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Blues Without Blinders

Blues, soul, rock, country? Who cares? To Little Milton, it's just music.

Not too long ago, an internationally renowned authority on popular culture came to Houston and asked me to take him out to a few of the city's select juke joints. This gentleman, like many experts, felt that the blues is a static, rigid format, one incapable of evolving without being diluted, and he was sorely disappointed at his inability to find any delightfully primitive songsters mumbling about boxcars, cotton and Mr. Charlie. Apparently, his cultural blinders left him unable to appreciate the vibrant, confident, modern anthems of the neighborhoods he visited. One band even had the gall to play a Little Milton song, he lamented. Is all Houston blues, he asked, so hopelessly contaminated with soul music?

So I made a boudin with the expert's liver and fed it to my rottweiler.
Well, not really. But I should have. Such well-educated nonsense is, after all, why the blues is arguably the most rigidly segregated element of modern American music. Artists who fit the inflexible definitions of the self-styled experts in universities and the media receive favorable notices that lead to reasonably lucrative bookings at upscale blues clubs whose clientele is predominately Caucasian. Artists -- especially vocalists propelled by keyboards and horns -- whose styles proudly owe as much to Stax and Motown as they do to Chess and Excello are dismissed as soul singers and relegated to an entirely different class of nightclub. That modest list of smaller and less lucrative venues, whose enthusiastic audiences are almost exclusively African-American, has long been nicknamed the "chitlin' circuit." It's home to numerous great artists -- Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Tyronne Davis -- all but unknown to white audiences, even though they're revered in the black community.

Occasionally, though, an artist whose talent is so impressive that his or her "contamination" by soul is overlooked will cross over and be classified as suitable for a mass audience. Little Milton Campbell is one of those few. And while he's glad that he's found a home in both houses, he'd rather see the flimsy fence that separates the two torn down.

"The blues has no limitations," Campbell says. "You can see it and feel it the way you want. Little Walter said it best: the blues is a feeling."

Campbell -- who, at 61, is both one of the youngest of the authentic Delta/Chicago bluesmen and a multidecade veteran of the soul circuit -- has strong views that reflect a half-century of experience, views that are frequently at odds with the conventional wisdom of so-called experts.

"The blues isn't stuck in time, and it isn't stuck in 12-bar," he says. "A lot of people figure -- and it's a damn shame -- that the blues is just some poor old illiterate black man that says 'dis' and 'dat' a lot. When people just look for that, they aren't giving us the respect we deserve. Count Basie played the blues, and he played it with class."

"You don't have to be butt-stinkin' to be a blues professional," he adds. "There's nothing professional about being ragged or late because you think that's what the audience wants. That's the wrong concept, and it costs everybody in this business respect -- holds us all back."

Discussing industry peeves with Campbell is like talking to an infantryman who's just shrugged off his pack and fallen out for a spell on a forced march. Given the chance, Campbell will air his complaints, and after his break, he'll shoulder his load and move on. Like a good soldier, his gripes are aimed at the brass in the front office. When it comes to the troops that he's been in the trenches with for most of his life, Campbell is loyal to a fault.

Little Milton Campbell learned his craft from Rice Miller, Elmore James, Willie Love and other early blues masters, and he still holds his tutors (most of them long dead) in the highest regard. It wasn't just music that Campbell took from these artists; his apprenticeship also included absorbing lessons on professionalism and courtesy that he still espouses. "If one of them had a gig, whoever wanted to could come along," Campbell remembers. "There wasn't any backstabbing or stealing gigs, and no drugs, either. They'd drink some good booze, though, and sometimes booze that wasn't so good."

By the time a teenage Campbell found himself learning from the legends, he had already committed to the musician's path. "I always loved the sound of the guitar, and I wanted to learn to play," he says. "When I was little, I would string baling wire from nails on the porch and weight the ends down with bricks, and play it with a nail for a pick and a bottle for a slide."

This was the famous diddley-bow, the homemade guitar that was invariably the first instrument of players who grew up in the Mississippi Delta around Campbell's boyhood home of Greenville. Eventually, Campbell says, he "scrimped and saved enough to send off for a $14 Silvertone guitar." These once common mail-order axes -- the second instrument of many a post-World War II neophyte blues guitarist -- are now sought-after collector's items. "I sure wish I could find another Silvertone for that kind of money," Campbell laughs.

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