Legendary African American creator of hip hop’s first street dance and cofounder of dance troupe, “The Campbellock Dancers” aka “The Lockers,” Don “Campbellock” Campbell died of cardiac arrest at his Santa Clarita home on March 30 at the age of 69.
Campbell was known for creating the style of dance called “The Campellock” or “Locking.” The style utilizes Campbell’s signature dance move called "The Lock,” which dancers then use to produce creative dance expressions of their own.
According to his website, the dance gained national attention in the ‘70s after Campbell was featured on the television show “Soul Train,” one of the first television shows with a primarily black cast and national audience.
“My father is one of those people that you’d hope that they’d live forever,” said Dennis Danehy, Campbell’s son. “He wasn’t a religious man but [he’d say] his gifts [came] from the man upstairs. Right now he’s up there dancing right beside him.”
To the dance community, he was known as the innovator behind The Campellock dance style and one of the stars of the long-running television show, “Soul Train.” Campbell even released a song called “Campbell Lock” to complement his unique style of dance.
Born in St. Louis in 1951, Campbell and his family moved to L.A. in the early ‘60s. It was while he was enrolled as a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College in South L.A. that he became interested in dance and created his new style of dance.
He brought his unique dance style to various clubs around Los Angeles, winning multiple dance contests, before being invited on “Soul Train.” With Campbell on board, the television show became one of the hottest syndicated TV programs in the U.S. and influenced fashion, music and dance trends for years. Campbell’s stint on “Soul Train” ended after he was banned for his advocacy of compensatory rights for the dancers in 1973, according to his website.
That same year, Campbell used his significant following to bring together some of the best Campbellockers in the area and created a professional dance group known as “The Campbellock Dancers.” They performed with some of the biggest celebrities of the time, including Dick Van Dyke, Frank Sinatra, and even appeared on “Saturday Night Live” as the first non-musical group performance.
After the group had made a number of public appearances, Campbell was threatened with a lawsuit due to his use of the name “Campbellock.” In order to avoid a lengthy legal battle, Campbell changed the group’s name to “The Lockers” and the dance style’s name was shortened to “Locking.” The “Lockers” Facebook page is still active, and a full timeline of Campbell’s career can be found on his website.
“His group, The Lockers, made it okay for street dancers to get paid to make a living, to exist,” Danehy said. “What he was able to do gave the livelihood of street dancers.”
Tiffany Bong, a professor at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, was a friend of Campbell’s. Bong has practiced and taught hip hop and other street and social dance for the past 15 years. Bong said that the art of Locking birthed a whole new life for her when she moved to Los Angeles in 2001.
Besides calling him a friend, Campbell also became her mentor, who watched her teach hip-hop at elementary schools in Canyon Country. He even sent her personalized videos on her birthday where he would Lock to the beat of “Happy Birthday,” she said.
“He had just one of the greatest hearts and spirits I've ever known,” said Bong in a phone interview. “I don't think there's a single person that ever met Don that didn't leave feeling better and encouraged with their spirits lifted.”
The City of Los Angeles honored his contributions to the South L.A. dance and hip-hop scene by renaming the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Stocker Street after Campbell.
L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s Communications Deputy, Antwone Roberts, explained that Campbell’s contributions and impact on society were what prompted the city to rename the intersection.
“Don Campbell was a legend,” Roberts said in a phone interview. “He's one of the pioneers of hip hop, the inventor of the dance Locking. He's a big part of the reason why “Soul Train” blew up to become the big deal that it is… and we thought, well, what better way to celebrate this man's contributions and his legacy than by dedicating the street in his name.”
For Campbell, the honorary change in the intersection’s name was the culmination of his life’s work.
“One of the best days of my life was seeing him get his street sign,” Danehy said. “The smile on his face, the look of joy, all the people… As I was walking him to the car, I asked him ‘How do you feel?’ [and] he said, ‘Boss, it was out of sight.’”
According to Danehy, every time he interacted with Campbell after the introduction of the street sign, Campbell would remind him how it was “one of the happiest moments of his life.”
As a South L.A. native, Campbell’s affection for the city grew from his relationships and memories made.
“Even to this day, my father and mother would drive through the area reminiscing, [saying] ‘I used to live here, I used to go here, we used to eat ribs over here,’” Danehy said. “That’s why it was appropriate for him to have that street sign in that area.”
After he stopped touring, Campbell continued to give back to the dance community with the help of his son Dennis. Using video lectures, a Q&A format and hands-on practical dance training, the two started “Creator’s Classes,” which they taught in locations across the globe, according to his website.
“I connected to my father, period,” Danehy said. “Dance was just another aspect… it was one of the many things we did together as a family.”
Campbell was laid to rest on April 7. In an Instagram post, his son wrote that there would not be a public service to attend due to the coronavirus outbreak.
According to Bong, Campbell would also tell aspiring dancers that each of them had a “champion” inside them and that he loved using inspirational phrases such as “no one can beat you at being you.”
“He just gave people permission across the world to find their inner light,” Bong said.
Updated April 11, 2020 at 12:30 p.m.: The story has been updated to make clear that Don Campbell was individually threatened with a lawsuit, not the group as a whole.
The story has also been updated to provide a clearer definition of “The Campbellock” aka “Locking” and to provide a clearer distinction between the dance move “The Lock” and the dance style “The Campbellock” aka “Locking.”