Raise a final sad glass to blues/soul guitarist, singer, songwriter Little Milton who died on the 5th August 2005, nine days after suffering a massive stroke in his adopted hometown of Memphis, Tennessee aged 71.
I was lucky enough to witness Little Milton in action just twice, the events being a considerable number of years apart. Quality of performance? Well, simply a comparison could never be drawn between the two gigs.
The first, headlining a small blues package at The Mean Fiddler in its original home of Harlesden, Northwest London in company with Denise La Salle and Latimore. Disappointingly attended, there was plenty of room down at the front. The whole show was wonderful and, when Milton stopped stage front, he looked and sounded fantastic, at the top of his game, a master of his craft. A decade or so later, at the Utrecht Blues Festival, perched upon a stool which magically allowed him to stay in a semi upright position. To say he was drunk would be an understatement; his band master desperately fighting a losing battle to hold the whole gig together.
Hardly a fitting memory to go out on, bearing in mind Milton has, for many a long year, been recognised by his peers as a first rate soul and blues man, often described as being somewhere between B B King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, a voice that takes in influences of immediate post-war names such as Charles Brown, his long career spanned more than a fair share of legendary labels… Trumpet, Sun, Chess/Checker, Stax and Malaco.
He provided the blues with a couple of chestnuts which every aspiring blues guitarist, good, bad or indifferent, will no doubt play in tiny, smoky back rooms and village halls wherever in the world the blues has an audience ‘Grits And Groceries’ and, 20 years or so later, ‘The Blues Is Alright’. Some magnificent tracks, second to none in the opinion of this lowly 'TFTW' editor/scribe… ‘If Walls Could Talk’, ‘We’re Gonna Make It’, ‘Who’s Cheating Who?’ to name but three.
Born James Milton Campbell on the 7th September 1934 in Inverness, Mississippi, according to some accounts the ‘Little’ handle was used to differentiate him from his father, Big Milton, a farmer and local performer around Greenville, Mississippi. Making his first appearances as a teenager in the blues bars and cafés along Greenville’s then very much celebrated Nelson Street, his first recordings were made in the very early 1950 accompanying pianist Willie Love and then, under his own name, on three singles on Sam Phillips’ Sun label under the guidance of Ike Turner. Frustrated by his lack of success the young musician split Memphis for St Louis and cut tracks for Bobbin records which would soon be distributed by Chicago’s legendary Chess label.
Allegedly, Milton also worked for the A & R man and was responsible for the signings of Albert King and Fontella Bass. It was after signing to Chess’ sister label Checker that his career began to flourish. He started placing hits on the R&B charts around 1962 which he repeated right up to 1976 by which time he had placed 18 records on the Black Singles Top 40. The aforementioned ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ reached number one in 1965 and even made 25 on the pop charts Stateside.
He remained with Chess until 1971 before switching to Stax where ‘That’s What Love Will Do’ found him in the charts with a different label. Sadly repetition would prove elusive for him in the years ahead. Despite an appearance in the pivotal ‘Wattstax’ film, a series of ill-fitting funk releases throughout the remainder of the seventies certainly did little to help.
Malaco, the Jackson, Mississippi label that has kept Southern soul music alive for almost three decades, rescued Little Milton and it became his home for 18 years, rewarded by his excellent contemporary material for the label like B B King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and T Bone Walker before them, artists in comparison of which Milton has been considered. He was an avid touring act and made one of his final appearances in May 2005 on a bill with The Allman Brothers. In 1988 James ‘Little Milton’ Campbell won the W C Handy Award as the blues entertainer of the year and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
I hope my obituary meets with the approval of the 'Tales From The Woods' resident genius on all things soul, John ‘Soulboy’ Jolliffe no less. Oh, by the way, I reckon the title of a 1983 Little Milton album just about sums up everything that many of us here at 'Tales From The Woods' are all about… ‘Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Number’.