Little Milton – Reconsider me
“I would sing things like Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, and of course then came T-Bone Walker. When I heard T-Bone, that was the end of it. I knew which way I wanted to go. He was between the ballads, the soul, and the blues. He was all over the place. And that’s what I wanted to do, so that sorta like separated me from the traditional stuff that I was taught to do, or learned how to do, in the very beginning.”
Even in those days, such eclecticism could be a risky endeavor, especially in terms of holding on to admirers who might associate a particular artist, or even an entire genre, with one sound and one sound only. “[It] made me acceptable with a lot of people,” Milton concurs, “but then I was denied from another class of people, because they said that I wanted to be too sophisticated. They made a distinction. But I was never satisfied, and I’m still not satisfied, just playing twelve-bar blues all night long — fast, slow, or medium. I feel that good musicians can find things that make them happy, and enjoy what they’re playing.”
Although he’s admitted he carried flexibility too far during the early years of his recording career (“Back then I didn’t know who Little Milton was,” he told Colin Escott in Good Rockin’ Tonight; “I was just doing whatever came out with a hit record”), he’s confident he has mastered the art of incorporating new ideas and new sounds while still retaining what he’s now sure is an identifiable Little Milton stamp of identity. Although he’s credited as co-writer on most of the new album’s tunes, he says the bulk of the material was brought to him by producer Jon Tiven. He then fine-tuned it to suit his purposes, and to reflect his own feelings for what a “true” Little Milton lyric should express.
“I listened, and some of the lyrics I changed,” he acknowledges. “But the stories were good, and I felt that the lyrics would be extremely refreshing if we could get the music to fit them, so that’s what we worked on. And I think it turned out quite well. I tried to make sure that it didn’t go too far off from the Little Milton traditional stuff, and I made sure that the identity was there.”
Indeed, the lyrics have a depth — really, a seriousness of purpose — that stands out in today’s blues world, even for an artist like Milton, who has long prided himself on the articulate maturity of his songs (both those he’s written and those he found elsewhere). Several of the tracks reflect a decidedly spiritual orientation. But because they don’t proselytize, one needs to listen carefully to catch their true meaning.
It’s not until several verses into “Let Your Love Rain” that it becomes evident that the “love” the singer is asking for is the Lord’s. Likewise, “Reconsider Me”, on which Milton’s roomy baritone delivery recalls James Carr, sounds like a plea for a redemption that’s spiritual as much as carnal. Even the good-timey “That’s Where It’s At”, ostensibly a jubilant ode to individualism and self-reliance (“You can be skinny or you can be fat/Whatever makes you happy, that’s where it’s at”) includes the pointed reminder that “I don’t need a preacher to save my soul/I’ve been a believer since I was 5 years old” — hardly the words of a devil-may-care blues trickster.
Such willingness to address serious concerns, and even to embrace vulnerability, brings a welcome dose of maturity to a soul/blues world that’s become overpopulated with would-be playas and aging hoochie-men, some of whom seem to revel in the cartoonish personas they present in their songs and even in their stage shows. Milton stops short of suggesting the new songs represent a declaration of purpose, but he’s definitely unhappy with the direction in which much contemporary blues is headed.
“The trend has changed so dramatically with this music thing,” he laments, “especially on the so-called chitlin circuit. It’s vulgar; you can say anything that you want to say onstage, on your records — and to me it’s a disgrace. I believe that there should be some principles, some class, and some common sense. But it seems like the people have been de-moralized, you know? It’s so vulgar, so disrespectful — I can tell you this much: whenever Little Milton goes into the studio, you will never hear anything that’s raunchy, filthy, racial or disrespectful. I refuse to violate my principles with that type of stuff.
“I was taught by the best; I came up with the people that were looked up to. I look at how they dress now, and to me it’s just horrible. You would never have seen any pros, back in the day, dressed like you see these musicians dressed today. De-moralization in people! ‘You don’t tell me what to do, I do what the hell I want.’ You see guys walking around with their pants ‘way down ‘cross the crotch of their butts…So many people, man — black people, white people — lost their lives trying to elevate the image of the black man, and look what’s happening now! The black people are doing it [to] themselves! To me, it’s a damn shame.”
Bluesman as arbiter of social conscience and morality? It’s not what a lot of people might expect, but then Milton has always been a proud man, determined to forge his own path on his own terms. He’s never had time for naysayers — not the early listeners who thought he was going “sophisticated” on them by adapting the elegant musical and personal style of T-Bone Walker, not contemporary purists who may accuse him of selling out to pop tastes on his new album.
And he’s not about to temper his views on social issues either. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just have to do what you think is right, and shoot for the moon. Miss the moon? There’s millions of stars up there — you’ll hit a star.”
David Whiteis is a freelance writer in Chicago. His book Chicago Blues: Portraits And Stories is scheduled for publication in early 2006 by the University of Illinois Press.