Blues Notes, May 2000
By Greg Johnson
For some Blues musicians, tales of mojos and gris-gris make for nice story lines behind their songs. For guitarist John Campbell though, they were a part of his life. A self-proclaimed hoodoo man, Campbell lived a lifetime full of tragedy and sadly succumbed just as his career was hitting its stride, at an altogether much too early age.
John Campbell was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on January 20, 1952. The son of a construction worker, he was first exposed to string music at an early age by his grandmother, who played a Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar. Young John received his first guitar at the age of five and was quickly immersed with a desire to learn as much as he possibly could. As his family moved between Shreveport, Baton Rouge and East Texas, John sought out musicians to fulfill this hunger. He learned his lessons well, as he began playing professionally by the time he was 13, opening shows for Blues greats like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Son Seals and Albert Collins.
But, it was another passion that altered John Campbell's life permanently. As a teenager, John craved fast thing - Especially cars and motorcycles. He'd enter local drag races and it was at one of these that he was involved in a near-fatal accident. Campbell suffered several broken ribs, a collapsed lung and lost his right eye. His face had to be reconstructed, a feat that required nearly 5,000 stitches and left him horribly scarred.
Campbell's recuperation from the accident took almost a full year. He spent most of this time in solitude and occupied his time with his guitar. It was during this recovery period, Campbell explained to "Offbeat" Magazine Blues historian Keith Spera, that he "first met the Blues." He tenaciously studied the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Playing the guitar was an outlet for him; a method for reaching his inner self, his spirituality, and also to communicate with his dreams and nightmares.
At the age of 16, John Campbell left home with his family's blessing to seek his future as a musician. He lived as an itinerant Bluesman, playing wherever he could find an audience; mostly on street corners and at gas stations. He first traveled to New Orleans, which he viewed as a musical mecca, but he only stayed in most places long enough to make enough money to survive before moving on.
By 1985, he had moved to New York City, where his talent earned him work opening shows for some of the biggest names in Blues music as they passed through town. It was at one of these gigs that guitarist Ronnie Earl caught Campbell opening a show for Johnny Littlejohn. Fascinated by Campbell's growling vocals and deft playing, the two developed an instant friendship and Earl decided to produce an album for him.
The album, "A Man And His Blues", was released in 1989 on the German label CrossCut Records. Backed by Earl and seasoned Bluesmen Jerry Portnoy (harmonica), Per Hanson (drums) and Darrell Nulisch (vocals), and using an acoustic guitar with a single pick-up, it was truly a showcase of the musical styles Campbell had blended from those earlier influences of his recovery period. At the time the album did not receive much media attention in the United States, but it was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award. It also earned John an invitation to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he became life-long friends with JazzFest creator Quint Davis.
Another person who was captured by Campbell's skills was talent manager Barbara "B.B." Becker, who also handled the career of Dr. John. After first witnessing Campbell's playing at a New York restaurant, and armed with a copy of "A Man And His Blues", Becker convinced Elektra Records to sign the rising star. In 1991, the first American John Campbell release was issued titled "One Believer". Well produced by Dennis Walker (best-known for his work with Robert Cray), it was full of the haunting sounds of hoodoo-based swamp guitar played on a 1934 National Steel that was Campbell's trademark. The success of the album did not change his life-style, though, as John continued to play whenever and wherever possible.
Campbell and his wife Dolly married that same year. His passion for motorcycles was still evident as the president of the local chapter of the Hell's Angels served as his best man, while Dr. John (a minister of his own temple) performed the service.
A second recording was issued in 1993, "Howlin' Mercy", which even further pursued his inner magic and demons to a greater extent. Critical acclaim followed and Campbell pushed himself even more, traveling to Europe on an extensive tour with Buddy Guy.
John Campbell suffered his entire life from poor health that was mostly a result of the drag racing accident as a teenager. Drug abuse also played a role, as did his nightmares, for he rarely slept, believing that he may never wake again. After his European tour, he entered into the studio laying down tracks with Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon. It would be a project that would never be finished. On the night of June 13, 1993, John Campbell died in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 41. His worst fear had come true, leaving behind his widow Dolly and their 5-month-old daughter, Paris.
John Campbell's body was cremated along with personal items and talismans from his family and friends to help him rest in peace. A memorial service was held on June 17, 1993, with Dr. John delivering the eulogy. His urn was then ridden home on a motorcycle by a procession of Hells Angels, in a manner that his wife said would be just as he wanted it.
A new CD was made available in early 2000, featuring unreleased tracks from a session recorded prior to his Elektra contract. Titled, "Tyler Texas Sessions", the CD is a compilation of Campbell working an acoustic guitar on personal standard Blues favorites by greats like Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James.
His music will mark his legacy. Campbell's haunting slide work on his steel-bodied guitar will forever bring envisions of the mystical and spiritual world he possessed. It will also serve as a sad epitaph to the brilliance that John Campbell held and the rest of the world will never know.
Copyright 2000 Cascade Blues Association