Innocent Words Blues Series: Remembering Little Milton September 7, 1934 – August 4, 2005

Little Milton

It is quite an accomplishment to have your music released on an acclaimed record label, and to have it released under three different legendary labels is relatively unheard of, but that is exactly what blues man Little Milton did.

Prior to his success blending blues, soul, R&B, and funk, Little Milton was born James Milton Campbell, Jr., On September 7, 1934, in Inverness, Mississippi. He was raised in Greenville, Mississippi, where he learned the blues from his farmer/musician father Big Milton. By the age of 12, Milton had saved up enough money from chores to buy a guitar through mail order and was bucking on the streets of the Delta.

Influenced by T-Bone Walker and other jump blues artist, Milton was quickly noticed and became a member of the three-piece band the Rhythm Aces in the early 1950s. As a teenager, Milton played the clubs and juke joints around Mississippi where, on one evening, while backing Sonny Boy Williamson II, Milton caught the eye of Ike Turner, who was a talent scout for Sun Records.

Turner signed the budding guitarist to Sun Records and Milton recorded several singles, but they failed to find the charts and sold poorly. In turn, Milton left Sun Records in 1955 when he was 21 years old. Milton eventually moved up to St. Louis in 1958, like many Mississippi blues men did. There, after failing to find a record label for his music, he formed his own Bobbin Records with St. Louis DJ Bob Lyons.

With his own label, Milton started to bring in other talent to his label, which he would produce and manage. Bobbin’s biggest finds were Albert King and Fontella Bass, which kept the label afloat financially and earned a distribution deal with Leonard Chess’ Chess Records. With Bobbin’s credibility rising, Milton found his first taste of success in 1962 with his own single “So Mean to Me,” which peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts.

In 1965, Milton released the album ‘We’re Gonna Make It,’ with the title track hitting the top spot on the Billboard charts. The song was a huge influence with the Civil Rights movement of the time. His follow up single “Who’s Cheating Who?” went to No. 4. Milton remained steady on the charts with singles released throughout the 1960s including “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” “Just a Little Bit,” and “Baby, I Love You.”

After Milton released his 1969 album, ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries,’ with Chess Records’ imprint Checker Records, Chess co-founder Leonard Chess passed away at the age of 52. The label’s future in doubt, Milton moved on to the iconic Stax label and released a handful of albums including ‘Waiting for Little Milton’ (1973); ‘What It Is: Live at Montreux’ (1973); ‘Blues ‘n’ Soul’ (1974); and ‘Tin Pan Alley’ (1975). Milton branched out once again with his sound, incorporating an orchestra into his blended sound. This led to the hit singles “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and “What It Is” from his live album, ‘What It Is: Live at Montreux.’

A stroke of bad luck hit again for Milton with Stax declaring bankruptcy in 1975. Milton left Stax and bounced around from label to label until he found a spot at Malaco Records, where he remined for the latter part of his career. Milton’s final hit, the title track to his album ‘Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number,’ came in 1983. Five years later Milton was part of the 1988 Blues Hall of Fame class and won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the Year.

At the age of 70, Milton released his final album, 2005’s ‘Think of Me’ (Telarc Records). On August 4, 2005, three months after the album’s release, Little Milton died from complications following a stroke.

Little Milton might not be as popular as his peers B.B. King, Bobby Bland, or a host of others, but Milton was important to the early blues scene. Whether it was making his own music, taking others under his wing and managing their careers, or producing records, Milton did just about everything there was to do in music. Musically, he released over 30 albums and countless singles, some of which were covered by Etta James, the Spencer Davis Group, and many more. He also appeared on other albums by Willie Dixon and Albert King.

By combining soul, blues, R&B, and lush orchestration with his music, Little Milton was a pioneer who should not be forgotten.