Little Milton's set was the clear highlight of the 1986 Long Beach Blues Festival, and it turns out that performance was just as memorable for the Chicago-based singer-guitarist as it was for the audience.
"The best food for any entertainer is for the audience to respond the way those people at Long Beach did," said Little Milton in a recent phone interview from Las Vegas. "That particular day, it seemed I couldn't do anything wrong. I think we might have won some new fans."
That last comment should lock up the understatement-of-the-year award for Milton, who will perform two shows tonight at the Music Machine with his seven-piece band and two backing singers. The heavy touring schedule that keeps him working three to four nights a week for 10 months of the year has given him the perspective to truly savor those exceptional moments like the Long Beach show.
"I wish I could tell you that it happens all the time, but it doesn't come together like that all the time for me--or anybody else," said Milton, who was born Milton Campbell 53 years ago. "It's not necessarily rare but it's not a thing you can bank on. As often as we work, we might nail a performance like that four or five times a year."
A Mississippi native, Campbell got his first musical experience in church as a child. "Being a Baptist from the Southern states, you'd participate in whatever programs the churches were having, if you had any talent," he said.
But he soon ventured into the popular music field when talent scout Ike Turner steered him into the studio to record for Memphis' legendary Sun label in 1953. He also recorded in Memphis for Meteor before moving to St. Louis in the mid-'50s and recording for independent labels there.
Little Milton hit his stride in 1960 when he hooked up with Checker, a subsidiary of Chess Records. During a decade with the Chicago label, he enjoyed 16 R&B chart hits--including "Blind Man," "Who's Cheating Who," "Feel So Bad" and the 1965 chart-topper "We're Gonna Make It."
But his sound doesn't echo the classic Chicago blues style of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Campbell cited as his chief influences such jazz-tinged blues artists as guitarist T-Bone Walker, saxophonist Louis Jordan and jump-blues shouters Roy Brown and Big Joe Turner. The closest reference point to Little Milton's style is smooth blues belter Bobby (Blue) Bland, but with a rougher, soul-oriented slant.
"I never could and still can't see myself playing nothing but 12-bar blues all night long," Campbell said. "I always wanted to be more versatile but when disco and all the electric (funk) stuff came along, I stayed doing the same thing I've been doing.
"I do what I feel and I don't record anything I can't get something out of. You're not only cheating the audience, the people that are going to buy your records, but I think you're cheating yourself."
Campbell moved on to Stax Records after Chess folded in 1971 and had one last brush of chart success in 1972 with "That's What Love Will Make You Do." But Little Milton remained welcome on the black club circuit even after he cooled off commercially.
"You miss the hit records, but with the type of music I record you have to lay a good (business) foundation," Campbell said. "If you treat promoters and club owners right and make a name for yourself, you can work. During my cooling-off period, I still worked just about as much but I didn't make quite as much money.
"They started calling me the master of the chitlin' circuit, but I love the chitlin' circuit. It's kept me eating and living the type of life style I enjoy. It's been good to me."
Little Milton also recorded for TK Records and had one album released by MCA in 1983 before he moved to Malaco, the Jackson, Miss., label that's become a home for many traditional blues and R&B artists. MCA recently reissued some of his early Chess albums, but Campbell is hoping that his new Malaco album, "I'm Moving to the Country" (due later this month) will help break him out of the second tier of blues performers who go unrecognized by the pop and rock mainstream.
"It's not so much frustration, but I think about it because I feel there's plenty of room for everybody," Campbell said. "It doesn't bother me to the point that I lose sleep at night but it's every artist's goal to be accepted widely. I don't envy anybody. I'm gonna constantly keep doing what I'm doing and I figure if it's (meant) for me, the recognition will come."