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Campbell's Blues Live On by Tim Delaney

Victoria Advocate, June 14, 1998
By Tim Delaney

When the trees stand naked and It's almost dark
One man walks slowly, alone in the park
His mind is full of visions only he can see
And Lord Lord Lord he looks a lot like me

- One Believer
John Campbell

The Razz-Ma-Tazz Club in Rockport was filled with people and the crowd outside, clamoring to get in, was out of luck. It was 9 p.m., and the band Junction was just getting started for the night. The year was 1973.

John Campbell turned and smiled at me as he caressed his beloved Les Paul, and I, in turn got a big grin as I held my Fender Precision Bass ready. We turned our backs to the people and asked Satch if he was ready. He was smiling and holding his sticks like loaded weapons over his set of Ludwigs. We knew we had a sold out crowd. We knew that the club's owner, Jack Forrest, was happy. We knew we were going to have a good time. "A one anna two ..." John uttered, and we got into the Steamroller Blues. The people went wild.

Where John's basso profundo voice came from was a mystery. After all, he was tall and thin as a toothpick. He hovered over his guitar and clipped the strings as if trying to find something that wasn't there. But, he found it somehow, as far as the crowd was concerned. John pursed his lips, coaxing the notes out, and at times even sang a little harmony with them, giving his guitar a persona. Smoke filled the room, giving a sense of heaven to the place. When I turned to look at John smoke seemed to be coming off of his strings.

And that was that way it was.

John Campbell was a blues artist, with emphasis on the word "artist." He was a friend of mine and I was fortunate to perform with him over a couple of years. This month, I was thinking about John and my experiences with him, because June 13 marks five years since his death.

Recently, I was dismayed at reading a short chronicle about John in a book called, "The History of the Blues," published by Hyperion of New York, N.Y. The book was written by Francis Davis of Philadelphia, a self-proclaimed blues expert, who said of John Campbell's style "Whatever it is I'm listening for, I don't find it in much of today's blues. I don't hear it in the preening slide work of Tinsley Ellis and Roy Rogers, in the self-conscious moans of the late John Campbell..."

Davis promptly threw John Campbell into a category he named "Gloomy White Guys." "The gloomiest of all white blues performers," he said, "was probably John Campbell, a former substance abuser from Shreveport who died of a fatal heart attack in 1993, at the age of 41. Campbell was a man stranded at a personal crossroads, never sounding remotely black but never sounding remotely like himself, either."

I ask: "How do you not sound like yourself?" And somehow, Davis is suggesting that John died because of alleged substance abuse. I never saw any substance abuse when I played side by side with him during the two years I knew him, but I know he had serious heart and lung problems.

John himself had a good answer to the "gloomy" charge, when he was interviewed by David S. Rotenstein of the Atlanta Daily News just a year before his death: "The blues has always addressed hopes and fears, despair and joy, and dreams and nightmares." But, John added, "Some of my songs are about letting the good times roll... and a lot of my songs are about the dance between men and women."

♦ ♦ ♦

Where he came from, I'm not sure. But one day in Corpus Christi, at my Ocean Drive and Morgan Street apartment, John Campbell was introduced to me by a friend. He said he played guitar, and he sat down and played a few licks. I was impressed. And I said, "Why don't we start a band?"

It was late Summer 1973, and the '60s generation was still generating, although disco was taking a death grip on melodic music. It was sort of like rap - predominantly rhythm, no melody to speak of. But disco was popular because it was designed specifically for dancing. Still, we figured people eventually would get back to the enjoyment of feeling by listening to, as well as moving to music. So we avoided disco music and stuck to rhythm and blues, and sometimes just the blues.

A longtime friend and fellow musician from New York, Phillip "Skip" Bohrer, initially agreed to play drums for us. It wasn't long, though (one week), before Skip bowed out. He was involved with a theater group and that took all his time. But Skip suggested a guy named John "Satch" Haupt, a left-handed drummer from New Jersey, and we agreed to add Satch to the band. Skip also agreed to manage the group for a while. This was the beginning of the trio we called "Junction."

Rehearsals went well. Everybody was very excited about the band. We had all played in other bands, so we knew what it took to get one together - and to be good. But I get the distinct feeling that John hadn't played with the caliber of musicians that Satch and I were at the time. We were pretty darn good, and he knew it. But, it didn't take him long to catch up to and surpass our abilities.

We were constantly reminded that John was from Louisiana. He let us know with his deep southern drawl and his easy way of doing things. I think it irritated Satch at times. It was definitely a southern thing, not a northern trait. But if John gave the appearance of being lanky physically and mentally, his fingers did not. Already he'd mastered some great licks and was experimenting all the time with those long, spindly, lightening fast fingers.

Of course, he loved the music of Chuck Berry, ZZ Top, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin Hopkins, Albert Collins, etc. He also liked the Allman Brothers and Lynard Skynard. That was what he grew up on. Deep South blues and rhythm and blues. And like a southerner, he had a smile not unlike that of a child's, but on a 6-foot-2-inch toothpick of a body, topped by his curly blond hair, sometimes short, sometimes left to grow long.

He always wore cowboy boots and ritter-button western shirts. If you didn't know better, you might've thought he was a country western singer and guitarist. AT times he'd play a Scottish jig on his guitar. That was about the only time he flaunted his ancestry.

John loved to gamble. His personality was infectious. When he shuffled the cards, people wanted to play and bet money. His aura of naivete was a trap for those who thought they could beat this childlike poker player. John usually won at cards, and his smile and easy-going nature always soothed the losers.

Satch and I observed all of this in amazement. We didn't gamble. But, gambling was a way of life for John. His philosophy of life, in fact, could have been something like: If the cards aren't on the table, maybe the game isn't worth playing. That could be why John went on to find his success, and Satch and I sought more secure job settings.

John asked me to come to New York with him. I declined. I wanted to stay in Texas. Not long ago, I found out that Satch became a teacher in Olathe, Kansas. He's dropped his nickname and now goes by John. But while Satch and I were entering the secure job field, John Campbell continued to grow in his music.

He loved his gold Les Paul guitar. He would clip the strings a certain way, and it sent overtones to the moon, so to speak. He made that guitar talk. His voice was a low, low bass, similar to John Lee Hooker. But, John Campbell had his own style, unique in a special way, and it attracted people to him like a magnet.

We held the band together for more than two years. Then John quit. He wanted to reach fame and decided the name Junction wasn't going to get it for him. So from that time on, he headlined the bands he put together as John Campbell and...whoever.

He disappeared and I lost track of him for a long time. Much later, I saw him in Corpus Christi. It was then he asked me to go to New York with him. After that, I never saw him again. I'd heard he gained popularity in Austin and played Antone's blues club numerous times. Then, his former wife, Jeri Campbell Muniz of Corpus Christi, phoned me to say he died of heart failure in New York after finally claiming the success he wanted so badly.

He had recorded albums under his own name for the Elektra label. He had toured Europe and was reaching international popularity. With all due respect to that so-called music critic and his book, I knew John Campbell and I watched him play and he wasn't a gloomy white guy.

He was an artist, man. But, his heart condition caught up with him on June 13, 1993. At the age of 41, the card game ended, and the last, stirring sounds from his Les Paul guitar faded to a beautiful memory.

I'll kneel dear Lord but I won't hang my head in shame
Right or Wrong in St. Peter's book, my score's about the same

- Angel of Sorrow
John Campbell

Copyright � 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: July 23, 2003