From his earliest recordings on Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records in the 1950s, "Little Milton" Campbell was an innovator. When other blues artists of his generation were content to churn out formulaic 12-bar blues tracks during the post-World War II heyday of urban blues, he took the music to a new place by injecting elements of gospel, soul, R&B and even shades of country music. His contributions paved the way for the hybrid sound that later came to be known as "soul blues," and his widely covered "The Blues Is Alright" has become an anthem in clubs, juke joints and festival stages everywhere.
A half-century after those early Sun recordings, Little Milton was still exploring new combinations and coming up with fresh sounds. He made his debut on the Telarc label with the 2005 release of Think of Me, a dozen tracks that distill a lifetime of rich guitar skills, compelling vocals and deft songwriting into a single, high-powered package. Sadly, Campbell passed away shortly after the album's release. He suffered a massive stroke on July 27, and died eight days later on August 4, 2005.
"His throaty tenor is one of the most recognizable in the blues," according to the Think of Me liner notes by Art Tipaldi, senior writer for Blues Revue and author of Children of the Blues. "His eloquent single-string guitar work is born from growing up deep in the Mississippi Delta. Other than B.B. King, no one is as honored in the world of blues as Little Milton."
One listen to Think of Me, and it's clear that the praise was well justified. The set starts off on a defiant note with the mid-tempo "Gonna Find Me Somebody To Love," a track reminiscent of the soul blues heyday of the 1970s. The followup track, "Let Your Love Rain Down on Me," is a churning ballad fueled by Milton's emotionally charged vocal style.
Further in, Milton employs a country music backbeat to drive the uptempo "Gone with the Wind," while the swampy "Next To You" derives its energy from some crisp and funky guitar work. "Feel Like a Man" is a rousing devotional that allows room for Milton to explore the far corners of his broad vocal range, but it's the gritty and grinding closing track, "That's Where It's At," that brings it all home with Milton's rich guitar work and edgy vocals.
"I write about everyday life—not necessarily my own experiences, but experiences I see around me," Milton said just a few months before his death. "I'm an observer, and my eyes and ears are open. I pay attention to people. I think you can get a great story just from observing."
Little Milton recorded many of these observations on some of the finest—even if not the most widely trumpeted—blues recordings of the past half-century. Through it all, he maintained a commitment to making the most honest and universal music possible, and that commitment is fully realized on Think of Me.
"As long as people perform the blues from the bottom of their heart and soul, I think there will always be a market for it," he once said. "It makes no difference if you're white, black, blue or green. The music doesn't belong to just one race of people. It belongs to anybody who feels it, enjoys it and respects it."