Blues Without Blinders

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.

Silvertone in hand, Campbell set out for Memphis, where he hooked up with saxophonist C.W. Tate. By 1953, this duo had joined the pre-Tina Ike Turner and the Playmates of Rhythm. After playing rhythm guitar behind Turner on numerous Sun Records recordings -- and, like anyone who was exposed to Sun founder Sam Phillips, learning volumes about the art of recording -- Campbell moved on to St. Louis, where he began performing as a bandleader instead of a sideman. Although the first Little Milton 45s were recorded in Memphis on Sun and the obscure Meteor label, it was his work for the St. Louis-based Bobbin Records that made Campbell's stage name a handle that still appears on jukeboxes from Houston's Third Ward to Chicago's South Side. It was also the Bobbin recordings that first brought Campbell to Houston.

"There was a lady named Dizzie Lizzie on KCOH that brought me in to play at the Club Matinee on Lyons Avenue," Campbell says. "Houston was where I learned about being a really sharp dresser, because Caldwell Tailors was still in Fifth Ward."

The final stop on Campbell's pilgrimage was Chicago, where he still resides. In 1961, he began an eight-year association with Chess Records that resulted in an avalanche of music and 14 R&B hits, a record for Chess. Songs such as "We're Gonna Make It" and "More and More" were the staples of road shows that rocked audiences throughout America. After Leonard Chess died in 1969, Campbell moved to the Stax label and performed at the legendary 1972 "Woodstock of Soul" Wattstax concert. Years before that, the R&B that Campbell had helped create from the Delta blues of his childhood had already moved in the direction of rock and roll, and it was labels such as Stax that helped mold R&B into the sensual, keyboard-propelled African-American pop called soul. But to Campbell, it was -- and still is -- the blues.

"There's a difference in the flavor that's a reflection of what kind of exposure the audience has," says Campbell. "The so-called blues stations won't play artists like Denise LaSalle and Latimore -- two of my favorite artists -- because [programmers] have a view that blues has to be centered around a guitar. That's why I've been able to cross over, because if I don't feel like singing, I can say what I want with my guitar technique. The real problem is just a lack of knowledge [among listeners]."

Call them soul or call them blues, there's no problem or lack of knowledge where Campbell's vocals are concerned. In front of a ringing guitar that, in the Delta tradition, produces a silent note on each side of every note played, is a deep, rich voice that has given Malaco -- Campbell's label for the last 13 years -- urban-contemporary classics such as the lustful "Room 244" and the considerably more up-tempo anthem "(Hey, Hey) The Blues Is Alright."

True to his eclectic definition of what constitutes great music, Campbell is also a country music fan. "That's my second love," he explains. "Lee Greenwood is a real favorite of mine. I did one of the Farm Aid shows with Willie, and got to meet a lot of artists, country guys, whose music I really admire. There are so many great writers and melodies in country -- songs and people that have so much soul."

What Campbell's experiences, opinions and talent really boil down to is a easygoing philosophy that cuts to the chase -- and makes more sense than most.

"You take whatever's in your heart and project it to the audience," he says, explaining that the artist isn't giving anything that isn't immediately returned. "It doesn't matter if you are performing or observing, you're feeding what's going on. If every note of it comes from the heart, the audience and the artists feed each other.

"That's what the blues is; that's what music is."

Little Milton Campbell performs at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, June 28, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Smokey Wilson opens. Tickets are $18. For info, call 266-9294.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Sherman