St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 6, 1991
By Paul A. Harris
I got the devil in my closet, The wolf is howlin' at my door . . .
From ''Devil in My Closet,'' by John Campbell
'DEVIL IN MY CLOSET,'' the song that kicks off blues man John Campbell's soon-to-be-released debut album for Elektra, pretends to be about the age-old problem of co-dependency, the subject of countless blues songs.
Beneath the surface, however, Campbell's imagery of the devil and the wolf makes reference to a couple of prominent forces on his music: Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.
Campbell, who will open for the Subdudes next Tuesday at Mississippi Nights, favors Howlin' Wolf's harsh, grunting-and-growling vocal delivery. And he exhibits Robert Johnson's penchant for invoking the supernatural, particularly the devil, in songs like ''Angel of Sorrow'' and ''Voodoo Edge.''
Outside of the Elmore James number ''Person to Person,'' all the material on Campbell's upcoming album, ''One Believer,'' is original. Like noted British blues band leader John Mayall, Campbell tends to use the blues as a kind of topical song format - a vehicle for saying things that he feels need saying.
For example, ''Tiny Coffin'' is about the drive-by shooting of a child, and ''World of Trouble'' deals with homelessness.
''I don't think we need version 557 of 'Sweet Home Chicago' anymore,'' Campbell said. ''That was a great song, but I just feel like I need to breathe some of my own thing into the music.
''When you write a song, it should be something immediate - something that you're feeling. To me, the blues is an ever-growing thing. It's something that addresses life issues - what people are experiencing, good and bad. I don't think that the people who forged this form were limited by any topic.''
Campbell, a 39-year-old guitarist from Shreveport, La., left the South for New York City in the early '80s. There, he performed with Jimmie Rogers, Pinetop Perkins and Howlin' Wolf's old lead guitar player, Hubert Sumlin.
Elektra A&R man Dennis Lubin caught Campbell in a gig with Albert King at New York's Lone Star Cafe and signed him to the label. Lubin and Dennis Walker collaborated with Campbell in the production of ''One Believer.''
''Working with them was a great experience,'' Campbell said. ''Dennis is just a great lyricist and writer. He produced all the Robert Cray records. He's also a bass player; he played with Lowell Fulson for quite a while. He's a true blues man.
Session players for ''One Believer'' included Richard Cousins and Jimmy Pugh, from the Robert Cray Band, and Davis McLarty and Jimmy Pettit, the rhythm section for Joe Ely. Also on hand were the Texacali Horns. (McLarty and Pettit will play with Campbell at Mississippi Nights.)
Even though he's been playing since he was a teen-ager, Campbell feels the blues is not a young man's medium. In fact, it was tragedy that brought the spiritual dimensions of the form home to him.
When he was 15, Campbell was involved in an automobile accident. ''I hit a telephone pole and the accelerator stuck, so I went in and out of the windshield a few times,'' he said. ''It tore me up really bad. I lost my right eye, and I had to have plastic surgery. I literally had thousands and thousands of stitches in my face.''
''There was a period of time when I was recovering that I couldn't really go to school. I couldn't really hang out and have company and stuff like that.
''I had been playing the guitar, but at this point I really began connecting with the instrument in a different way. It became this instrument that allowed me to get in touch with what I felt.
''Everything changed for me after that. I ended up quitting school and playing guitar constantly. I got very serious about the guitar, and I've been that way ever since.''
Copyright 1991 St. Louis Post-Dispatch