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Milton "Little Milton" Campbell, Jr. (September 7, 1934—August 4, 2005) was a blues and Soul vocalist and guitarist best known for his hits "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "We're Gonna Make It." Most popular in the sixties, he became one of the lesser known greats of the genre, combining traditional lyrical structure with smoother production.
Born in the Mississippi Delta town of Inverness and raised in Greenville by a farmer and local blues musician. By age twelve he had learned the guitar and was a street musician, chiefly influenced by T-Bone Walker and his blues and rock-n-roll contemporaries. In 1952, while still a teenager playing in local bars, he caught the attention of Ike Turner, who was at that time a talent scout for Sam Phillips' Sun Records. He signed a contract with the iconic label and recorded a number of singles. None of them broke through onto radio or sold well at record stores, however, and Milton left the Sun label by 1955.
After transitioning from several labels without notable success, including Trumpet Records, Milton set up the St. Louis Bobbin Records label, which ultimately scored a distribution deal with Leonard Chess' Chess Records. As a record producer, Milton helped bring artists such as Albert King and popular R&B singer Fontella Bass to fame, while experiencing success for the first time. After a number of small format and regional hits, his 1962 single, "So Mean to Me," broke onto the Billboard Magazine R&B chart (then called the "Black Singles Chart"), eventually peaking at #14.
After a short break to tour, manage other acts, and spend time recording new material, he returned to music in 1965 with a more polished sound, similar to that of B.B. King. After the ill-received "Blind Man" (R&B: #86), he released back-to-back hit singles. The first, "We're Gonna Make It," a blues-infused soul song, topped the R&B charts and broke through onto Top 40 radio, a format then dominated largely by white artists. He followed the song with #4 R&B hit "Who's Cheating Who" All three songs were featured on his breakthrough album We're Gonna Make It, released that summer.
Throughout the late sixties Milton released a number of moderately successful singles, but didn't release a further album, Grits Ain't Groceries, until 1969, in support of his hit of the same name, as well as "Just a Little Bit" and "Baby, I Love You." With the death of Leonard Chess the same year, Milton's distributor, Checker Records fell into disarray, and Milton joined the Stax label two years later. Adding complex orchestration to his works, Milton scored hits with "That's What Love Will Make You Do" and "What It Is" from live album What It Is: Live at Montreux. Stax, however, had been hemorrhaging money since late in the previous decade was forced into bankruptcy in 1975.
After leaving Stax, Milton struggled to maintain a career, transitioning first to Evidence, then the MCA imprint Mobile Fidelity Records, before finding a home at the independent label, Malaco Records, where he remained for much of the remainder of his career. His last hit single, "Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number," was released in 1983 from the album of the same name. In 1988, Little Milton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award. The name "Little Milton" was reused for Gerald Bostock, the fictional boy poet central to Jethro Tull's 1972 record Thick as a Brick. His most recent (and final) album, Think of Me, was released in May of 2005 on the Telarc imprint and included writing and guitar on three songs by Peter Shoulder of British-based blues-rock trio, Winterville.
Milton died August 4 2005 from complications following a stroke. Fortuitously, Milton's last live performance was captured on tape and both a DVD and CD have been released by his widow for Camil Productions. Live at the North Atlantic Blues Festival: His Last Concert (2006 Camil Prod. CD North Atlantic Blues DVD)