August 6, 2005


Little Milton: an R&B great in any era (JEFF JOHNSON, August 6, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times)

Little Milton Campbell's five-decade career is the story of postwar rhythm and blues in microcosm.

The versatile Southern soul-blues performer, who died Thursday in Memphis, Tenn., at age 70, was among the most versatile performers in the blues field. He had the guitar chops to hold his own during the rough-edged electric blues period of the 1950s, the gritty, gospel-trained voice and songwriting talent to score hit after hit in the soul-powered '60s and early '70s and the adaptability to survive during the disco years of the late '70s. Even in the '80s and '90s, when R&B was watered down by synthesizers and electronic beats, the sheer vitality of his songs shined through.

In 1999, when he made the duets album "Welcome to Little Milton," he held his own in the studio with many of the roots-rockers and blues-rock stars who idolized him, such as Dave Alvin, Gov't Mule and Susan Tedeschi. That album brought the only Grammy nomination of his career.

And his last album, "Think of Me," released in May on Telarc, marked a return to his classic sound. Milton's throaty tenor and single-string runs were in perfect form on an album that he hoped would bring a wider audience.

"He never got the recognition he deserved," said Ike Turner, who met Little Milton when they were teenagers in Greenville, Miss., just breaking into the music business.

Turner said he attended B.B. King's concert Thursday night in Highland, Calif., and the two were reflecting on the recent loss of many Delta-based blues stars who got their start in the 1940s and '50s.

"Milton called me a few weeks ago and said, 'Man, we should stay closer,' " Turner said. "Rosco Gordon had just died, and just before him Tyrone Davis. We were kids together, back when me and Milton were skinny like [Jimi] Hendrix. Now my girl calls him 'Big Little Milton.' ... All of the good guys who could play are falling like trees."

Turner, 73, played a vital role in Milton's career, steering him toward Sam Phillips in 1953 at Sun Records in Memphis. Later, when Turner had become established in Downstate East St. Louis, he sent for Milton, who landed at St. Louis-based Bobbin Records.

But it was Chicago's Checker Records, a Chess imprint, for which he scored his biggest hits, including "We're Gonna Make It." The 1965 song became a civil rights anthem, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 25 on the pop chart.

Sad that Ike Turner is now thought of as just a wife-abuser, because he was perhaps the seminal figure in the creation of rock-n-roll. If you can ever find his disc Blues Roots snap it up.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2005 10:20 AM
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