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The old masters, singing the blues

Little Milton joins a celebrated list of stars who have played at the Bull Durham Blues Festival

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All his life, bluesman Milton Campbell--better known as Little Milton--has been compared to B.B. King. But all he ever wanted was to sound like T-Bone Walker.

"He was a great guitarist, a great entertainer on stage, and he was a gentlemen," Campbell says. "He had a unique style of his own. That's what I was searching for way back when they said I sounded like B.B. King."

Little Milton will be one of the main attractions when he plays Saturday night at this year's edition of the two-night Bull Durham Blues Festival at the historic old Durham Athletic Park. It's the 16th year the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation has offered the best of blues and R&B to the Triangle, and bringing in old masters is a hallmark of the event, says Diane Pledger, president and CEO of the foundation.

Past lineups included soul men Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack. Pops Staples appeared soon before his death, as did Harold Melvin, of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Pledger points out.

Though it says blues in the name, rhythm and blues plays a big role.

"We've been trying to throw in a little R&B because it all comes out of the blues genre," Pledger stated. "It's a good mix. We've even had some jazz."

One day she hopes to revive the Thursday night acoustic series at the St. Joseph's performance hall, and expand the festival to include gospel music on Sunday. And she'd love to have a kids' blues festival in Durham Central Park, like they do at the W.C. Handy weekend in Memphis. There, children are auditioned from each of the public schools during a year-long curriculum that teaches them about the heritage of blues music, and the winners perform. "It could be really good for the community, and to teach the children more about the blues heritage," she says.

This year, the Bull Durham Blues Festival hopes to attract as many as 20,000 people after an attendance dip last year, she says. Having Little Milton can't hurt.

Little Milton started his recording career at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios in 1953, but had left by the time Elvis arrived. An early interest was country and western music.

"There's a very thin line between the so-called R&B and the blues and soul and the country and western," Milton says, speaking by phone recently from his Tennessee home. "The lyrics--everything basically is written about down to earth situations, relationships, heartaches, happiness. The only difference I find is just the beat."

Though he performed country and Western, because of segregation he didn't see any point in trying to make a career of it.

"Back then you had all that segregation, and back then if you was talented you could play the white juke joint, country and western juke joints, and on the weekend you'd go to the black juke joints," he recalled. "So I got a chance to perform the music, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was just back then you didn't hear tell of black recording artists for country western of any sort, so you really had nothing. My mind just wasn't that hopped up on foresight to think that I could have made it in the country and western world."

Although country wasn't open to him, Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips did a lot for him and other black artists trying to break into a broader marketplace in the '50s. "To be a Southern white man interested in producing black music in the South, that was not the most popular thing to do," Milton says. "But he stayed steadfast to what he wanted to do. So he actually did turn things around musically, to open up that little door that was somewhat closed throughout the Southern region and finally all over the world."

Ike Turner was the studio's producer in those days, doing the arranging and helping with the lyrics. "Ike Turner's the one who took me in to meet Sam Phillips, and he also recorded with me in the very first recording I did for Sun--he played piano. We'd go in and do our own thing."

Milton thinks Turner was underrated as a producer and a discoverer of talent--and much more than just the bad guy Tina portrayed. "Well, first of all, I'm not saying this just because Ike and I were and still are the best of friends, but sometime, you know, it takes two," Campbell says. "So if he was as bad as they portrayed him in the movie, nothing or nobody could have made her stay there. But movies are made to sell and make money, so they use whatever means they think that's gonna be appealing to the buying audience. Ike has made a great contribution to the music world. Anybody that knows him I'm sure will say that."

Despite Ike's contributions, Milton didn't make much of an impact at Sun. It was years later that he had success at Chess records with his hit "We're Gonna Make It." From 1962 to 1971 he had a string of hits for Chess. His remake of the Little Willie John recording of "All Around the World," as "Grits Ain't Groceries," established him as a major star. He recorded hits for the soul label Stax until it went out of business, and ended up with Malaco in '84, where he has remained. His song, "The Blues Is All Right," became an international blues anthem. He won the 1988 W.C. Handy Blues Entertainer of the Year Award and a 2000 Grammy nomination.

Milton Campbell doesn't think much of today's music. "Well to tell you the truth, the stuff that's on radio now, the stuff that's played on commercial radio, I basically stopped listening," the guitarist says disdainfully. "Because it's a bunch of junk. It's a lot of filth, a lot of racial, disrespectful stuff, and it's hard to go find music that I would actually enjoy or an artist that I could say was really, really doing what I think should be done as far as the music goes. So basically what I do is play a tape of something when I'm in my car, or either I listen to country and western."

Campbell believes that the secret of his success is that the music he writes or solicits or accepts from other writers is about everyday life. "It's down to earth, it's clean, it makes sense, it has a great melody and a great beat, and it's just all around about what for realness is all about. "

He says he wants to be remembered as one who stayed true to the code when it came to music. "Never recorded any filthy stuff. Never recorded any disrespectful stuff. Someone who recorded with dignity and used my God-given talent to try and project what I felt in my music to everybody that listened to it."

And at 69, Little Milton has not yet given up on even more success "I'm still out here knocking on doors," he says, "and sooner or later hopefully the big one will open for me."

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Bull Durham Blues Fest schedule

Friday: Koko Taylor, Deborah Coleman, Shemekia Copeland, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Kings and Peaches

Saturday: Jerry Butler, Little Milton, Tommy Castro, Scott Ainslie and Glennis Redmond, Big Rick and the Bombers

Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the gate.

Info: 683-1709, www.hayti.org/blues

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