Spectropop remembers

LITTLE MILTON (1934 - 2005)

Although he started out in music in the same place and at the same time as B B King, Ike Turner and Elvis Presley, "Little" Milton Campbell, who has died aged 70, escaped the confines of blues or rock'n'roll to become a spokesman, through soul music, for the entire African-American community.

He was born in Inverness, Mississippi, a delta town less than 10 miles from Indianola, and near Leland. His father, also a musician, was known as "Big" Milton Campbell - which explained how his son got the "Little" nickname. His first public appearances, singing and playing guitar, were in the clubs of Leland and nearby Greenville's notorious Nelson Street. At 16, he followed the example of B B King, who was nine-years-older, and tried his luck in Memphis.

Before he was 20, Milton had made several records for Sam Phillips's Sun label. They were a heady brew of shameless imitation and lawless bravado; several of his vocals, and the arrangement of "Somebody Told Me" in two tempos, were blatantly modelled on King, but he also seemed to have an ear cocked to another local contemporary, Bobby Bland.

Milton's guitar playing, however, was decidedly original, all spiky lines and muddy tone. Like Ike Turner, who had produced and played on those records, he moved on to East St Louis, where Turner and Oliver Sain were grooming stables of blues and soul artists. Milton's seven releases on Bobbin, produced by Sain, were well received, but it was his move, in 1962, to the larger Chess label, in Chicago, that accelerated his progress through the ranks of up-and-coming blues singers. Unlike Chess's A-team of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, however, Milton neither wished nor intended to be typecast as a blues singer.

"In order to be successful at this," he noted in an interview with Living Blues magazine, "you have to be versatile." When "We're Gonna Make It" went to the top of the R&B chart in the spring of 1965 - to be followed by songs such as "Who's Cheating Who", "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "If Walls Could Talk" - Milton was established as one of the leading figures in soul-blues.

Although, at first, he seemed to be still listening attentively to Bobby Bland, he gradually drew away into a style of his own, replacing Bland's heart-on-sleeve emotionalism with a dry, wryer delivery. From then on, he enjoyed a popularity on the chittlin circuit of black southern clubs and dancehalls only exceeded by B B King's.

In the early 1970s, Milton made a logical move for anyone working to the templates of soul and blues, and signed with Stax Records. During a five-year period, he produced numerous records that were both artistically satisfying and quite successful in the R&B charts, but he cannily retained the affection of older and more blues-inclined listeners with the passionate blues preaching of "Blue Monday" or "The Thrill Is Gone". Tolerantly, too, when visiting France in the 1980s, he consented to play the role of a blues-singer tout court, even treating his audiences to a newly written anthem, "The Blues Is Alright".

In a revealing recording of a 1983 engagement at a prison in Westville, Indiana, one can hear the two sides of Little Milton: first, for the male convicts, giving a set of blues and heartaching soul numbers, but then, as the men file out and the female prisoners take their seats, presenting a peppier, sexier personality.

Milton had always kept close ties with the region where he grew up, and would regularly appear both at small clubs and festivals in Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1984, he joined Malaco, the southern soul label based in Jackson, Mississippi, whose roster also included his old friend and rival Bobby Bland, During the next 20 years, he recorded more than a dozen albums.

If he occasionally variegated his repertoire with a "My Way" or "The Wind Beneath My Wings", Milton regularly reminded his listeners where he came from with songs like "I Don't Believe In Ghosts", which updated the old blues theme of "who's been here since I've been gone?" with such lines as: "I got home just a little early, tryin' my best to catch that man/ Y'see, the cologne that I wear is Lagerfeld, but the air was filled with Pierre Cardin."

Like B B King, too, Milton presided over a recorded conference with younger artists, such as Lucinda Williams and Susan Tedeschi, titling it Welcome To Little Milton and pleasing his English fans by including a photograph of the roadsign for that quiet Oxfordshire village. His last album, "Think Of Me", was issued recently, and one of his last performances was earlier this year in a festival of Memphis music at the Barbican, London.

He suffered two strokes last month and had been in hospital in Memphis ever since. His wife, Pat, survives him.

Tony Russell - The Guardian

Milton Campbell, singer/musician: born September 7th, 1934 - died August 4th, 2005.