Little Milton, 70; Bluesman’s Voice, Guitar Took Him to Hall of Fame

Times Staff Writer

Little Milton, the Mississippi bluesman known for his supple guitar skills, booming voice and the affirming civil rights era song “We’re Gonna Make It,” died Thursday at Delta Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn. He was 70.

The Blues Hall of Fame member, whose full name was Milton Campbell, suffered a brain aneurysm July 27 and lapsed into a coma, according to Tommy Couch Jr., general manager of Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco Music Group, which recorded Milton.

The singer’s five-decade career took him from small Mississippi Delta towns to a Grammy nomination in 2000 for his album “Welcome to Little Milton,” which featured duets with Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, Peter Wolf and others.

The singer split his time between homes in Las Vegas and Chicago, but his music didn’t reflect the slickness of the former’s music scene nor did it echo the classic Chicago blues sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Campbell belted out blues and R&B; classics in a rough, soul-oriented style that was most often compared to the vocals of Bobby “Blue” Bland.


As a young man, Campbell said he identified the recordings of T-Bone Walker, Roy Brown and Big Joe Turner as the compass points in his search for his own style.

Campbell was born the son of sharecroppers on Sept. 7, 1934. His father, Big Milton, also played the blues in Inverness, a small delta community near the hometown of B.B. King, who eventually would share friendship and music sensibilities with Campbell.

“I’ve lost a good friend,” King, 79, said Thursday, according to the singer’s spokesman.

Campbell found himself at a storied site in 1953 when he joined the roster of Sun Records, the Memphis collective that produced the first recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other seminal rock, blues and country musicians.

Campbell had come to Sun under the guidance of another Mississippi music figure -- Ike Turner -- who in 1951 at Sun had recorded “Rocket 88,” viewed now by many historians as the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

On Friday, Turner described his one-time protege as “a great, great voice” and a friend who might have known the end was coming.

“He called two weeks ago and said, ‘It’s just you, B.B. and me left; we’re falling like trees,’ ” Turner said. “He called because Tyrone Davis died not too long ago.... He said we should all stop waiting so long to talk to each other.”

Turner said Campbell never achieved the crossover success he merited: “He was never really recognized for his talent -- not the way he should have been, especially with the white audience. He never got the recognition that B.B. got.”

By the end of the 1950s, Campbell had moved on from Sun and, after a stop in St. Louis, had found a label in Chicago with Checker, an imprint of Chess Records. It was there that he began to make his mark on the rhythm and blues charts.

Later he would move to Stax, another R&B; label. His hits included “I’m a Lonely Man,” “Blind Man,” “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” “Feel So Bad” and his biggest, “We’re Gonna Make It,” in 1965.

The song hit No. 1 on the R&B; charts and had lyrics that caught the ear in a turbulent time: “We may have to fight hardships alone / But we’re gonna make it / I know we will / ‘Cause togetherness brings peace of mind / We can’t stay down all the time.”

Campbell won six W.C. Handy Awards, including the 1988 trophy for entertainer of the year after a strongly reviewed tour. That year he joined an impressive gallery of Mississippians in the Blues Hall of Fame. By clinical appraisal, his career might be described as second tier to some of the bigger names such as King, but Campbell was publicly unperturbed by the assessment.

“They started calling me the master of the chitlin’ circuit, but I love the chitlin’ circuit,” he told The Times in 1987. “It keeps me eating and living the type of lifestyle I enjoy. It’s been good to me.... 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.”

Campbell is survived by his wife, Lesterine “Pat” Campbell, and four children: Milton Campbell Jr. of Las Vegas; LaRhonda Campbell of St. Louis; Barbara Glover of Grand Prairie, Texas; and Verlin Gleason of Benton, Texas.

A memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday morning at the Greater Love Ministry Church in Southaven, Miss.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Little Milton Campbell Memorial Fund at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105. Donations also may be made by calling (800) 873-6983.