Little Milton Campbell
Just a few weeks ago, Little Milton Campbell was doing great. In April, he traveled to London to headline a night of Robert Gordon's "It Came From Memphis" concert series. A month later, a new album, Think of Me - his first for Telarc Records after years of recording for the Malaco label - was released to rave reviews.
When I saw him at a party at Ardent Studios one night in mid-May, Campbell - always an appreciative guy - said that he was "grateful" for the work. In fact, he said, he was preparing for a busy summer: With concerts scheduled and a TV taping booked, the 70-year-old showed no signs of slowing down.
But on Tuesday, July 26th, Campbell suffered a brain aneurysm at his Memphis home. In a room at Delta Medical Center the next day, he had a stroke then lapsed into a coma. Early last Thursday morning, the blues great passed away. Campbell's family scheduled a memorial service at Greater Love Ministry Church in Southaven on Wednesday, August 10th. His widow, Lesterine Campbell, requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Little Milton Campbell Memorial Fund at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital here in Memphis.
This far into the 21st century, the authentic bluesman is becoming an endangered species. With the passing of Mose Vinson, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, and now Campbell, the survivor list of former Sun Records blues artists has dwindled down to a mere handful of names: Ike Turner, B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, and Honeyboy Edwards. Likewise, several chitlin'-circuit R&B performers (including fellow Mississippian Tyrone Davis, who died in February), immortalized by dozens of scratchy jukebox 45s, have recently gone to that great blues joint in the sky.
Of course, many powerhouse youngsters are picking up the reins, but it just ain't the same. Campbell and his crew epitomized grace and class - somewhat of a paradox, as they were performing gritty, often ribald blues - in an era that stereotyped African-American performers as ignorant and illiterate.
Campbell, a native of Iverness, Mississippi, made his wax debut on Sun in 1953. "I have to give Ike Turner the credit for that," he told me in a 2002 interview for the Flyer. "Ike also encouraged me to move up to East St. Louis [in Illinois]. He and I worked 12 to 15 dates a week up there, playing three or four gigs a day on the weekend."
In St. Louis, Campbell ran his own Bobbin label before embarking on a career at the Chicago-based Chess Records, which yielded the chart-topping soul-blues hits "We're Gonna Make It," "Grits Ain't Groceries," and "If Walls Could Talk."
Campbell signed to Stax in the '70s, hitting again with "Walking the Back Streets and Crying" and staying with the label until it folded in 1975. Yet he didn't move to Memphis until the late '70s, when he decided, after 36 years in Chicago, he was ready to return to his Southern roots. "The Southern hospitality and the atmosphere down here are two things I want to be around," he said, proclaiming, "Memphis is my hideaway."
Maybe so, but whenever Campbell was here, he was willing to talk shop. Over the last five years, I called him dozens of times, and he was always approachable, always affable. In April, when I tracked him down to talk about his newest album, he spoke of his career as a constantly evolving creation.
"I am reaching for a wider audience. I'm going with a new company [Telarc], and they're already on the right side of the tracks, getting the white audience and wider exposure," he explained, adding meditatively, "music belongs to everybody. I might not have million sellers, but my albums are clean, soulful, meaningful, and for real."
Clean, soulful, meaningful, and for real: With those four adjectives, Campbell could've been describing his own character. His music was clean enough to compete against slicker, more modern performers during his Stax era and soulful enough to earn six W.C. Handy Awards and a nomination into the Blues Hall of Fame. His songs, particularly "We're Gonna Make It," which captured the ear of the civil rights movement, were meaningful to millions of people, while, throughout his life, no matter how successful, Little Milton Campbell strove for realness, hitting the mark every time.
We're gonna make it, brother - just as you sang it back in 1965. Until we see you again, rest in peace.
by ANDRIA LISLE