Little Milton

TrackAlbum / Single
One Of These Old DaysChecker 1063
We're Gonna Make ItWe're Gonna Make It
Who's Cheatin' WhoWe're Gonna Make It
More And MoreChecker 1189
I Know What I WantChecker 1194
Grits Ain't GroceriesGrits Ain't Groceries
SpringGrits Ain't Groceries
If Walls Could TalkIf Walls Could Talk
Eight Men & Four WomenWalkin' The Back Streets
Little BluebirdWaiting For Little Milton

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Contributor: Peter Viney

There are a lot of Littles. Little Richard, Little Walter, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Little Tony & His Brothers, Little Eva (Toppermost #361), Little Mack & The Boss Sounds. Little Jimmy Osmond. And here we have Little Milton, aka Little Milton Campbell, 1934-2005. He was around six foot tall and weighed 240 pounds, but his dad was called Big Milton, hence the name.

Little Milton, for UK listeners at least, appears on Chess label anthologies, inevitably with Who’s Cheatin’ Who, from 1965.

His career stretches back to the 1940s, and in 1952 he was signed to Sun Records by Ike Turner. The early singles for Sun, then Meteor, are excellent but generic, and this pre-Chess material is on the CD Chicago Blues & Soul via Memphis & St. Louis. Early on, he was obsessed with the word baby in songs, early titles include Beggin’ My Baby, If You Love Me Baby, Homesick For My Baby, Lookin’ for My Baby, Let’s Boogie Baby, Let My Baby Be, and Ooh My Little Baby.

He started his own label, Bobbin, in St Louis and was distributed by Chess (he was on the Checker subsidiary label in the USA), and was a producer as much as a performer. He discovered Albert King, and Fontella Bass played piano and sang backing vocals in his band. It took him ten years to get his first significant hit, So Mean To Me in 1962. At this point he sounds similar to B.B. King, excellent big band, predictable blues melodies better than average lyric interpretation. He did slow blues too, and on those Bobby Bland is the comparison. Given his liking for lavish orchestration, Big Joe Turner is another comparison. He didn’t write much, and his own compositions are much in the B.B. King mode rather than the soul mode. The outstanding early song for me is the 1963 single, One Of These Old Days (Checker 1063), which sounds so like British soul singer James Hunter’s songs that it’s uncanny. I had heard James Hunter before I discovered this single pre-dating him by thirty years. It has the same relaxed swing to it.

Things changed in 1965. Then I would listen to anything with the Chess label on it, and while I missed We’re Gonna Make It on release, Who’s Cheatin’ Who was the surprise. It’s a classic 1965 soul record from my discotheque-haunting era, and as soon as it starts my mind is in Le Kilt in Bournemouth with its narrow balcony surrounding a dancing pit with tartan walls. The doors are open and you get your hand stamped to go out and catch a breath in the night air of Bourne Avenue, with the low stone wall entirely filled with blonde girls from Swedish Summer schools. If only you could bottle nostalgia. Incidentally, it’s now my opticians’. How bored they must get during eye tests with my tales of how it used to be … the DJ was right there by the eye chart …

Who’s Cheatin’ Who came in the era when Chess was moving from R&B to soul and was a US R&B #4 hit. Fontella Bass’s sublime Rescue Me was the same time with the same band, the Chess rhythm section with Phil Upchurch on guitar, Louis Satterfield on bass and Maurice White on drums. It has breezy horns with Little Milton switching between light soul then deep snarling delivery. Listen out for the trumpet solo. The online video doesn’t look nor sound live, but when the chorus comes in, it’s multiple voices, while on the single it’s one female voice (rumoured to be Fontella Bass) which is more effective with the lyrics.

Chronologically for me, it meant looking back for We’re Gonna Make It, which uses the same signature voice switch from light, calm to growling snarl. It had been an even bigger US hit (R&B #1). Little Milton has the ability to sound like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye one second, then Otis Redding the next. It sits on the loping bass, horns and chanting chorus. Both tracks were on the album, We’re Gonna Make It, which stands as unusually coherent for soul or R&B in 1965, and there was a third single, Blind Man from the same set, which is truly “Big Blues”. By Big Blues, Little Milton meant really really big blues. His renditions of the standards, Blues In The Night and I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town (both on We’re Gonna Make It) have a mighty and magnificent horn section and use it to the full.

The next album was appropriately, Sings Big Blues in 1966, and backpedalled from the soul style, with blues classics like Stormy Monday, Reconsider Baby, Woke Up This Morning, Feel So Bad. Have Mercy Baby is the Domino’s 50s song, not the Don Covay song. It’s one to hear Little Milton’s guitar playing.

There were a lot of Checker singles, and they didn’t all get onto LPs. I’m choosing two in a row. A couple of years ago, I found a small stack of original US import Little Milton singles and was delighted to investigate the non-album tracks.

More And More was a single in 1967. The song was later the centrepiece of the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album. Little Milton or David Clayton-Thomas? Both are magnificent but Little Milton got there first and it’s the template for the BST/Chicago/Electric Flag sound.

I Know What I Want from the same year, is definitely soul, in an Atlantic or even Motown style. The horns are still there, but rhythm guitar has come up so it’s less “big band” than earlier records. You could imagine The Impressions or Four Tops doing this almost.

The next choice (and LP title track) is Grits Ain’t Groceries and it’s one where both sides argue for inclusion … I Can’t Quit You Baby is the B-side. I Can’t Quit You Baby is a Willie Dixon classic, recorded by Otis Rush and John Lee Hooker before Little Milton, and Led Zeppelin afterwards. Have a bit of fun on YouTube and compare Jimmy Page’s guitar work with Little Milton. Grits Ain’t Groceries (Titus Turner) is a signature Little Milton song, and one recorded in various versions, of which I’ll take the original Checker single and LP track. There’s a version with Bonnie Raitt on YouTube. It reminds me of an argument I had in Tower Records once. They wouldn’t put Bonnie Raitt in the blues section, because (a) she had pedal steel on one record and (b) she has red hair. Listen to the duet and decide.

Just A Little Bit is so well-known in the Roy Head hit version that Little Milton’s 1969 version is a contrast. He takes it slower, sexier, more impassioned, with a much more complex and interesting arrangement: bass at the forefront, the big horn section, Hammond organ. I love both versions, but I’ll just give the points to Little Milton’s cover. It was the B-side to Spring, and that was equally tempting with its gorgeous long sax solo. Both are on Grits Ain’t Groceries. It’s definitely another double-sided single. Spring gets in my ten because it’s not identified with someone else.

If Walls Could Talk came in 1970, starting with the title track, If Walls Could Talk. This is ostensibly standard R&B fare, sitting on the classic Can I Get A Witness 12 bar riff, but it has to go in for performance. The chuckle, the Ha!, the Wilson Pickett Ow!. Then the lines are memorable:

If cars could say … who’s been inside
And who’s been taken … Been taken for a ride!
So ain’t you glad? You know you oughta be glad!
That cars don’t talk.

When Chess collapsed and was sold to GRT, he moved to Stax Records. The two CDs you need of Little Milton are a “Best of” the Chess years and a “Best of” Stax. The Best of Little Milton on Stax is an extraordinary collection of first rate playing, though the only MGs on there are Duck Dunn and Al Jackson. It’s borderline soul/blues.

The Stax track that is best known is Walking The Back Streets And Crying, and I played it repeatedly next to Eight Men & Four Women trying to choose one or the other, I decided Walking The Back Streets was further towards the B.B. King mode and Eight Men & Four Women more distinctive. It was written by O.V. Wright in 1967. The lyrics, frankly, are stretching the point with the jury accusing him of being in love, and the woman he loves taking the witness stand and confessing she’s guilty too. But this is soul, and we can forgive a little stretching considering the impassioned vocals with Stax bass and horns at their flat out best. Until I did the Toppermost, I hadn’t listened to the lyrics too closely. It would have been improved if he’d really been in a real court accused of stalking or whatever, which is what I’d always thought given the level of passion and “lurve” he puts in, but it’s marvellous anyway.

The other prominent Stax one is Behind Closed Doors, a hit for Charlie Rich in 1973 so “country got soul”. I thought about including it but went for Little Bluebird instead from 1978’s Waiting For Little Milton. Written by Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. The production sets Little Milton’s blues guitar against the surprising ethereal background strings of The Memphis Symphony Orchestra for the first couple of minutes, before guitar and horns take over and really rock out. Towards the end of the Stax period I feel he gets swamped by the huge Isaac Hayes productions (Little Milton was always partial to a big production), but here the balance is perfect.

There are many later albums on the Malaco label, few were released in Britain and imports are expensive. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to have someone write in a list of ten Malaco essentials (please do!), but I haven’t heard them, and anyway am so happy with the large quantity of Checker and Stax material that it would be hard to squeeze more in. Welcome To Little Milton stands out of the crowd in 1999, because it’s mainly duets, including Keb’ Mo’, Susan Tedeschi and Lucinda Williams. It’s a genre: older artist surrounded by celebrity fans, a late career pension booster. They all did it. The album works best when he does a duet with Peter Wolf on Two Loves with classic horns, but Love Hurts with Lucinda Williams was a mistake and Gov’t Mule hammer him into a relentless groove. A lot of it sounds like generic Beale Street, billowing out of B.B. King’s club, without the feel and fluidity of that old Chess studio band, nor the punch of the Stax sessions.

The final Malaco album was Guitar Man in 2002 which includes my “number 11”, a soulful cover of Vince Gill’s Whenever You Come Around, a country song Millie Jackson had recorded earlier. It’s on Cold Cold Heart, the third volume of Kent’s “Country Got Soul” series. It has Little Milton’s voice and limpid guitar, punchy horn section, faraway girl chorus, prominent bass, Hammond holding everything together all wrapped around a strong country melody line. Little Milton and Vince Gill? If you look back, there’s Behind Closed Doors, and Little Milton was always fond of a big ballad.

Little Milton always drifted back and forth between blues and soul, proving our divisions are too rigid. I’ve seen Taj Mahal and Preston Shannon step out from the blues and do great soul. For me, the soul-oriented stuff appeals more with Little Milton.

Official Little Milton Website

Little Milton discography

Little Milton biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #449

4 Comments

  1. Colin Duncan
    Jun 18, 2015

    Great descriptions of the songs, Peter. Enjoying my Don Covay so may further extend my knowledge of soul by dipping my hand in my pocket again. Many thanks.

  2. Simon Sadler
    Jun 18, 2015

    The only LM song I know is I Feel So Bad, which is a superb song. So if that didn’t make it into the top ten, I really need to check out more of his stuff.

  3. Glenn Smith
    Jun 20, 2015

    Ok, one of the great things about this site is discovering new artists, I’d never heard about Little Milton until this posting. I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks with him in the car and I’m a convert. Grits aint Groceries is a total groove as is Who’s Cheating Who, More is More and We’re Gonna Make It. One not on your list that I’d rate is So Mean to Me The horn arrangements are brilliant and that voice just keeps coming at you, it’s like Sam Cooke arguing with Otis. Great stuff, here’s to Little Milton.

    • Peter Viney
      Jun 21, 2015

      Little Milton’s profile … he got one of the Chess Golden Decade 2 LP compilations along with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but his profile is far lower. He didn’t get on the seminal “Blues Volume 1” / “Blues Volume 2” samplers which were the primers for British blues bands, though I’m So Lonely got on Volume 3 … but that sold nothing like as many as 1 & 2. As the R&B boom hit, he was into having a large band and those great horn charts (as well as moving towards soul rather than blues), and I guess the R&B boom bands went for material that was more practical to cover.

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