of her personal favourites, Michael McDonald who wanted her to write with him in Nashville.
“The phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to write with me. I’d just co-written a number one but because I’d found out that my mother was dying, I was like a zombie … I couldn’t do anything … I went into autopilot”.
Rita’s mother briefly shared her daughter’s profession. Topham and Twigg were writing a new uptempo Latin-flavoured track for Steps and were looking for some Spanish lyrics. Her Spanish mother offered some words that were incorporated into the song. The double A-side became a top 5 hit in the UK. “They sent a platinum disc in my mum’s name which she had in the hospice. This is to recognise Maria Paz-Campbell for her contribution to Summer of Love.”
Working hard has been part of Rita’s DNA throughout her career. Her advice to her 14-year old self would be: “Don’t take it for granted, you have to work harder than you think. The harder you work, the better you become.”
She’s performed with the likes of Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Westlife and has been a behind-the-scenes vocal coach and session singer on X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. She’s just finished the festival circuit with Betty Boo and has an upcoming project scheduled with Cher (but that’s a secret). What’s left to do?
“I would absolutely love to work with Steely Dan but I think the pinnacle for me now would be to have a number one in the J-pop or K-pop market. If I could get a hit record in that market, that would set me up … for life! They sell millions! If you get a number one hit record there, you’re laughing!”
Rita confesses to being accident prone, recounting a story when she missed a cue to go on stage. “When I came out of the dressing room, it was pitch black. I fell down the staircase, which of course was seen by all the audience. All they could see was this idiot falling down the staircase. I broke both heels of my stilettos and I had to do the whole show on tippy toes, wearing the shoes without the heels. It was the worst gig of my life, my feet were screaming, and I was really in agony and I had to do the whole show like that”.
This was not an isolated incident. “I’m like a stuntwoman. Another time, I ran out of the dressing room and didn’t stop in time. I went flying off the stage and landed on a table. I have fallen off more stages than I can remember but I always get back up and I always do the gig. I’ve never missed a gig in my entire life.”