When you start parsing out the biography of James Milton Campbell, Jr., known to the world as Little Milton, his story starts reading like he was some Forrest Gump of the blues, a guy bouncing around the timeline of music in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, part of seminal history, but never at its direct center. Through him, you get to Sun Records and Elvis Presley, and Stax and Otis Redding. Through him you get to Albert King and Fontella Bass. Through him you get to Etta James, Chess Records, and the legendary Wattstax concert film. Despite lodging only one No. 1 R&B hit, playing Six Degrees of Little Milton ends up a survey of American music in the mid-20th century.
In the early ’50s, before he turned 20, Milton was touring with a band called the Rhythm Aces when he was spotted by a talent scout from a record label in Memphis, Tennessee. The label was Sun Records, and the talent scout was Ike Turner, who had already recorded his first single—often considered the first rock and roll song—“Rocket 88,” and was contracted by Southern labels to help them find new artists in the rhythm and blues genre. Milton was signed to Sun, and recorded his first single, the bare bones blues jam “Beggin’ My Baby,” before Elvis had even walked into Sun Studios. The song wasn’t a hit, and neither was another Sun single, “Lookin’ For My Baby,” which came out after Elvis mania gripped the South and Sun Records, so Milton was released shortly after.
After a couple years trying to find his footing again, Milton ended up recording for Bobbin Records, a label based out of St. Louis that Milton co-founded with KATZ radio manager Bob Lyons, after a bigger label rejected Milton’s new single. Starting in 1958, Bobbin would primarily release Little Milton singles, which sold much better than his Sun singles thanks to distribution support from Chicago blues powerhouse Chess Records, and artists--like Albert King and Fontella Bass-- Milton helped sign to the label.
Bobbin was eventually absorbed into Checker Records, which was also distributed through Chess. Once on Checker, Milton had his greatest commercial success when his single “We’re Going To Make It” went to No. 1 on the R&B charts, and No. 25 on the Billboard pop charts, which made it a rarity for that period, since Beatlemania was in full bloom by then, and R&B songs had a tough road to make the charts. But what was most important is that after years of trying to find his voice, Milton had hit upon the sound that would project him for the rest of his career; a cross between the heartbroken songwriting of the blues, the rollicking thrust of rock ’n’ roll, and the horns and string arrangements of soul music.
As became a theme for Milton’s career, Chess and Checker folded when Leonard Chess, the legendary record man behind Chess, passed away. Milton was set adrift, sans label, before he ended up at Stax, which was riding high at the time, stepping in to distribute smaller labels that lost distribution from Chess going under, and also signing up legacy blues acts like Milton and John Lee Hooker for short contracts on the label, as an attempt to cover all of black music in its offerings. Milton cut a handful of singles for Stax before releasing his best album on the label—though What It Is: Live At Montreux comes close—Waiting For Little Milton, an album that blends Milton’s R&B and blues history with the Stax soul factory and a bona fide symphony (Milton got the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to play on a large portion of the album). Milton floated through blues and rock and R&B history for 20 years before he got to Waiting For Little Milton, and it showcases a mature artist finding the peak of his game late in his creative life; he was almost 40 here, and just then becoming the producer, arranger, and songwriter he was meant to be all along.
In January, Vinyl Me, Please Classics is featuring Max Roach's cracking and bopping masterwork Percussion Bitter Sweet.
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As a bonus: Here's a playlist inspired by Little Milton to tide you over till the album arrives at your crib: