Little Milton – Reconsider me
They still call it the chitlin circuit, albeit with a little self-conscious irony now, the loose network of mostly African-American venues throughout the south and midwest where Little Milton Campbell has been plying his trade since the Sun Records days.
Those clubs are where the titles and phrases of his hits — “That’s What Love Will Make You Do”, “If Walls Could Talk”, “If I don’t love you baby, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man” (reprising Little Willie John’s “All Around The World”, but almost universally associated with Milton today) — made their folk passage into the blues vernacular.
Certainly, Milton has never been afraid to borrow ideas. Although he’s earned a latter-day reputation for his fiercely independent approach to recording (“I refuse to record any song that I can’t feel,” he insists), during his early career Little Milton was hindered by his knack for sounding like almost anyone except himself. His ’50s-era sides for Sun, Meteor and Bobbin were well-crafted but ultimately undistinguished pastiches of riffs, ideas and vocal techniques appropriated from such established hitmakers as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Junior Parker, and even Fats Domino.
It wasn’t until Little Milton arrived at Chess in the early ’60s that he fully forged his now-identifiable style: trenchant, worldly-wise lyrics delivered in a muscular baritone that ascended effortlessly into a churchy tenor wail, buttressed by a lithe, string-bending guitar technique that echoed T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. Milton seasoned the music with his impeccable harmonic sense and his ability to craft sparse yet deeply expressive lines with the precision of a pointillist painter. In a Little Milton solo, the empty spaces between notes sing as eloquently as the notes themselves.
Nevertheless, the depth and breadth of his legacy remain largely unappreciated beyond his core, longtime African-American fan base — though not for want of trying, most notably on 1999’s Malaco release Welcome To Little Milton, which included visits from Govt. Mule, Peter Wolf, Dave Alvin, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Keb Mo. But he’s never sought so aggressively to cross over as on his latest outing, Think Of Me, due out May 24 on Telarc.
Milton’s voice is as sinewy and shot through with yearning as ever, but for the first time in his career he’s eschewed horns entirely: Everything on the new disc is guitars, bass, and keys, with an occasional Dylanesque harmonica to sweeten the mix. Most of the melodic lines owe as much to ’70s-era crunch-rock as they do to anything readily identifiable as blues, soul, R&B, or the contemporary stylistic amalgam that’s become known as soul/blues. In fact, two of the songs — “Let Your Love Rain” and “Second Hand Love” — owe their chord progressions directly to Jimi Hendrix.
Only “The Blues Is My Companion”, an easy-rolling, organ-burnished twelve-bar lope, sounds like the kind of fare most listeners would usually associate with Little Milton. And he makes the most of it; his solo, resonant with emotion yet deftly sparse, is a masterpiece of linearity and symmetry.
Perhaps because of Little Milton’s early history, his fans may be forgiven if they’re haunted by the fear that he’s slipped back into his old habit, submerging his identity to please producers whose ears aren’t attuned to individuality so much as they’re focused on milking the tried-and-true. For his part, however, Milton avows that not only was the attempt to adapt his sound to reach a new audience his own idea, it’s something he’s always been capable — and proud — of doing. In fact, he maintains, it’s what southern vernacular music has always been about, at least since he began playing it.
“When I learned in the very beginning what they called the country blues thing — y’know, like Eddie Cusic, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, who I loved because he had such deep feeling in his country blues — they were very artistically equipped,” Milton explains. “Back then I was working with different people as a sideman, so when I’d get a job with the late Sonny Boy Williamson — Rice Miller — Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, any of those guys, I had to play what they were playing, so I learned that. So I learned how to play it all.”
At the same time, country music exerted a powerful influence. He remembers, in fact, that almost from the beginning he was incorporating that influence to appeal to whites as well as African-Americans — even in the segregated Mississippi Delta.
“Oh, man!” he says. “That was a great part of my life. When I was a kid, listening to the Grand Ole Opry, that was the thing. The only time I got any kind of exposure from anything other than Grand Ole Opry — Eddy Arnold and the ‘lonesome cattle call,’ George Morgan and [his hit] ‘Candy Kisses’ — was when Louis Jordan had a syndicated show that would come on every evening at 6:15 — Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five — and I’d get a chance to listen to that.
“The one thing I remember, from way, way back, was musicians always tried to learn each others’ things. And we never had a racial problem — no musician. Now you didn’t go home [with them], be invited to dinner; but when we would run into each other on different occasions, we were all on great respectable terms, even way back then.
“I learned a lot from the country & western guitar players. In fact, back in the beginning of my career, the black clubs were not open, doing any business per se, ’til on the weekend. After a Blue Monday, maybe on Nelson Street in Greenville, you didn’t have nothing else to do until Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And it wasn’t a lot on Sunday, because country people had to go to work on Monday morning. Through the week we played all of the little white honky-tonks in my home area — Greenville, Leland — down in Mississippi.
“I knew that unless I got a chance to get over in this side of the world, I had to play to my people — basically a black audience — so I had to play what they wanted to hear. But I always wanted to reach out and grab people, like a whole bunch of the other singers who were considered in a category that we were not: the Frank Sinatras, the Eddy Arnolds, the Sammy Davis Jrs.