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Little Milton Biography - Scraped Together a Blue Style, Moved from Label to Label, Selected discography

blues guitar records malaco

1934-2005

Blues musician, guitarist

Little Milton Campbell was a consummate blues musician. A performer known for his extraordinary technique, soulful voice, and unique blend of musical styles, Milton was also admired for his staying power. A talented musician and shrewd businessman, he recorded and performed consistently for over 50 years. While Milton may not have developed the clearly identifiable sound of some of his peers, which may explain why he never became a "top forty" favorite, he managed to use his extraordinary musical skills to change with the times. Until his death in 2005, Milton provided his audiences with contemporary music while staying true to his Mississippi Delta roots. Whether performing a solo with an acoustic guitar or playing an electric guitar backed by keyboard, bass, and drums, Little Milton was an authentic, grassroots blues artist.

Milton first made it big in 1965, when he recorded "We're Gonna Make It," a song that hit home during the height of the Civil Rights Era. It remained number one on Billboard magazine's R&B singles chart for many weeks. More than 30 years later he recorded a number of duets with a broad spectrum of contemporary performers such as the blues artist Keb' Mo', country singer Lucinda Williams, and pop-rock artist G Love. An accomplished songwriter, Milton wrote many well known songs, including "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "If Walls Could Talk." The song that helped define him as a blues legend was "The Blues Is Alright," unofficially recognized as the "International Blues Anthem." Over the years, his music has been recorded by many solo artists, including Traffic; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Savoy Brown. In 1988 Little Milton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year.

Scraped Together a Blue Style

Named after his father, Milton Campbell, a man who supported his family by farming and playing in local blues bands, James Milton Campbell was born on September 7, 1934, and came to be known as "Little Milton." He was born in sharecropper housing just outside of the small town of Inverness, Mississippi, but was raised in Greenville, farther north on the Mississippi River. Milton grew up listening to his father and several other musicians play the regional, gospel-tinged blues that evolved in the Mississippi Delta area during the first few decades of the 1900s. He also loved to listen to The Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and became familiar with the sounds of country and western music at a young age.

His first guitar was as make-shift as one could get—he nailed some wires to the side of his house and plucked away. When Milton was about 12 years old, he picked cotton and did odd jobs around the neighborhood, scraping together enough money to send away for a Roy Rogers-style guitar he had seen in a mail-order catalogue. Pearl, his practical minded mother, expressed concern about Little Milton spending over $14 on a guitar. She demanded he send it back. Fortunately for die-hard blues fans, Big Milton intervened, and his son was allowed to keep the guitar. This episode was one that Milton teased his mother about for years to come. According to a Malaco Records biographical sketch, Milton once said to his mother, "'Mama, suppose I had taken that guitar back?' She said, 'Boy, I'm glad you didn't.'"

Once he had his guitar, Little Milton taught himself to play by watching and listening to other blues artists at picnics and house parties. He played anywhere he could, on street corners, in alleys, and at public gatherings. Within a few years, after acquiring a repertoire, he made his way into white honky-tonks and black clubs in the Greenville area, often making a wage of $1.50 per night. Eventually, he ventured across the Mississippi River to Helena, Arkansas, where he played at local venues and occasionally sat in with legendary bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love. In an biography written for Bay Blues, the Web site of the 2001 "Endless Summer Blues Bash," Milton explained, "I was just a kid—I lied about my age and they gave me a gig." Willie Love liked what he heard, and he incorporated Milton into his band, Three Aces, with whom Milton made his first recording on the Trumpet label in 1951. While playing with Love, Milton attracted the attention of Ike Turner, who was a scout for Sun Records at the time. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studio, signed Little Milton to the label in 1953, giving him his first major break. Unfortunately for Milton, around the time he recorded his debut single, "Beggin' My Baby," Phillips was working with a newcomer named Elvis Presley. In an essay entitled "Bright Lights, Big City; Urban Blues," included in the book Nothing But the Blues, Mark A. Humphrey wrote, "Milton had yet to find his style…when he cut 'Alone and Blue' in March 1954. Elvis's first session was only four months away, and his success pointed Phillips in a different direction. By the year's end, blues activity at Sun had virtually ceased." While with Sun and Sam Phillips, Milton remained a relatively obscure blues entertainer.

Moved from Label to Label

In 1957 Milton recorded one single for the Meteor label. He then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was befriended by Bob Lyons. Lyons, who worked at KATZ radio, was a big fan of the struggling bluesman. He soon agreed to set up remote broadcasts of Milton's local shows. Lyons also helped Milton record a demo, which was sent to well-known record labels. When Mercury Records turned down Milton's recording, the disgruntled pair decided to start their own label, Bobbins Records. While recording for the label, Milton also acted as business partner, an experience that taught him the management aspects of the music business. During the years he stayed with Bobbins, Milton managed to sign other blues artists such as Albert King and Fontella Bass; he also recorded several signature songs. The track "I'm a Lonely Man" led to a distribution arrangement with Chess records, a major label based in Chicago. In 1961 Milton switched over to a Chess subsidiary, Checker Records. The decision brought him into the spotlight, and was responsible for introducing him to a wider audience. In 1969, after the death of Chess owner Leonard Chess, the company dissolved. Milton moved to Stax records, where he remained until the label went bankrupt in 1975. The next company he signed with, TK/Glade Records, also went out of business. Finally, Milton joined Malaco Records in 1984. He then found a stable home at Malaco, remaining with the label until 2002, producing over 14 albums, and becoming one of the label's biggest selling artists. In 2005 Milton moved to the Telarc Blues label to release Think of Me, an album which offered Milton's characteristic mix of soul-blues mixed with traces of funk and country-and-western.

Little Milton's sound has been compared to a blend of blues legends B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland. While growing up in Mississippi, a state that has produced many of the country's legendary blues musicians, Milton had many role models and blues artists to emulate. However, it was the sound of the Texas-born blues guitarist T-Bone Walker that Milton claimed shaped his style the most. In an interview for Tower Record's defunct Pulse! magazine, Milton described the genesis of his guitar playing. He stated, "Going back, my greatest influence was the late T-Bone Walker…He made a great contribution to the way I felt I would like to play the blues. I don't play exactly like him. The only somebody I once wanted to play exactly like was T-Bone. But I was never able to duplicate him, although I was able to capture some of the meaningful things he did as a guitarist."

At a Glance …

Born James Milton Campbell on September 7, 1934, in Inverness, MS; died August 4, 2005, in Memphis, TN; son of Milton and Pearl Campbell; married Pat Campbell; children: four.

Career:

Blues musician, guitarist, 1951-2005.

Awards:

W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year, 1988; Blues Hall of Fame, inductee, 1988.

As a mid-level blues performer, Milton made a living by playing live concerts, and he kept up a consistent touring schedule right up until the time of his death. In 1987 he had told the Los Angeles Times that "They started calling me the master of the chitlin' circuit, but I love the chitlin' circuit. It keeps me eating and living the type of lifestyle I enjoy. It's been good to me.… I don't envy anybody. I'm gonna constantly keep doing what I'm doing, and I figure if it's [meant] for me, the recognition will come." Toward the end of his life, it seemed that his recognition might finally be arriving: his 1999 album Welcome to Little Milton earned him a Grammy nomination, and his 2005 album Think of Me was greeted by positive reviews. On July 27, 2005, just a few months after the release of Think of Me, Milton suffered a massive stroke and he passed away a few days later, on August 4, 2005. Milton was survived by his wife, Pat Campbell; four children; and by his guitar, Bessie.

Selected discography

We're Gonna Make It, Chess, 1965.

If Walls Could Talk, MCA/Chess, 1970.

Tin Pan Alley, Stax, 1975.

Back To Back, Malaco, 1988.

I'm a Gambler, Malaco, 1994.

Welcome to Little Milton, Malaco, 1999.

Feel It, Malaco, 2001.

Think of Me, Telarc, 2005.

Sources

Books

Sonnier, Austin Jr., A Guide to the Blues, Greenwood Press, 1990.

Humphrey, David A., "Bright Lights, Big City: Urban Blues," in Nothing But the Blues, Lawrence Cohn, ed., Abbeville Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1996; December 17, 1996; January 10, 1997.

Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2005.

New York Times, August 5, 2005.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 2001.

Washington Post, July 13, 1990.

On-line

Little Milton, www.littlemilton.com (October 10, 2005).

"Little Milton," AllMusic, www.allmusic.com (October 10, 2005).

"Little Milton," Bay Blues: Years Gone By, www.bayblues.org/ygb.html (October 10, 2005).

"Little Milton," Malaco, www.shopmalaco.com/Catalog/Blues-R-B/Little-Milton/list.php (October 10, 2005).

—Ashyia Henderson,

Christine Miner Minderovic, and

Tom Pendergast

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