By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Singer/guitarist LITTLE MILTON CAMPBELL is one of the greats, even though you've never heard of him unless you're a die-hard blues hound—which we both know you're not, skateboard boy. You can thank me later, after checking out Little Milton on Friday night at the Blue Cafe on my redoubtable recommendation, or after hunting down a couple of his relatively hard-to-find CDs.
You won't encounter any Little Milton discs at the anti-mall, or at any of the in-vogue indie shops-of-the-moment clerked by purple-haired, zit-faced dullards whose idea of roots music is Black Flag before Henry Rollins joined the band. The curse of Campbell's long career, dating back to the early '50s, has been that white people can't usually relate to his shit unless they live in a van down by the river! Hell, even most African-Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line don't get it, so Campbell's lifelong fan base has been among Southern blacks who appreciate no-bullshit R&B artists like him and others of a similar ilk, such as O.V. Wright, Johnny Adams, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Dorothy Moore and Z.Z. Hill. Little Milton is funkier than a lunch sack full of neck bones with grease dripping through the paper. When Little Milton plays, the whole room smells of Dixie Peach pomade and Alligator Wine, High John the Conqueror Root and Love Potion Number Nine. He addresses life's harsh realities in the vernacular of the Southern ghetto with a booming baritone so resonant and churchy it sounds equipped with its own echo chamber. Many of his best songs are hard-time classics that nonetheless overflow with inspirational optimism, such as "We're Gonna Make It": "We may not have a cent to pay the rent, but we gonna make it/We may have to eat beans every day, but we gonna make it/And if a job is hard to find/And we have to stand in the welfare line/I got your love and you know you got mine/So we gonna make it."
Just tracking Little Milton's recorded history reveals much about his eminence, as he's associated with four of the most legendary labels in blues and rock history. Early on, he produced a host of screamingly intense sides for Memphis' Sun Records. By the early '60s, he was signed to Chicago's Chess Records, where he recorded arguably his finest work, such as the above-mentioned tunes and other classics like "Without My Sweet Baby," "Just a Little Bit," "Losing Hand" and "Who's Cheating Who?" By the early '70s, he was associated with Stax Records, home of such deep-fried Southern soul masters as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Eddie Floyd. And since 1984, he's been with Mississippi's tiny but reliable Malaco Music Group (slogan: "The Last Soul Company"), along with such kindred musical spirits as Bland, Moore, King Floyd and the late Johnnie Taylor.
Some blues nazis have dismissed Campbell's Malaco output as too commercial, but in most cases, they're wrong. Little Milton was never a purist, and he loves his R&B as much as his blues, performing each with equal amounts of skill, taste and expertise. That said, on his last album, 1999's Welcome to Little Milton, Campbell made a belated attempt to appeal to white folks by playing more blues-based tunes and featuring a bunch of properly Caucasian guest stars. But fear not: this was no Eric Clapton/Jeff Beck/Keith Richards-type corporate abortion à la Buddy Guy or John Lee Hooker; Campbell demonstrated marvelous taste by employing the talents of Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams and Gov't Mule. It's a rare treat indeed for Campbell to be playing so close by—take advantage while you can, puffy-pants boy.
Another superb vocalist who almost never performs in the USA, let alone OC, is NINA SIMONE. Well, she's not appearing here, but it'll be worth the trip to see her at LA's Wiltern Theatre next Thursday for her only SoCal appearance.
Simone is best-known for her intense acrimony and sensitivity toward American racism and hypocrisy (to that end, she fled this country in the '70s and sought emotional refuge in various nations throughout Africa and Europe). Many of her best songs are pointedly political manifestoes of outrage, such as "Mississippi Goddamn," "Old Jim Crow," the heartbreaking "I Hold No Grudge," and the most righteously embittered take on Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" ever recorded. She's also known for turning Screamin' Jay Hawkins' psycho-rant "I Put a Spell on You" into a tender but caustic report of rejection and for penning and recording the original "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The regal Simone didn't quite understand when Eric Burdon & the Animals subsequently appropriated that tune and turned it into a rock & roll hit —her tantrums at the perceived desecration are the stuff of legend.
As a vocalist, Simone is in a class of her own, with few points of reference. Her grainy contralto is so meaty that many assume she possesses a penis. Stylistically, she's impossible to pin down. Her work almost always features elements of jazz, blues and soul side by side, even when her backing and material lean in a more concise direction (such as on "Spell," which is approached as a soul ballad but features Simone breaking into brief-but-brilliant scat sections).