Boss Grooves: Get me Manhattan, yon lecturer's got a hit single, says David Belcher

IT'S not every day that one is able to phone a fiftysomething academic and children's author at her home in Manhattan and be the first to tell her she's just had a British No1 hit single with a piece of music she recorded 25 years ago. Seconds inside the door after a hard day as a peripatetic lecturer in tertiary education, Camille Yarbrough nearly dropped her groceries on the kitchen floor when I imparted this information on Monday night.

Similarly, even the most seasoned pop-picker might be nonplussed by the name Camille Yarbrough. Her most recent performances have been confined to classrooms as for most of the past 12 years, Yarbrough has been a professor in the Black Studies Department at City College of New York. Over the past fortnight, though, no-one in Britain can have failed to hear Yarbrough's laconic voice and rousing words on the first big hit of 1999, Praise You.

Released under the name of Fatboy Slim, alter ego of producer Norman Cook, Praise You utilises a sample of Yarbrough's vocal from her own song, Take Yo' Praise. This featured on her one album, The Iron Pot Cooker, released by jazz and folk label Vanguard in 1974.

Record sales figures from that era are a mystery. ''I'm still trying to get an answer about where any money from that album went to, and what its sales might have been,'' said Camille, nevertheless resigned to the fact that her LP was a commercial failure. In contrast, Praise You has sold around 120,000 copies in two weeks, and the top 10 Fatboy Slim album on which it features, You've Come A Long Way, Baby, has exceeded 300,000 sales since October. Yarbrough's delayed-action success should bring her tangible rewards this time around. Ex-Housemartin Cook, currently settling in as Zoe Ball's main squeeze, has justly accorded her a co-writer's credit, while his use of the sample was cleared in advance.

''I haven't spoken to Fatboy Slim himself, Norman Cook, never yet had the pleasure. But his people called after the record had been done some months ago, and told me what what they'd sampled. It's not like the original song, of course, but I think it's very good, as is the whole LP. I'm pleased the record is out, and I'm very glad that Fatboy Slim is an artist who knows what to do with music.''

How did a contemporary dance-guru come to be linked with a little-known jazz-gospel-folk track that's a quarter-of-a-century old? Via the offices of London-based re-issue specialist label Ace, who now have access to the Vanguard back-catalogue. In 1995 an Ace offshoot, BGP, released a Vanguard compilation called I Like It. As well as Take Yo' Praise, this album contained E.V.A., a spooky sixties instrumental by Jean-Jacques Perrey. Praise be that Ace asked Norman Cook to re-mix the latter track for nineties dancefloor consumption, subsequently revivifying another segment of history, too.

What of Camille Yarbrough's own history; her journey from stage to page, concert hall to lecture theatre? And what's the history of Take Yo' Praise? Who or what lies behind its lyrical message: ''We've come a long, long way together/ Through the hard times and the good/I have to celebrate you, baby/ I have to praise you like I should.''

Camille can explain: ''I've been in theatres since the 1950s . . . let's say I'm not a child. I left the place I was born and raised, Chicago, to be a dancer first of all, touring the world with Katherine Dunham's pioneering African-American dance company 40-something years ago. When we returned from places like Spain, France and Germany, I became an actress in plays on Broadway. As a singer, too, I sang in all kinds of places, from the New York Playboy Club to the Village Gate. But I gradually became discouraged with the business until I appeared in a play in the sixties called To Be Young, Gifted And Black. That inspired me to write my own material, my own monologues, poems, songs, and music, all with a political consciousness - something I think Fatboy Slim has picked up on.

''That material became the basis for The Iron Pot Cooker, but although the album got very good reviews, including one in Billboard, it came out during a period of great political change. Nixon was gone; it was the end of the civil rights movement . . . and at that time people didn't want music with a political message anymore, they just wanted to dance . . . boogie, boogie, disco.

''I toured my music just before the album came out, and around that time some of my shows on campuses were actually cancelled. Take Yo' Praise was written for all the people who had come through the black civil rights movement, who had stood up for truth and righteousness and justice, because human beings need to praise and respect one another more than they do.

''It was also written for one particular young man I was interested in, that I was involved with then.''

He is no longer the recipient of Yarbrough's praises - ''We separated, unfortunately'' - but her writing continues. Her first children's book, Cornrows, earned a prize named in honour of Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1980. Three more books for young adults followed. Another, about the slave forts of Africa, is currently overdue.

''I've never wholly given up performing, whether my poetry or my songs, and in fact just after Christmas I sang at Kwanza, our annual African-American celebration of the fact that we're still here.''

Unfortunately, Yarbrough's tenure at City College recently came to an end: ''Downsizing, they call it. Lately, I've been lecturing in education colleges, teaching teachers how to use my children's books in school, how to perform the songs that I've written in each one.''

Yarbrough's music has yet to make her a fortune: ''Every so often for some years I've received small amounts of royalties from Sweden. The original Take Yo' Praise is apparently used as a Swedish TV theme tune . . . I just hope it's not a porno show!'' However, her years of work in the field of African-American education did recently provide some consolation in the form of an unusual honour when, during her last visit to Ghana, she was accorded the status of a tribal queen mother.

British officialdom didn't treat her quite so respectfully. ''It was kind of unpleasant, but funny, too. I was travelling from Ghana back to New York, and passed through an airport in London. I had some chicken in my suitcase, which got an airport police dog sniffing around, and then a big policewoman ordered me to open my luggage.''

I'd advise boss groovers to open their hearts and their wallets, and make amends by praising Camille Yarbrough with the purchase of Praise You.