Blues Hall of Famer Little Milton, who combined the tough electric blues sound of the early 1950s with the punchy, showtime arrangements of R&B, soul and funk, died in Memphis yesterday (August 4) of complications from two recent strokes. He was seventy.
James Milton Campbell Jr. was born September 7, 1934, in Inverness, Mississippi. As a child he was enthralled with the local guitarists who played at his stepfather’s house parties. “I’d be tucked in bed,” he once recalled, “but the minute that the guy would hit the guitar, they’d look around and I’d be standing there, little long drawers on.” By the age of fifteen, he was performing in a juke joint said to have been owned by B.B. King’s mother-in-law.
Still in his teens, “Little” Milton signed with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in 1953, on the advice of Ike Turner. One of the last blues musicians to record for Sun before the arrival of Elvis, young Milton dabbled in several styles, emulating Fats Domino, T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, among others. “Back then I didn’t know who Little Milton was,” Milton said. “I was just doing whoever came out with a hit record.”
Moving from Sun through a succession of iconic labels, including Chess and Stax, Milton grew into a formidable figure in his own right. He scored his first hit, “I’m a Lonely Man,” for St. Louis-based Bobbin Records in 1958. His biggest success, the brassy, soulful “We’re Gonna Make It” — a song that became associated with the civil rights movement — was a Number One hit on the R&B chart in 1965, reaching Number Twenty-five on the pop chart. Milton’s emotive take on Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is said to have inspired Led Zeppelin’s own version. His other notable songs of that period, when he was a fixture of the R&B charts, include “If Walls Could Talk,” “Who’s Cheating Who?” and “Grits Ain’t Groceries.”
An appearance in the 1973 concert film Wattstax — his song “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” was included on the soundtrack album — helped introduce Milton to a new generation of listeners. Less productive was a subsequent signing with Miami’s TK/Glades, home of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Beginning in the 1980s, Milton began a long relationship with Malaco Records, a collaboration which restored his reputation as a blues torchbearer. In 1988 he was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame and named W.C. Handy Blues Entertainer of the Year. A dozen years later, he earned his sole Grammy nomination for Welcome to Little Milton, an album that featured duets with Lucinda Williams, Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’ and Peter Wolf. Little Milton’s last record, his first for the Telarc label, was warmly received when it came out in May 2005. It is called Think of Me.