Saturday, April 4, 2015

Music Reviews: Little Milton

Little Milton
James "Little Milton" Campbell (1934-2005) was best known and marketed as a blues musician and singer. However, placing him solely in this category was by his own admission somewhat problematic. Little Milton grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and could have been the next Charley Pride. He was a lifelong country music fan. When he turned to blues in his teens and early twenties, blues was already morphing into rock-n-roll and post-war R&B. 

On the surface, Little Milton's sound, especially by the sixties and later, was different from the older music pioneered by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Jimmy Reed. Little Milton knew, respected and occasionally worked with the older musicians. Once, before a concert, Little Milton told Howling Wolf that he admired Wolf's expensive flashy cuff links. After the show Howling Wolf called Little Milton over and gave him the cuff links as a gift, jokingly warning him the next time Little Milton saw Wolf with something nice on, to keep his admiration to himself.

Little Milton's musical arrangements and vocal timbre, (similar to that of BB King who was an influence), owed much to jazz, jump blues and the burgeoning soul and funk genres. Little Milton worked the same circuit as performers like Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland and Wilson Pickett. So Little Milton was almost completely overlooked by white audiences during the sixties blues revival as he was not DORF. Unlike many other black blues artists Little Milton retained a solid, though declining popularity with black blues and soul audiences. 

Through the seventies and beyond his bands would always open with hits by contemporary black performers such as Earth Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Michael Jackson and Prince. He received little attention from the white blues market until very late in life. Life is funny like that. It's odd that different groups who will show up together at a sports event will often decline to attend a concert if either group thinks that too many of THOSE OTHER PEOPLE will be there. But so it goes.
Little Milton, BB King and Albert King 1970 Memphis
Little Milton had a rich smooth creamy baritone voice. But so did many other singers. But few people had Little Milton's vocal range and control. For Little Milton his voice truly was an instrument. He had the same amount of power whether he was singing in a velvet whisper or letting loose with one of his trademark bass to falsetto screams. If Little Milton had been born a different race or in a different time period he may well have become an opera singer. But he was born a black man in pre-war Mississippi so he became a bluesman. 

As far as guitar Little Milton was influenced by such heavyweights as T-Bone Walker, Ike Turner (who discovered him and got him his first record contract), BB King, Eddie Cusic and Joe Willie Wilkins. As alluded to earlier, because Little Milton's voice was so spectacular, a lot of his recordings, particularly during the sixties, featured his singing far more than his guitar playing. During live shows he would often not even put on his guitar until a third of the way through the show. So some people who were just there for guitar pyrotechnics might have missed out if they left early. Their loss. His live work would often feature a heavier thicker tone than he used for recording.  

Little Milton understood that you can't have the volume and excitement turned all the way up or all the way down all the time. His approach was very dynamic. What makes me passionate about blues is how its best practitioners can use tension and release to move you adroitly through very different emotional states. Listen to Spring to hear what I am trying to express. Milton holds vocal notes for 12 seconds or more (!) and occasionally does the same thing with his guitar. 

There were about five major musical periods to Little Milton's work.
(A) Sun Records in the early fifties
(B) Bobbin and Meteor records in the late fifties
(C) Chess Records in the early to late sixties
(D) Stax Records in the late sixties and early seventies
(E) Malaco, Rounder and Evidence Records
My favorite work tends to be the Stax releases, which I think saw a balance between guitar and vocals, popular and classic, which wasn't reached before or since. But with Little Milton you can't go too wrong with much of his recorded output. If you like blues or soul but think that too many guitarists overplay then Little Milton might be someone you should hear. He very rarely overplayed and usually left audiences wanting more. He wasn't just doing 12 bar blues. Little Milton sometimes evinced frustration with audiences who only wanted to hear that or bands who were limited to that style. Little Milton's music always had a very strong groove and swing. 

I took this for granted but when I heard some rock groups cover his music the missing elements were painfully obvious. Occasionally I even listen to some of the sickly sweet love/pop songs he did at Chess. He was occasionally unfairly dismissed as a BB King clone. Little Milton worked very hard to find his own voice. He thought others should do the same. Little Milton, like some of his contemporaries such as Sam Cooke and James Brown, asserted control over his career. He managed and produced himself and later handled his own bookings and publishing, a rare feat in the music industry then and now. As he said of learning the business of music "Well, every artist should do that if they're capable of doing it. It'll keep you from being a total fool." He also strongly disdained the stereotype of an ignorant drunk disheveled black musician. Little Milton believed in taking care of business. He and his wife booked and promoted such artists as Tyrone Davis, Denise LaSalle, and Millie Jackson. And they did so for a much lower percentage than other promoters.

In the Wilson Pickett styled I Play Dirty Little Milton boasts to women that he "hits hard below the belt" and that they will "come back for more". This song was actually atypical for him because in most of his songs he was the one doing the begging. The 1958 song I'm A Lonely Man does sound similar to contemporary BB King work. Little Milton has said at that time he was just trying to get his name out there and play whatever was popular. I like the jazzy jump blues sound of She Put A Spell On Me. My favorite Little Milton song is his take on the Otis Redding ballad That's How Strong My Love Is. There's no guitar solo to speak of but his singing is truly sublime. The strings are a nice touch. That song has been proven in all 50 states to cause men to spontaneously propose marriage or women to suddenly conceive. Strong stuff. 

If you listen to no other song, you should listen to that one. On the other hand if you really want to hear Little Milton stretch out on guitar check out the live versions of That's What Love Will Make You Do and Tell Me It's Not True. His tone is round, crunchy and full without being too harsh or trebly. He explores the entire sonic range of the guitar, a novel idea which unfortunately is lost to most blues guitarists today. If You Talk In Your Sleep finds Little Milton cautioning his married lover not to spill the beans to her husband. 

I think most blues/soul fans are familiar with Little Milton's version of the Little Willie John song All Around The World or as it was known in Little Milton's remake, Grits Ain't Groceries. And Little Bluebird shows all the elements of the Little Milton sound, classy uptown horns, string section, strong deep bass, a guitar sound equally glassy and distorted and powerful masculine vocals that hold notes FOREVER.

Spring (Live at Montreux)  That's How Strong My Love Is That's What Love Will Make You Do
If You Talk In Your Sleep Walking The Backstreets And Crying 
Tell Me It's Not True (Live at Montreux) 
Grits Ain't Groceries (aka All Around The World) I'm A Lonely Man
Let Me Down Easy(Live at Montreux) I Can't Quit You Baby (Live) I Wonder Why  Steal Away
I Play Dirty So Mean To Me Little Bluebird She Put A Spell On Me Feel So Bad
We're Gonna Make It I'd Rather Go Blind I Can't Quit You Baby
You're Gonna Make Me Cry  His Old Lady And My Old Lady  The Blues Is Alright
My Dog And Me (w/Gov't Mule)
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