He was born Milton Campbell in a modest sharecroppers home on the outskirts of Inverness, Mississippi, on September 7th 1934. As a child, he was drawn by a very popular radio shows of the day (and still is): The Grand Ole Opry. He found an early connection to Country and western music and later fused it with the other two predominant musical influences of the Mississippi Delta: Gospel & Blues. A youthful Little Milton began studying what he heard and practiced; mastering songs and reciting them, no matter what the style or difficulty. By his early teens, he was performing in local clubs and bars across the Delta.
As Milton grew into a young man, he didn’t waste any time learning the ropes or absorbing all the musical possibilities that existed at the time. He played street corners, alleys, dives, you name it, carefully developing his craft and attracting the attention of established acts and local record labels. By the time Ike Turner introduced Milton to Sam Phillips of Sun Records in the early 50’s, he was a young but seasoned performer with a momentous live show that created a buzz in every town he played. His debut single Beggin My Baby was recorded and released at the same time Sam Phillips was molding the sound of another unknown talent from Mississippi: Elvis Presley.
After recording a series of sides at Sun without great fanfare, Milton moved to East St. Louis Bobbin Records, where his recording career flourished. He also became Bobbin’s A&R chief and working partner to its owner, Bob Lyons. During this era, Milton signed such artists as Albert King and Fontella Bass to the label. Most importantly, he cut his own first hit, I’m A Lonely Man, in 1958.
Milton’s skyrocketing success soon drew the attention of Chess Records executives in Chicago, who signed him to Chess Checkers label and moved him north. Chess carried Little Milton from southern blues circuit fame to the national spotlight and to white audiences. Milton’s recordings realized only moderate chart success, until he cut We’re Gonna Make It, which hit No. 1 on Billboard magazines R&B singles chart in 1965. On the Checker label, he registered hits from 1962 through 1971 that would become American blues classics and staples of his live shows. His Checker recordings included Baby I Love You, If Walls Could Talk, Feel So Bad, Who’s Cheating Who? and the unforgettable Grits Ain’t Groceries. After the death of label founder Leonard Chess in 1969, the company eventually dissolved and Milton signed with Stax.
At Stax, he joined a virtual whos who of influential black recording artist of the day including Isaac Hayes, Rufus & Carla Thomas, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Albert King and, coincidentally, another future Malaco star, the late Johnnie Taylor. Miltons legend only grew at Stax, where from 1971 through 1975, he stacked up more mega hits including Walking The Back Streets and Cryin and Thats What Love Will Make You Do.
When Stax filed bankruptcy in 1975, Milton joined TK/Glades Records in Miami, then home to such artist as Betty Wright, K. C. & The Sunshine Band and Latimore. There, he racked up another charted hit, Friend of Mine. But the Glade label also went out of business. Consequently, in 1983, he released his only album for MCA, Age Ain’t Nothin But A Number. The title cut was an instant-charted hit.
In 1984, Little Milton united with Malaco Records and began the longest professional association of his career. He continued his exceptional vocal and guitar styles and quickly became one of Malaco’s biggest selling artists. He swept up such honors as the 1988 W. C. Handy Blues Entertainer of the Year Award and the 2000 Grammy award nomination. He also was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Malaco has released 14 of Little Milton’s albums, including the critically acclaimed, Billboard blues smash hit Cheatin Habit. Cheatin Habit followed his wildly successful Little Milton’s Greatest Hits compilation. Some of Little Milton’s Malaco cuts that have become American blues standards include Annie Mae’s Cafe, The Blues is Alright, Little Bluebird, Room 244, I Was Trying Not to Break Down, Catch You on Your Way Down, Murder on Your Hands, and Comeback Kind of Love.
The year 2001 marked a successful run of sold out shows in the United States and Europe and the release of Feel It. Malaco doubled back in September, 2002, with the release CD number 14, Guitar Man. It’s celebrated cuts include Guitar Man, Still Some Meat Left on this Bone, and Milton’s soulful rendition of My Way.
Today, more than a half century after his early recordings on Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records label in the 1950’s, Little Milton is still exploring new combinations and coming up with fresh new sounds. He makes his debut on the Telarc label with the release of Think of Me, consisting of a dozen tracks that distill a lifetime of rich guitar skills, compelling vocals and deft songwriting all wrapped into a single high powered package. The man who made The Blues is Alright a national anthem with blues enthusiasts across the globe still shows no signs of slowing down.
I was in Memphis on August 10, 11 and 12, 2005. Upon arriving on the 10th, I was early for the meetings that I was to attend. I wandered down to Beale Street and while there witnessed and was a part of the New Orleans style funeral procession for Little Milton.
Little Milton was a guy that never had a whole lot, he grew up poor and did what he loved, he never drew the millions of dollars and packed arenas that many of todays entertainers draw, today. However, he had a life well lived. His impact on Blues music will be forever felt, thus the appropriateness of naming an award after him.
Little Milton, Thank You.