“Little” Milton Campbell: 1934 to 2005
“Little” Milton Campbell, who thrived in East St. Louis and kept the blues flame burning among black audiences in the south for years, died in his sleep on August 4 after suffering a massive stroke.
It’s a mystery why he wasn’t better-known among white blues fans. He had a great voice and was a fine, understated guitar player, although perhaps that understatement is a clue. He had great material, a lot of which he wrote himself, though most of his hits were written by others — or had already been hits for others, such as “Grits Ain’t Groceries” (which was Little Willie John’s “All Around The World”), or his superb recasting of Chuck Willis’ “Feel So Bad”.
His biggest hit was 1965’s “We’re Gonna Make It”, which came at a time when the civil rights struggle really seemed like it had turned a corner and people, were, in fact, going to make it. Whether that’s the reason or not, it hit 25 on the pop charts — his best showing there — and is a performance that can inspire optimism to this day.
Milton was “little” because his father was big, a farmer near Leland, Mississippi, where Milton was born on September 7, 1934. Already a fine guitarist in his young teens, he first recorded on Trumpet Records with pianist Willie Love’s Three Aces (a band that had also featured Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II) when he was 16. This brought him to the attention of Ike Turner, who recruited him and then recommended him to Sam Phillips, who recorded Milton for Sun with Ike’s band during 1953-54. The records flopped, largely because Milton’s style was too derivative — and because, of course, Sun had other priorities as 1954 progressed.
Turner remained a fan, though, and after he’d relocated his Kings Of Rhythm to East St. Louis, he worked on Milton until he, too, moved up there. He began recording for the impossibly obscure Bobbin label, and, with the regular work the city’s clubs gave him, wound up developing his gruff but warm vocal style and his ability to punctuate and comment on the song with his guitar. In short, he became Little Milton. In 1959, “I’m A Lonely Man”, on Bobbin, was the first of his records to sell outside the area, and someone in Chicago was listening. In 1961, he signed with Checker, a division of Chess.
That’s where his best-known stuff came out. In addition to the three mentioned above, there was “Who’s Cheating Who”, “Let Me Down Easy”, “If Walls Could Talk” and “Baby I Love You”, plus many others. On these records, he managed something other blues performers his age failed to do: He balanced the guitar-and-vocal practice of the blues with what can only be called a soul sensibility, which attracted younger audiences.
Milton remained a hot ticket through the 1980s, so that when Checker let him go, Stax picked him up, and then Malaco. In 1999, he signed with Telarc and recorded an album of duets with the likes of Dave Alvin and Lucinda Williams, providing all-too-belated broader recognition of what a lot of people already knew.
They say that if you repeat something often enough, you come to believe it. For almost 40 years of one-nighters, Little Milton sang “We’re Gonna Make It”. The fact that he worked for that long, not the number of records he sold, is proof that Milton Campbell, beloved by the audiences he played for, made it in no uncertain terms. At 70, he earned his rest.