Featured Interview – Willie J. Campbell

willie campbell photo 1Whenever a band catches your ear, whether at a live show or on a recording, you can bet that the rhythm section is in large part responsible for setting up a groove that is irresistible. While bass players and drummers are the beating heart of a band, they rarely get much time in the spotlight, other than an occasional solo, or if they have the vocal chops to merit a starring role. It seems unfair that many worthy musicians escape notice from most listeners.

If you do an internet search for information on Willie J. Campbell, chances are you won’t find much other than a brief interview clip on YouTube, or a newspaper article short on details. The lack of information seems odd for a bass player whose resume includes lengthy stints with James Harman, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Mannish Boys, and now the Proven Ones. Also missing is explanations for several extended gaps in the timeline where he wasn’t a part of any band. That may be where the real story can be found.

Like so many others in his generations, Campbell got his start with help his parents. “They got me a guitar and my brother, Scott, a set of drums when we were young. I have these little sausage-like fingers, so I couldn’t play a chord to save my soul. If someone had said “Play a chord or die,” I wouldn’t be here right now! So I put it down for a few years. Over time, four of the strings broke off, leaving me the E and A strings. Then Dave Lee Bartel moved in across the street. He and his brother, Jonny Ray, along with Scott and Emy Lee were the original Red Devils, the rockabilly band, before they hooked up with Lester Butler. We were talking with Dave one day, and he decided we should start a band”.

“Well, Dave played guitar and my brother played drums. I had attempted guitar – failed! All I had was this old Teisco guitar with two strings. I learned to play bass on those two strings. I used that for quite a while until I earned enough money to get a real bass. My first bass guitar was a 1965 Hofner, the Beatle bass, which I wish I still had. In those days you could buy one, or a Fender bass, for about $100. I was fourteen, getting paid under the table by Dave’s dad to clean up his religious bookstore. You can read whatever you want into that!”

The next defining moment once again came courtesy of Dave Lee Bartel. “He turned me on to the Allman Brothers Band. Their Live at the Fillmore East records had just been released. I took it home, put it on my tiny little turntable, and I played that record I don’t know how many times. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I decided that was what I wanted to do, to play music. As I listened over and over, I also decided that one day I would meet the Allman Brothers and share a stage with them. That was probably late 1971. Fast forward to 1996, and I am playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, in the UNO Arena. We were on the bill with Allman Brothers. We are doing our show, and I look over to see Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts standing on stage watching us. From head to toe, I was one big goose bump. I instantly flashed back to that moment of decision, sitting on my bed. And now it happened! Of course, there was twenty-five years of work in between”.

Perusing the songwriting credits on the ABB records sent Campbell off on a search for more on people with names like McKinley Morganfield, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and T-Bone Walker. By the time he turned fifteen, the bass player was taking a deep dive into the blues. “Sometimes I will get in a mood and pull that one out, or Eat A Peach. Any of the releases that have Duane Allman and Berry Oakley are the best. The stuff Berry played, and the way his mind worked, was amazing. All of those guys were jazz freaks, into John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, especially Duane and Berry. You can hear it in their playing. There wasn’t any other Southern rock band that sounded even remotely like them”.

“I can thank Dave Lee Bartel for getting me started, for moving across the street. We did eventually start the Southern Select Blues Band. And that lead me to meet James Harman, who was recovering from severe ulcers at the time. He was working for Gary Sunda, who was a VP at Randall Amplifiers. Gary also had a shop where they re-coned speakers, and he hired James, then taught him the art of that process. In April, 1975, as I was finishing high school, Dave Bartel took me to their shop, Orange County Speaker in Garden Grove, CA. I met James, which started a life-long friendship. I was in his band for ten years and best man at his wedding. What a band that was! It was a very productive period as we wrote a lot of songs and had music in films. That band included David “Kid” Ramos on guitar, Gene Taylor on piano, and Stephen Hodges on drums. And when Hollywood Fats (Michael Mann) joined the band in 1981, things really took off”.

Being a part of Harman’s band paid dividends in a number of ways for the young bass player. “James is eleven years older than me. He was taking me, an underage guy, to all of these hip clubs to see all of these cool musicians. He took me to Smokey Wilson’s place, took me to see Bobby “Blue” Bland. We were the only two white guys in the club. The husky bouncer did a double-take when he saw us, immediately asking if we knew where we were. I replied that we certainly did, so he told us to sit right next to him so that he could keep an eye on us. When Bobby hit the stage, they cleared the tables in the front. The women were dressed to the nines, with Sunday hats and dresses. They all started doing the hucklebuck, showing Bobby what they were made of, so to speak. He was having a ball, singing his ass off, and enjoying the show he was getting”.

willie campbell photo 2“James also introduced me to Bob “ The Bear” Hite and Larry Taylor of Canned Heat. Bob had an unbelievable record collection. We used to sit at his house and play records, the start of an incredible education. James had a fantastic collection as well. Larry Taylor took me under his wing. We talked about playing bass all the time. These guys were 10-15 years older, but they accepted me because I respected them. Actually, I was in awe of it all. The Harman band used to back up Big Joe Turner. He was on the tail-end of his career but had plenty of energy. He would sit at least twelve inches from the microphone, start singing, and the monitor in front of him would shake like it was blown from the power of his huge voice. Joe always did every song in the key of C, alternating shuffles with boogies and blues. He was having a ball, singing like mad. People like Willie Dixon and Johnny “Guitar” Watson would often come out to hear us. Kim Wilson used to sit in on our gigs”.

“One time James and I went to the Kent Studio when Rod Piazza cut his first Flying Saucer band album. George “Harmonica” Smith was there blowing out a few songs. Then Shakey Jake Harris shows up. He takes me to the liquor store. This was the Watts area,so you hand your money through a small hole in a ½ inch thick window and they hand you a bottle. So Jake got a half pint, then started playing songs on little cassette player. They were Muddy Waters or Little Walter tunes that Jake would sing over with his own lyrics. He assured me that several of them would be his next hit record. He was a hilarious fellow.”.

One interesting side note is the fact that Harman and his band would often open for X, the punk band from Los Angeles. The punk scene was exploding and Guitarist Billy Zoom was a huge fan of Harman’s sound. He and the other members of X saw the Harman band as kindred spirits, musical rebels playing stuff that was never going to be heard on commercial radio, just saying stuff in a different way. The bands would play the Whiskey A Go Go, the Roxy, even a place called the Country Club with new wave band, Oingo Boingo. Campbell was also a member of a group with Harman plus Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman, right before they formed the Blasters.

Living in California, Campbell got married to his wife, Lisa. On their first wedding anniversary, they discovered that they would soon be parents. “Lisa was originally from Missouri. She started getting homesick, and wanted to be around family. So we decided to move. I stepped back from music for a bit to focus on the marriage and raise our daughter. So, I went back to school, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, then continued on to get my Master’s degree. Out of nowhere, Kim Wilson rang me up to see if I was interested in joining the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Preston Hubbard was dealing with some issues with the judicial system. The band included Kid Ramos on guitar with Gene Taylor, formerly of Harman Band and the Blasters, on piano with Fran Christina on drums, When Fran left, Jimi Bott took over. That was incessant, non-stop touring, some years with 250-300 shows. The only recording of the band that was released was a live LA show. We did work up some demos that never saw the light of day until we resurrected a couple of tracks for the Proven Ones album”.

Campbell is extremely thankful to Wilson for choosing him to be one of the Thunderbirds. His tenure with the band brought an increase in exposure. “That was what vaulted me, maybe all of us, into a higher level of recognition. We were really tight, rocked hard. We would come in and just light it up. Over the years, people have told me that band was on fire, taking no prisoners. There was a lot of emotion, and we loved playing in front of people. One memorable show was a festival in Nice, France in 1996 for over 150,000 people. And the security was the Hell’s Angels, which had me flashing back to Altamont. Do you remember the old Bud Lite commercial where the bar was having Ladies Night and all the guys came in dressed as women to drink for cheap? That was how the Hell’s Angels were dressed, and when we went on at 3 am., they were standing out front blowing us kisses!”

Another artist that Campbell worked with was singer and harmonica player Lee McBee, who was a member of Mike Morgan and the Crawl before embarking on a solo career. It was another phone call that started the process. “ I really miss Lee. He was in Lawrence, KS and I was in Missouri. We were playing every Sunday in Kansas City at BB’s Lawnside BBQ. It was me, Lee, my brother Scott, and Marvin Hunt on guitar. He was married to Kelley Hunt at the time. When it came time to record his Lee McBee & The Passions record, 44, Lee called Kid Ramos, Anson Funderburgh, and got Kevin McKendree to play piano. That was fun! And it all happened right at T-Bird time. I also played on one of Mike Morgan’s records with Richard Innes on drums. My brother Scott was playing with Kelley and Marvin, and I joined them for a year. That was when I reconnected with Lee. Patrick Recob took over for me with Lee once I started with the T-Birds. Lee never got his due. His phrasing was incredible but he was consistently underrated”.

willie campbell photo 3“There was another guy who played guitar with Harman before Hollywood Fats, Bill Campbell, who also never got his due. He had some alcohol issues, and could be hard to get along with. Bill was the first one to start going to the black clubs in Texas. He started taking the Vaughan brothers, Anson, and others to those clubs to hear the black guitarists. I’ll tell you, Bill could chop rhythm like nobody’s business. His first set of the night was always magical. He did this circular riff thing that helped me learn how to play all the hip bass stuff along with a rhythm guitar player – all that cool, old Albert Collins bass stuff with the crazy walks, and all the early electric bass lines. Bill was at the forefront of bringing the black Texas blues culture to the white musicians who were just getting started. Bill had that Texas sound down, no doubt about it”.

Eventually, the Fabulous Thunderbirds gig started to shift from a hardcore love of music to an emphasis on business. Campbell wanted to spend time with his daughters and get a different level of control over his future. So once again, he got off the train and started figuring out how to proceed without anybody dictating who, what, where, when, and why. He went back to school, did more graduate work and became a licensed therapist. He set up a private practice and is now affiliated with a hospital. “ Music was the reason that I went in that direction. I lost people to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. That motivated me to go into therapy, to understand it more through other people’s eyes. For the last seventeen years, I have been involved in mental health and helping people heal. The nice thing is that I get to do both – play music and help people. I love both of them. My brother has had issues, and we lost guys like Hollywood Fats and Lester Butler to abuse. I certainly did my share, but I guess I lack that addictive side to my personality. I was able to walk away”.

“I looked at what everyone else had gone through and decided that I needed to find another use for myself. That was also around the time I met my wife, when I was a pre-med student who planned to go into psychiatry. But that was when the field started changing. Today there are very few psychiatrists who do therapy today. Most of them use meds and med-management, because they can see more people in order to earn more money, spending less time with their patients. They hand off most of the therapeutic stuff to therapists. I get tons of referrals from psychiatrists”.

“I didn’t want to just hand out meds. I want to hear people’s stories and help them sort things out, then show them some options. They might think they are out of options, but options are always there. My goal is never to tell anybody what to do. We give them Door #1, #2, or #3 – they pick one, we see what is behind it, and we go from there. I let people know that we are going to walk the road together, but they are in the driver’s seat and I am riding shotgun. That helps them start to regain accountability and responsibility, so they start to feel that they are getting some control over their lives. We use drugs and alcohol a lot of times to escape when things are spinning out of control. I focus on the client’s self-worth. My experience has taught me the more someone likes themselves, the more they are willing to invest in themselves. It is another way that music has touched nearly every facet of my life. When I was younger, my Mom told me that I was a good listener. Therapy is all about listening and empathy, looking at life through somebody else’s eyes. Then we can start walking a path. And, fortunately, I have a flexible schedule, so I can also do tour dates”.

“The truth is that I often thank clients because I feel they teach me more than I taught them. The trust we share is heavy, deep, and intimate. Music helps me relax, to listen as people tell me their story, rather than me telling people how to live their life. Unfortunately, that is what some therapists do.

“Playing bass or doing therapy are heavy supporting roles. Therapy is trying to tie the mind, body, and spirit together. The cool thing is that I believe it makes me a better musician in the sense that I listen more, am better attuned to what is happening around me because I have learned how to pay more attention. Not many people know that I have this other life! I want to help anyone that is in need, especially musicians”.

Then the phone rang one more time. Randy Chortkoff, the head of Delta Groove Records, was calling. Campbell had known Chortkoff since the early 1980’s when he would show up at Harman band shows. “It was an unfortunate situation. Tom Levy, who was the bass player for the Mannish Boys at that time, was diagnosed with cancer, and Tom passed away not too long after that. So Randy called me and I became a permanent part of that band. It was a cool experience up until the demise of the band, the label, and Randy passing away.”. His involvement with the Mannish Boys also lead to Campbell recording an album on Delta Groove with the late Smokin’ Jo Kubek and his musical partner, Bnois King.

“So I was back working with Kid Ramos and Jimi Bott. At one of the Blues Music Awards show, the three of us were talking along with Anthony Geraci. We had played together and it felt pretty good. So I said why don’t we do our own thing? All of us have been sidemen throughout our careers, with over two hundred years of combined experience. Let’s just put our own band together. So we did! Sugaray Rayford did some early shows with us. But he was committed to his own career, which is going great. So we were blessed to get Brian Templeton as the lead vocalist. Brian is another unknown guy who is a fine singer. We were racking our brains for a name and Brian came up with the winning idea. He pointed out that if you look at our resumes, the experiences we have had, and the years that we have invested, we have all proven ourselves. So that is how we arrived at the Proven Ones tagline”.

“Each of us have something to say, but we often couldn’t say it in the other settings we have been in. We were working for, and with, other people, who weren’t tyrants or anything, but it was their band, they had things they wanted do, and wanted it done their way. That is cool, very understandable. But after all the years of accumulating knowledge, we felt it was time for us to have our own voice. We are very democratic in that we vote on everything, majority rules. The personalities all mesh, everybody is pretty mellow. And because we have known each other for so long, we will call each other out, so stuff gets settled real quick. That is one of the small miracles of the whole thing”.

willie campbell photo 4(The Proven Ones first release, Wild Again on Roseleaf Records, is nominated for a 2019 Blues Music Award in the Contemporary Blues Album category, sponsored by the Blues Foundation in Memphis)

Campbell also played bass on two critically acclaimed albums under Geraci’s name. “Good Lord, Anthony is the consummate professional. He writes outstanding songs, is easy to work with, and lets you play and contribute on your instrument. He’s about the sum of all the parts making the whole better, so he isn’t going to tell you how to play. He might make a suggestion, how about this note, but he wants you to play it your way, to do it from your soul. That is why those records sound so great. Other artists will dictate your every move. Then things become robotic, where the music is good quality, but the feeling isn’t there. It more soul-less than soulful. It was a blessing that he called me, because there are many great bass layers along the East coast where Anthony is from, guys like Michael “Mudcat” Ward, who is a phenomenal player”.

As far as equipment goes, Campbell often has to settle for what is at hand. “Because we play a lot of festivals now, we are at the mercy of whatever back-line is provided. Most festivals use the Ampeg SVT amplifier. I have nothing against that amp. But if you leave them on all day, you have to deal with something called tube sag, where it starts farting out on you a little bit. Or if they have been played too loud for too long, you plug in and it sounds like every speaker in the cabinet is blown, real fuzzy. My preference is to use two 410 cabinets. I don’t want to over-blow the stage with volume. I just want to fill the stage so everyone is comfortable. A favorite head is a solid-state model, the old Gallien-Kruger 800rb, because it has so much punch that doesn’t go away. For bass guitars, I own a bunch, as you might expect. My go-to pieces are a custom relic Jazz Bass made by Eron Harding at Backwoods Guitar in Sedalia, Missouri, and what I refer to as my Frankenstein bass, which I used all the years with the Thunderbirds. It is a ’68 Fender Precision bass body matched with a ’69 Tele Bass neck. I also love short scale units, with a 1973 Gibson Triumph model a favorite to take on the road. And I have another custom model that was built by Sam Price and Kurt Wilson with two custom Harmony H22 pickups wound by Curtis & Sheri Novak”.

“Now, when I feel like I am straying a bit, I go downstairs and start playing some 78 rpm or 45 rpm records, close my eyes, and go back to what first made me love the music. I realize that things change with each generation, like when Muddy Waters and Tampa Red plugged in their guitars. I want that feeling that made me do what I do, why I like what I like. I don’t mind walking new rhythms with this music, but I want to hang on to all of the hip stuff and great musicians that I got to know, and to play with. That feeling needs to be a part of the music in some way”.

“I am not into sub-woofy sound, and I don’t play up real high, that click-clack sound. The sound of the electric bass on all of the classic recordings from the 1950s didn’t have the bass booming. It was more in the low mid-range. That was Keith Ferguson’s big thing. He said. “ If I stop playing, you would know that I wasn’t there. But I don’t want to be the guy out in front of the band. If I am grooving, it is all part of one sound”. That is the motto that I try to live by”.

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