Born: September 7, 1934 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Little Milton Campbell was an accomplished blues musician. A performer known for his extraordinary technique, soulful voice, and unique blend of musical styles, Milton was also admired for his staying power. A talented musician and shrewd businessman, he recorded and performed consistently for over 50 years. While Milton may not have developed the clearly identifiable sound of some of his peers, which may explain why he never became a top forty favorite, he managed to use his extraordinary musical skills to change with the times. Until his death in 2005, Milton provided his audiences with contemporary music while staying true to his Mississippi Delta roots. Whether performing a solo with an acoustic guitar or playing an electric guitar backed by keyboard, bass, and drums, Little Milton was an authentic, grassroots blues artist.
Milton first made it big in 1965, when he recorded We're Gonna Make It, a song that hit home during the height of the Civil Rights Era. It remained number one on Billboard magazine's R&B singles chart for many weeks. An accomplished songwriter, Milton wrote many well known songs, including Grits Ain't Groceries and If Walls Could Talk. The song that helped define him as a blues legend was The Blues Is Alright, unofficially recognized as the International Blues Anthem. In 1988 Little Milton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year.
Named after his father, Milton Campbell, a man who supported his family by farming and playing in local blues bands, James Milton Campbell was born on September 7, 1934, and came to be known as Little Milton. He was born in sharecropper housing just outside of the small town of Inverness, Mississippi, but was raised in Greenville, farther north on the Mississippi River. Milton grew up listening to his father and several other musicians play the regional, gospel-tinged blues that evolved in the Mississippi Delta area during the first few decades of the 1900s. He also loved to listen to The Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and became familiar with the sounds of country and western music at a young age.
When Milton was about 12 years old, he picked cotton and did odd jobs around the neighborhood, scraping together enough money to send away for a Roy Rogers-style guitar he had seen in a mail-order catalogue. Once he had his guitar, Little Milton taught himself to play by watching and listening to other blues artists at picnics and house parties. He played anywhere he could, on street corners, in alleys, and at public gatherings. Within a few years, after acquiring a repertoire, he made his way into white honky-tonks and black clubs in the Greenville area, often making a wage of $1.50 per night.
Eventually, he ventured across the Mississippi River to Helena, Arkansas, where he played at local venues and occasionally sat in with legendary bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love. Willie Love liked what he heard, and he incorporated Milton into his band, Three Aces, with whom Milton made his first recording on the Trumpet label in 1951. While playing with Love, Milton attracted the attention of Ike Turner, who was a scout for Sun Records at the time. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studio, signed Little Milton to the label in 1953, giving him his first major break. But it would be a few more years of the chitlin’ circuit ahead.
In 1957 Milton recorded one single for the Meteor label. He then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he decided to start his own label, Bobbins Records. While recording for the label, Milton also acted as business partner, an experience that taught him the management aspects of the music business. Milton managed to sign other blues artists such as Albert King and Fontella Bass; he also recorded several signature songs. The track I'm a Lonely Man led to a distribution arrangement with Chess records. In 1961 Milton switched over to a Chess subsidiary, Checker Records. The decision brought him into the spotlight, and was responsible for introducing him to a wider audience. In 1969, after the death of Chess owner Leonard Chess, the company dissolved. Milton moved to Stax records, releasing some fine records, and remained until the label went bankrupt in 1975. The next company he signed with, TK/Glade Records, also went out of business.
Finally, Milton joined Malaco Records in 1984. He then found a stable home at Malaco, remaining with the label until 2002, producing over 14 albums, and becoming one of the label's biggest selling artists. In 2005 Milton moved to the Telarc Blues label to release “Think of Me,” an album which offered Milton's characteristic mix of soul-blues mixed with traces of funk and country-and-western.
As a mid-level blues performer, Milton made a living by playing live concerts, and he kept up a consistent touring schedule right up until the time of his death. Toward the end of his life, it seemed that his recognition might finally be arriving: his 1999 album “Welcome to Little Milton” earned him a Grammy nomination, and his 2005 album “Think of Me” was greeted by positive reviews.
On July 27, 2005, just a few months after the release of Think of Me, Milton suffered a massive stroke and he passed away a few days later, on August 4, 2005