ANNIVERSARIES: Little Milton Born 80 Years Ago


Little Milton (born Milton James Campbell on September 7, 1934 in Inverness, Mississippi; his father was Big Milton) came up singing the blues and by the '70s had moved into hardcore soul. He was a master of both styles.

In 1953 Ike Turner recruited Milton for the legendary Sun Records. His Sun singles didn't achieve success, and he spent subsequent years hopping from label to label until he started a label, Bobbin, with a St. Louis DJ. When they had a falling out, Little Milton moved to the Chess subsidiary Checker (which had been distributing Bobbin), even bringing at least one track recorded for Bobbin. Soon Milton branched out from performing to producing and managing other performers, and also gained his first hit (on the R&B chart) in 1962, "Mean to Me."

This period of Little Milton's career is well covered on the 16-song Chess CD Greatest Hits in the label's 50th Anniversary Collection series. Those Checker singles find him making the transition into soul. Little Milton's singing -- part heavier B.B. King, part rougher Bobby "Blue" Bland -- puts all these styles across with intensity and sincerity. There's some stuff here, mostly from the front end of the decade, that's solidly in the blues camp. The earliest track, from 1961 and the only one recorded in St. Louis instead of Chicago (with Fontella Bass on piano), is Little Milton's Bland-esque "So Mean to Me." The even more Bland-indebted "Blind Man" -- his 1964 cover of a Bland album track -- is classic, with a slow, brassy arrangement that harks to early Ray Charles. Chuck Willis's "I Feel So Bad" (with its great follow-up line "like a ballgame on a rainy day") is remade in a 1966 session with slinky guitar by Phil Upchurch.

The latter has Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums, and White along with other EWF cronies Charles Stepney on piano and Louis Satterfield on bass show up on 1965 singles that mark the transition to soul clearly on "Who's Cheating Who," "We Got the Winning Hand," and "We're Gonna Make It." The last-named even gave Little Milton his only pop-chart hit, peaking at No. 25. This probably explains why, even though Milton and his producers continued to move with the musical trends of the time -- "Poor Man's Song," which Little Milton co-wrote, has a funky arrangement that would seamlessly fit into a Temptations record from the same year, 1969 -- "Baby, I Love You," from the same session, is mellow pop soul complete with chorus harmonies by a vocal group and a bridge that borrows from the Righteous Brothers. Checker was going to cover all the bases. And it got him some solid R&B hits in this period: 1968's "Grits Ain't Groceries" (basically Little Willie John's "All Around the World") and '69's "Just a Little Bit" (both with Donny Hathaway on organ), two of the songs most associated with Little Milton. But there's also '69's "I Play Dirty," a bit of Otis-Redding-like high-intensity soul that seems like a template for Johnny Copeland's 1980s work.

This is the best one-disc distillation of Little Milton in the '60s; those wanting more should instead go straight to the two-CD, 48-song collection Welcome to the Club: The Essential Chess Recordings, which has all but two of the tracks on Greatest Hits. Either way, though, for some reason you don't get to hear much of Little Milton's guitar playing. In addition to being one of the great singers, he also played some mean six-string. Later label stops in his career yielded much more Milton guitar, especially live albums.

Little Milton's deal with Chess expired a year after founder Leonard Chess died, and Milton moved to Stax. It took them a while to put out an album, and his earliest-recorded Stax album, the 1972 Wattstax-related club concert Grits Ain't Groceries, wasn't released until two decades later. He plays guitar on half its tracks, with his staccato style on "I Can't Quit You Baby" especially striking. Complete with horn section, these mostly extended readings of six hits (a mix of Checker- and Stax-era material) balance blues and soul evenly, with a little funk on "Grits Ain't Grocery." For even more extended (sometimes over-extended) tracks, there's What It Is: Live at Montreux, from 1973, which is overflowing with his guitar work.

His studio productions with Stax tended to be tighter (the Memphis Horns certainly cut his touring horn section) and funkier, but with his gritty voice on top, never too slick; he averaged two singles a year in his five years on Stax, and somebody wisely compiled them all, including the B-sides, on the logically titled The Complete Stax Singles, which is a must-own, not least because of his genre-busting cover of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors."

After Stax went out of business in 1975, Little Milton label-hopped again, still occasionally making the R&B charts; his last (minor) hit single, "Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number," came while on MCA (Mobile Fidelity reissued his sole MCA LP, titled of course for the hit). Right after that he signed with Mississippi-based Malaco in 1983, an association that lasted for two decades; though it yielded no hits, it gave him a steady career as a respected elder of the music. A 1995 compilation, Little Milton's Greatest Hits, covers the first half of his Malaco years; besides the quality of the music, I like it because it includes his comments (in the booklet) about each of the 14 tracks.

Little Milton remained active until his death in 2005 following a stroke. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.