With every passing year, the venerable art form known as the blues somehow finds a way to carve small inroads into the highway that leads to mainstream awareness.
And while the progress has certainly been steady, it still may be a long time before the blues makes its way to the top of the playlists that dominate today’s giant, mega-corporate radio and television stations.
Part of the roadblock the music is facing may be the refusal of most program directors to even air the blues.
But part of that roadblock may also be the way that when the blues are aired, it’s the manner in which they are aired that is the problem.
“When you see a rap artist on television, he’s got gold chains on, Cadillac cars around him with a whole lot of pretty ladies,” said sage Chicago bluesman Eddie C. Campbell. “And when they show blues, they show a person sitting on a corner, playing the guitar, holding his hat out begging for money. That’s a big difference.”
And Eddie C. Campbell knows of what he speaks.
A veteran of the scene who got his first exposure under the bright spotlights at Chicago’s 1125 Club when he sat in with Muddy Waters and played “Still a Fool” at the tender age of 12, Campbell understands all too well the importance of marketing and public perception when it comes to the blues.
“There’s just a big difference in the way that the blues are promoted, compared to all the other music that’s out there and popular,” he said. “All that rap and rock and all that other stuff comes from the blues. But don’t nobody want to talk about that.”
A larger-than-life, bare-chested and intense Campbell is found on the cover of his latest disc, Tear This World Up, holding a glowing earth in his hands and looking every bit the part of someone who might in fact, tear this world up.
While the window-coating on that 2009 release begged up for attention, so too, did the contents found inside.
Tear This World Up (Delmark Records) was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Album of the Year category and is stuffed to the brim with Campbell’s highly-inventive, reverb-drenched guitar gymnastics. EDITOR’S NOTE: Tear This World Up was also nominated for Best Traditional Blues CD in the 2010 Blues Blast Music Awards.
Surprising then, that Tear This World Up came out almost a full decade after his prior album, 2000’s equally-excellent Hopes & Dreams (Rooster Blues Records) was issued.
Most artists favor to strike while the iron is still hot, so why the lengthy delay between albums?
“Well, I really don’t like to make one record right after another – I like to take my time and think about them,” said Campbell. “I hope that in my case, it is quality over quantity.”
The list of amazing guitar players that have called the Windy City home is a list that would require several days of non-stop work to recite.
Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Hound Dog Taylor …those names just begin to scratch the surface.
However, one name that would not be found on that list is one that probably should be included on said list.
That’s Eddie C. Campbell’s sister and the one who can be credited for encouraging the future “King of the Jungle” to pick up the six-string.
“Yeah, my sister taught me guitar. I just copied her,” Campbell said. “She showed me it all.”
In addition to showing her brother the basics of the instrument, Jones might have also given Campbell a leg up on how to break through the incredible wall-to-wall competition that was found on the Chicago blues scene.
“Well, the only way you was going to make a name for yourself (in Chicago) was if you played different than everybody else,” said Campbell. “If you copied everybody else, you’d sound just like a record. And I was blessed, because nobody had heard my sister play. And she taught me, so I played like her, which was different from all the rest.”
Not only was his playing style different from the rest of the pack, so too was Campbell’s weapon of choice – a Fender Jazzmaster.
“I had a Silvertone that was made by Sears & Roebuck, but I saw a Jazzmaster and the neck was so small on it that I just fell in love with it,” he said. “And I’ve been playing one ever since. It has a great tone to it.”
And the licks that Campbell tosses of that Jazzmaster vividly illustrate the story of some of the legendary bluesmen that he knew and played with over the years.
“Muddy (Waters) had a lot to do with my style, because I played with him when I was 12 years old,” he said. “Jimmy Reed had a lot to do with it too, because I played with him for four-and-a-half years. And I guess I would have to say that Little Walter was a big influence on me, too.”
The 72-year-old Campbell, a native of Duncan, Mississippi, also played with Howlin’ Wolf, Little Johnny Taylor and Willie Dixon over the course of a career that began in earnest in the 1950s.
But the one bluesman that arguably had the biggest influence on Eddie C. Campbell was one that left this earth way before his time was due.
Samuel Maghett, better known as Magic Sam.
“Sam was my next-door neighbor. And it’s funny, but one time, I wasn’t working at the time, and he took my drummer. Huckleberry Hound – Robert Wright – was his name,” said Campbell. “But I used to go over to Sam’s house and play all the time. I learned all his licks. Me and Sam used to go out cuttin’ heads on the weekend. He would sing and I would play the guitar. I’d play all his songs like he did.”
Campbell gives a big nod to his late, great friend with a cool version of Magic Sam’s “Easy Baby” on Tear This World Up.
Not only was Campbell kicking butt with his Fender Jazzmaster, he was also kicking butt with his fists back in the day, as well.
An amateur boxer, he won 16 bouts during his tenure in the ring. As hard as it may be to fathom, according to Campbell, he wasn’t the only Chicagoan who sparred with both the guitar and his fists.
“Not, I wasn’t the only one. A lot of the guys used to play music and box. Ernie Terrell (former WBA Heavyweight champ) used to live next door to me, too. He fought Muhammad Ali right before he became Heavyweight champion of the world,” Campbell said. “And he played music too – played guitar. So there were several guys that had boxed that also played music back then.”
As in a lot of cases, Campbell took up the sweet science of boxing as a means of self-defense.
“Well, boxing was just something that I liked to do. When I was going to school, I had kind of a rough time and had to learn to defend myself,” he said. “They used to jump on me and beat me up and take all my lunch money. I learned how to do Karate and box when I was about 10. And I just loved boxing. I used to watch Joe Louis box and just loved it.”
It can be debated whether or not there’s any direct correlation between the sport of boxing and the art of playing music.
But one thing that is common between the two – to rise to the top in either field, you need determination, heart and hard work.
Some good management, promotion and little bit of luck sure doesn’t hurt, either.
“The only way John Lee Hooker got big was he had a lot of the white guys from rock help him play because they liked his music,” Campbell said. “Stuff like ‘how, how, how, how -I’m gonna shoot you right down (“Boom Boom”)’ He (Hooker) did that record a long time ago, but when they got those rock guys to play with him, it was almost the same sound, but it boosted it way up there and made a hit record.”
That may have helped get John Lee Hooker’s music spread to a wider audience, but it sure didn’t mean that John Lee Hooker himself was heard on a lot more radio stations – especially rock radio stations.
“When you think blues, you think black. When you think rock, you think white,” said Campbell. “Albert King taught Stevie Ray Vaughan all his licks. And Stevie sounds a little like Albert, but I can tell the difference between Stevie’s playing and Albert’s playing. But Stevie went all the way to the top and Albert King was still at the bottom. Is that because he’s playing blues and Stevie was playing rock? They both played the same songs. But when you say rock, you’re in a different bag. When you say blues, you’re in another different bag.” Even though they do share a common crossover, it seems that’s just the way it’s always been between the world of rock and the world of the blues, especially when you throw the corporate boardroom into the mix.
“But the thing is, if you’re white and we both make the same record, you’ll get yours played and I won’t get mine played,” Campbell said. “I don’t understand that. It’s been like that ever since I was a little kid.”
Just as hard as it is for a true bluesman to get his tunes spun over the radio airwaves these days, it can be equally frustrating for him to find a place to play his music live.
“Back in the day, you might find six clubs in one block that had bands playing in them,” said Campbell. “So it was easier to make a little change playing music when I was younger – you wouldn’t make much – but bread was only 12 cents and if you had $1,500 you could go buy a Cadillac. But today, you might make a little more money, but you don’t play as much because there aren’t as many places to play as there used to be. You just don’t have the opportunity.”
Luckily for Campbell’s fans, the opportunity to hear a disc of new material won’t require a decade’s wait this time.
Scheduled for a spring release, Spider-Eatin’ Preacher, Campbell’s newest offering, should pick right up where Tear This World Up left off.
“The album’s finished, but we just have to get the horns in,” he said. “And my son’s playing violin on it.”
Although it might be taking its own sweet time to blanket the airwaves in this country, the blues do seem to still be spreading out globally, giving all hope that the big breakthrough is still possible.
“I see a lot of people playing the blues – all different races. It’s all over the world,” Campbell said. “Places like Paris, Germany, Brazil, Australia. Everywhere I go, people are playing the blues. I see the blues going on forever. But the blues are changing. There’s no Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but there are guys coming up that are trying to get the feel for what Muddy and The Wolf were doing. It’s just a different twist to it.”