Little Milton

Superlative soul-blues singer and guitarist
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The Independent Online

Both blues and soul enthusiasts acknowledged Little Milton to be a superlative singer and guitarist and an electrifying stage performer. He had his greatest commercial successes with "We're Gonna Make It" and "Who's Cheating Who?" in 1965, and has left a legacy of 50 years of high calibre recordings.

He was born James Milton Campbell into a poor family in Inverness, Mississippi in 1934. His father, "Big" Milton Campbell, was a sharecropper and part-time blues musician and when his son started playing the guitar, he was called "Little" Milton. He was largely self-taught, and in particular, he copied what he heard on the radio. Little Milton later described his influences to Michael Haralambos for the book Right On: from blues to soul in black America (1974),

T-Bone Walker inspired me because that cat always played clean. He would pick one string at a time and most of the other guitar players would flail it and make chords.

As a teenager in Greenville, Mississippi, Little Milton would play black clubs at the weekend and white honky-tonks during the week. He learnt country songs from listening to the Grand Ole Opry and he would joke, "I could have been another Charley Pride."

Little Milton made his first record by playing guitar for Willie Love in 1951 and he was spotted by Ike Turner, who recommended him to Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. Little Milton recorded for Sun in 1953/54 and although his records, "Lookin' For My Baby", "Beggin' My Baby" and a fine rumba blues, "Somebody Told Me", showed promise, Phillips dropped his black artists once he had found Elvis Presley.

Forming his own band, the Playmates of Rhythm, Little Milton developed his craft through a residency in a club in East St Louis. He had regional success with "I'm a Lonely Man" and "That Will Never Do" for the Bobbin label, which was owned by the manager of the radio station KATZ. Little Milton discovered the blues guitarist Albert King and recorded him for the label and he had a young Fontella Bass singing with his band.

In 1961 Little Milton was signed to the successful Chicago label Chess and established himself with Oliver Sain as his musical director. "So Mean to Me", written by Campbell and Sain, indicated that Milton's gravel voice, although as tough as Howlin' Wolf's, possessed sweeter and more melodic possibilities, the same qualities, in fact, as Bobby Bland. After a number of small rhythm and blues hits, he made the US pop charts with the emotional "Blind Man".

The success of "Blind Man" made Chess realise that in Little Milton they might have a crossover artist like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley. They asked Carl Smith and Raynard Miner, the writers of Fontella Bass's "Rescue Me" and Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher", to write for him. Smith and Miner took blues themes and updated them in commercial songs, arranged with punchy horns and gospel-styled chanting. "We're Gonna Make It" told of a poverty-stricken individual who was saved by the love of his woman:

And if I have to carry round a sign saying,

"Help the deaf, the dumb and the blind",

I've got your love and you know you got mine,

So we're gonna make it.

This exciting record topped the US rhythm and blues charts for three weeks and reached No 25 on the pop charts, and it had an unexpected significance in the context of race relations. Little Milton told Haralambos:

We got involved in this racial issue at the time when "We're Gonna Make It" came out, and this was a hopeful tune. Now, when we did this, we had no thoughts concerning the great Reverend Martin Luther King's movement. We were just trying to get a hit record, man, but it was a tune that everybody could see was reaching for hope, for a brighter tomorrow.

Little Milton's songs often described complicated relationships. His best record, "Who's Cheating Who?" is typical of many of his songs, and demonstrates his humour:

My nights out with the boys

Don't have to be with boys at all,

And when you go to bed with your mother, baby,

Her name could easily change to Paul.

Although Little Milton did not have UK hits, his records became familiar in this country through repeated playing on The Jack Spector Show on Radio Caroline. Milton made several albums for Chess, notably We're Gonna Make It (1965), Little Milton Sings Big Blues (1966), Grits Ain't Groceries (1969) and If Walls Could Talk (1970). With the death of the label's owner Leonard Chess in 1969, he moved to the soul label Stax.

With Stax Records, Little Milton often recorded with strings and the Memphis Horns. His successes included "Annie Mae's Café", "Little Bluebird" and "Your Wife Is Cheating On Us", and he recorded a stunning version of Charlie Rich's country song "Behind Closed Doors". The lament "Walking the Backstreets and Crying" (1973), which he performed in the celebrated concert film Wattstax that year, is punctuated with brass and his guitar riffs. Stax went bankrupt in 1975 and Little Milton was again looking for a new label.

The least satisfying period of Little Milton's career was recording for Glades, the subsidiary of the disco label TK, in the mid-Seventies, although there are still fine tracks, like "Angel of Mercy". The funky style was a waste of his talent and after this, there was a succession of one-off albums, including Age Ain't Nothin' but a Number for MCA in 1983.

The following year, he signed with Malaco and, starting with Playin' For Keeps, made 14 albums in 20 years. "The Blues Is Alright" became a blues anthem but by now Little Milton was regarded as an elder statesman rather than a chart name, and he was collecting awards rather than hit singles. He made his UK début, highly successfully, at a blues festival in Colne, Lancashire in 1998. His 1999 album, Welcome To Little Milton, made with Keb' Mo', Delbert McClinton and Dave Alvin, was nominated for a Grammy.

Little Milton switched to Telarc Records earlier this year and he and his producer, Jon Tiven, wrote all the songs on the subsequent album Think of Me, which showcased his guitar technique. He said, "I'm gung-ho for the guitar, and I always have been. I've been doing this since 1954 and if I had it to do over again, I'd do the same thing." Sadly, Little Milton had had to replace his beaten-up but cherished 1959 Gibson guitar, when a technician told him, "Milton, I can heal the sick but I can't raise the dead."

Spencer Leigh