Campbell, Little Milton

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Little Milton Campbell

Blues musician, guitarist

Little Milton Campbell was the consummate blues musician. A performer known for his extraordinary technique, soulful voice, and unique blend of musical styles, Milton was also admired for his staying power. As a talented musician and shrewd businessman, he recorded consistently for more than 50 years. While Milton may not have developed into a top crossover performer like his friend B.B. King, he managed to use his extraordinary musical skills to change with the times. Milton provided his audiences with contemporary music while staying true to his Mississippi Delta roots. Whether performing a solo with an acoustic guitar or playing an electric guitar backed by keyboard, bass, and drums, Little Milton was an authentic, grassroots blues artist.

In 1965 Milton recorded the blues and soul hybrid "We're Gonna Make It," a song that hit home during the height of the Civil Rights era. It remained number one on Billboard magazine's R&B singles chart for three weeks. More than 30 years later Milton recorded a number of duets with a broad spectrum of contemporary performers such as the blues artist Keb' Mo', country singer Lucinda Williams, and pop-rock artist G Love. An accomplished songwriter, Milton has written many of his own hits, including "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "If Walls Could Talk." The song that helped define him as a blues legend was "The Blues Is Alright," unofficially recognized as the "International Blues Anthem." Over the years his music has been recorded by many solo artists, including Traffic; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Savoy Brown. In 1988 Little Milton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year.

Raised in the Mississippi Delta

Named after his father, Milton Campbell, a farmer who occasionally played in local blues bands, James Milton Campbell came to be known as "Little Milton." He was born in sharecropper housing just outside the small town of Inverness, Mississippi, but was raised in Greenville, further north on the Mississippi River. Milton grew up listening to his father and several other musicians play the regional, gospel-tinged blues that evolved in the Mississippi Delta area during the first few decades of the 1900s. Like many aspiring southern musicians, he also loved to listen to The Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

Milton's first guitar was homemade—he nailed some wires to the side of his house and plucked away. When he was about 12 years old, he picked cotton and did odd jobs around the neighborhood, scraping together enough money to send away for a Roy Rogers-style guitar from a mail-order catalogue. Pearl, his practical-minded mother, expressed concern about her son spending more than $14 on a guitar, and demanded he send it back. Fortunately for diehard blues fans, Big Milton intervened and his son was allowed to keep the instrument. This episode was one that Milton teased his mother about for years to come. According to a Malaco Records biographical sketch, Milton once said to his mother, "'Mama, suppose I had taken that guitar back?' She said, 'Boy, I'm glad you didn't.'"

Recorded At Sun Before Elvis

Once he had his guitar, Little Milton taught himself to play by watching and listening to other blues artists at picnics and house parties. Milton's sound has been compared to a blend of B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland. While growing up in Mississippi, a state that has produced many of the country's legendary blues musicians, Milton had many role models and blues artists to emulate. However, it was the sound of the Texas-born blues guitarist T-Bone Walker that Milton claimed shaped his style the most. In an interview for Tower Records' Pulse! magazine, Milton described the genesis of his guitar playing: "Going back, my greatest influence was the late T-Bone Walker…. He made a great contribution to the way I felt I would like to play the blues…. The only somebody I once wanted to play exactly like was T-Bone. But I was never able to duplicate him, although I was able to capture some of the meaningful things he did as a guitarist."

Once he developed a repertoire, he made his way into white honky tonks and black clubs in the Greenville area, often making a wage of $1.50 per night. Eventually Milton ventured across the Mississippi River to Helena, Arkansas, where he occasionally sat in with legendary bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love. In a biography written for bayblues.org, the website of the 2001 "Endless Summer Blues Bash," Milton explained, "I was just a kid—I lied about my age and they gave me a gig." Willie Love liked what he heard, and he incorporated Milton into his band, Three Aces, with whom Milton made his first recording on the Trumpet label in 1951. While playing with Love, Milton attracted the attention of Ike Turner, who was a scout for Sun Records at the time. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studio, signed Little Milton to the label in 1953. The young singer-guitarist proved to be versatile, cutting songs in the style of his heroes Elmore James, B.B. King, Guitar Slim, and Lowell Fulsom. Unfortunately for Milton, around the time he recorded his debut single, "Beggin' My Baby," Phillips was working with a newcomer named Elvis Presley. In an essay included in the book Nothing But the Blues, Mark A. Humphrey wrote, "Milton had yet to find his style … when he cut 'Alone and Blue' in March 1954. Elvis's first session was only four months away, and his success pointed Phillips in a different direction. By the year's end, blues activity at Sun had virtually ceased."

Recorded for Chess and Stax

In 1957 Milton recorded one single for the Meteor label in Memphis. He then moved to St. Louis, where he was befriended by Bob Lyons. Lyons, worked at KATZ radio, and agreed to set up remote broadcasts of Milton's local shows. Lyons also helped Milton record a demo that was sent to well-known record labels. When Mercury Records turned down Milton's recording, the disgruntled pair started their own label, Bobbins Records. While recording for the label, Milton also acted as business partner, an experience that taught him the management aspects of the music business. During his years with Bobbins, Milton discovered other artists such as blues legend Albert King and soul singer Fontella Bass (who enjoyed a major hit on Checker with "Rescue Me" in 1965); he also recorded several of his signature songs. The track "I'm a Lonely Man" led to a distribution arrangement with Chess records subsidiary Checker Records.

For the Record …

Born James Milton Campbell on September 7, 1934, in Inverness, MS; died on August 4, 2005, in Memphis, TN; son of Milton and Pearl Campbell, married Listerine "Pat" Campbell; children include: Milton Campbell, Jr., LaRhonda Campbell, Barbara Gleason, Verlin Gleason.

Blues musician, guitarist, and songwriter. Recorded for Sun, Bobbins, Chess, Stax, MCA, Malaco, and Telarc Records; featured in the concert film documentary Wattstax, 1972; appeared with soul star Ann Peebles on the syndicated TV show Soul Train, 1975; prominently featured in The Blues: The Road to Memphis, produced by Martin Scorcese for PBS televison, 2004.

Awards: W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year, 1988; Blues Hall of Fame, inductee, 1988.

Addresses: Office—Camil Productions, 6608 Solitary Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89110, phone: (702) 437-5617, fax: (702) 437-5619. Website—Little Milton Official Website: http://www.littlemilton.com.

Equally important was the artist's teaming with producer and A&R man Billy Davis. "When I first started working with Little Milton," Davis explained in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, "he was like the Midwest version of Bobby 'Blue' Bland." With some trepidation, Davis supplemented Milton's guitar-led blues style with horn-based soul and gospel arrangements. The result was Milton's only number one hit, "We're Gonna Make It," and a signature style that would propel a string of Top 20 R&B hits, including "Who's Cheating Who," "Feel So Bad," "Grits Ain't Groceries," "If Walls Could Talk," and "Baby I Love You." Roots music purists have never been sold on Davis and Milton's melding of blues and soul, but black radio audiences loved it.

Milton left Checker after the 1969 death of owner Leonard Chess. Like many Chess artists, Milton sorely missed the label founder. "Leonard taught me a lot about the inside of the business," he wrote in the liner notes to his 1997 Greatest Hits disc. "One day you're gonna get too damned old to be jumping around on stage so you want to get into the business end of it, get your own publishing company, and try to get your own booking agency. If you want to make a dime, live good but save two-and-a-half cents of that dime." Eventually, Milton would take Chess's advice and form his own publishing company and booking agency.

When the post-Leonard Chess management seemed cold to the idea of a contract renewal, Milton moved to Stax records, where he remained until the label went bankrupt in 1975. At the legendary Memphis soul label, he continued his string of progressive R&B hits with "That's What Love Will Make You Do" (which spotlighted Milton's famed "muffle-picking" technique on the guitar) and soulful remakes of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" and Elvis Presley's "If You Talk in Your Sleep." However, the mismanagement of Stax aside, Milton's style was falling out of favor. He scored his final R&B Top 40 hit with "Friend of Mine" for the upstart TK/Glade Records, which also went out of business. Perhaps Milton's best shot at crossover succes came when he recorded the 1983 album Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number for mass market giant MCA. Unfortunately, the album, which contained more disco allusions than straight soul or blues, never really jelled, and radio completely ignored it.

Finally, Milton joined Malaco Records in 1984, where he found a relatively stable home. He produced 14 albums, culminating in a Grammy nomination for his 2000 album Welcome to Little Milton. Although one of the label's biggest selling artists, he left the label for his final release on Telarc, the Handy Award-nominated Think of Me.

Never Stopped Playing

Many blues artists name their guitars; Little Milton is no exception. According to the website of Malaco Records, Milton considered his guitar, "Bessie," to be his best friend, and he credited her for his success, stating, "She never says no, she never gets sick, she makes me money, and she's always ready when I call on her." In an interview conducted at the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas, Blues Access writers Jay Weiner and Alain Recaborde spoke to Milton about his long career and asked about his plans for retirement. Milton responded, "The time that I'll retire is when they lay me down, fold my arms and y'all come by and say, 'That sorta look like him. Yeah, that's him!' Other than that, as long as God grants me the time on this earth, I'm gonna' enjoy doing what I'm doing."

Always vibrant, Little Milton delivered on that promise to his fans and worked until he couldn't plug in Bessie and preach his rhythmic sermons any longer. One of the most vital links to the classic blues era died on August 4, 2005, following a stroke.

Selected discography

Singles

"So Mean to Me," Checker, 1962.
"What Kind of Love is This," Checker, 1964.
"Blind Man," Checker, 1965.
"We're Gonna Make It," Checker, 1965.
"Feel So Bad," Checker, 1967.
"I'll Never Turn My Back On You," Checker, 1967.
"Let Me Down Easy," Checker, 1968.
"Grits Ain't Groceries (All Around the World)," Checker, 1969.
"Just a Little Bit," Checker, 1969.
"Poor Man," Checker, 1969.
"If Walls Could Talk" Checker, 1970.
"Baby I Love You," Checker, 1970.
"Somebody's Changing My Sweet Baby's Mind," Checker, 1970.
"I Play Dirty," Checker, 1971.
"That's What Love Will Make You Do," Stax, 1972.
"Behind Closed Doors," Stax, 1974.
"Let Me Back In," Stax, 1974.
"If You Talk in Your Sleep," Stax, 1975.
"Friend of Mine," Glades, 1976.
"Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number," MCA, 1983.

Albums

We're Gonna Make It, Chess, 1965.
Sings Big Blues, Chess, 1968.
Grits Ain't Groceries, Stax, 1970.
If Walls Could Talk, MCA/Chess, 1970.
Waiting for Little Milton, Stax, 1973.
What It Is, Stax, 1973.
Blues 'N Soul, Stax, 1974.
Montreux Festival [live], Stax, 1974.
Tin Pan Alley, Stax, 1975.
Friend of Mine, Glades, 1976; Collectables, 1994.
Walkin' the Back Streets, Stax, 1981.
The Blues is Alright, Evidence, 1982.
Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number, MCA, 1983.
Playing for Keeps, Malaco, 1984.
Annie Mae's Café, Malaco, 1987.
Movin' to the Country, Malaco, 1987.
Back To Back, Malaco, 1988.
I Will Survive, Malaco, 1988.
Live, Passport, 1989.
Too Much Pain, Malaco, 1990.
Sun Masters, Rounder, 1990.
Who's Cheating Who, Sound Solutions, 1992.
Strugglin' Lady, Malaco, 1992.
Me for You, You For Me: The Glades Masters, Collectables, 1993.
I'm a Gambler, Malaco, 1994.
Bobbin Blues Masters, Vol. 1, Collectables, 1994.
Bobbin Blues Masters, Vol. 2, Collectables, 1994.
Live at Westville Prison, Delmark, 1995.
Cheatin' Habit, Malaco, 1996.
Count the Days, 601, 1997.
Greatest Hits (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection), MCA. Chess, 1997.
For Real, Malaco, 1998.
Welcome to Little Milton, Malaco, 1999.
Reality, Malaco, 1999.
Feel It, Malaco, 2001.
Anthology 1953–1961, Varese Sarabande, 2002.
Blues is Alright: Live at Kalamazoo, Varese, 2004.
Think of Me, Telarc, 2005.

Sources

Books

Humphrey, David A., "Bright Lights, Big City: Urban Blues," in Nothing But the Blues, edited by Lawrence Cohn, Abbeville Press, 1993.

Sonnier, Austin Jr., A Guide to the Blues, Greenwood Press, 1990.

White, Adam, and Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, Billboard Books, 1993.

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1996; December 17, 1996; January 10, 1997.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 2001.

Washington Post, July 13, 1990.

Online

"Little Milton," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2006).

"Little Milton," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (March 2, 2006).

Mississippi Writers and Musicians Project, http://www.shs.starkville.k12.us (March 2, 2006).

Additional information drawn from the liner notes to the 1997 compilation disc Little Milton's Greatest Hits—The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection.