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Delta Force: The Blues According to John Campbell by Cree McCree

Details, April, 1990 p 100-102

Photos by Brian Ashley White

Strange and mysterious things happen when John Campbell plays the blues. Even before his thumb pick flies across the room, when the strings of his 1952 Gibson are not yet stained with blood and the battered old National Steel is still nestled in its case with a mojo of John the Conqueror root, when he's still feeling the crowd with his fingers like he was easing a woman into bed, the air tingles with icy heat. Then, one by one, the packed house at New York's Crossroads begins riding his roadhouse revival train, stoking the engines with whistles, moans, hoots, shudders and the rattle of dancing bones. By the time Campbell tunes up the National and slips the bottleneck slide over his ring finger, we're ready for deep penetration.

Storming the gates of heaven and hell, his guitar takes on a life of its own, and graves crack open. Lightnin� flashes in the brilliance of a single note that hovers in space, then bends time backwards; the Wolf howls between the lines of a phrase that twists a caress into sudden ferocity; and Robert Johnson comes to call as Campbell turns his soul inside out; transforming his demons on the angel wings of song. And we who bear witness are participants in this magic, this shared celebration of ritual, possession and the triumph of life force over the condition of living.

�The blues song is a victory,� Campbell says, when we sit down to address such questions. A long tall Texan with Louisiana roots, a riverboat gambler�s points-and-pompadour style and translucent skin that seems to glow in the dark, he could have stepped intact out of a whole other era. �It�s like grabbin� that thing by the throat, wrestlin� with it, lookin� it square in the eye, throwin it down on the ground and stompin� on it till it turns into dancin�. If we get ahold of that feelin�, man, I�m gonna ride it just as long as I can. I want us to hit that place of church. If you can�t get that, you might as well stay home.�

I�m fortunate enough to live across the street form Campbell�s church, and over the past year I�ve watched the congregation swell from a few true believers to a cathedral-size crowd; dozens of supplicants are turned away at the door because there�s simply no space. �Johnny�s shaped this place, and we�ve pretty much molded it to fit around his music,� says Jonathan Bass, who owned what was then a Vietnamese restaurant called Monsoon when Campbell first began playing here, and who�s now at the temple guard at the newly-named CrossRoads. �We�re both going for that vibe, that magic, and I always had the sensation that I was part of his music. But this is his room. He built it, and he�s responsible for its success.�

In 1989, Campbell�s success began to embrace the wider world as well. Already acclaimed in Europe, he played solo acoustic for 10,000 people at Belgium�s Peer Festival during his last tour, and was the only performer to receive to encores on a bill that included B.B. King and Otis Clay; his first album, A Man and His Blues, produced by blues guitar great Ronnie Earl for West Germany�s Cross Cut Records, hit number seven on the German pop charts last summer beating out Paul McCartney and Stevie Ray Vaughn; and here in the U.S. he was nominated for a W.C. Handy aware (the blues world�s Grammies) as �best traditional male blues artist of the year� alongside such old masters as John Lee Hooker. Now he stands on the crossroads of stardom, trying to divine his path from a myriad of tour and record offers: �If it feels right, and it means something, then I�ll do it.�

It�s a critical juncture for this Texas country boy who both lost and found himself in New York City, and his story has never been told. He tells it to me � in a marathon series of interviews at the bar, in his Greenwich Village sublet and during an afterhours session in which the Great Campbello is revealed � precisely because I�m not a disinterested observer. His music is etched in my bones, and when I dance I become what he calls his �hell-raiser� � the person who, in the blues counterpart of flamenco, helps conjure the spirits in both the musician and the audience.

�What makes a Lightnin� Hopkins or a Robert Pete Williams is what the choose to do with those notes. There�s a process that occurs between the fingers and the mind and the heart, and that�s what makes the clock on the wall stop and turn backwards. The stuff that�s drug behind you gives a note its meaning � those crusty layers of history that led you to the point of making that decision. Let me put it this way: It ain�t my first night out.�

A hairline scar bisects Campbell's brow - which is higher than the heels of his lizard-flame cowboy boots - and curves into a crescent under his right eye, which has the inner-directed focus of near blindness. Robert Johnson, the almost mythic Thirties blues prophet, had a similar affliction in the same eye. Though Johnson�s scars were the result of a knife fight instead of head-on-car crash, each had his face split open, and the mask and what it veiled were never quite the same.

�When the accident happened I met the blues,� says Campbell, who was contemplating a parallel career as a pool hustler until his vision was shattered at the age of fifteen. �I�d been playin� professionally since thirteen, and I was into the blues because I liked the way the guitar sounded. But, when I lost my right eye, the kiddin� around was over. Suddenly those notes, and those songs, meant somethin� they didn�t mean before. Shortly after that I ended up quittin� school.�

Early on in his �couch-circuit� era, Campbell holed up behind a record store, where promo copies of the latest releases from Shreveport�s Jewel Records were fifty cents a pop: Lightnin�, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf. �I�d put on ten records and play with them all fuckin� night till my fingers bled. Sold blood to buy guitar strings. The blues spoke to me, and I didn�t have any choice about it.� During the Day-Glo psychadelia of the Sixties, he was living in the sepia tones of the Forties, crisscrossing the cusp of Texas and Louisiana. �I�d take a Greyhound down to an under-the-tunnel gig, then go to an afterhours house party where they�d give me a pack of Kools, a half-pint of tequila and five bucks, then hop another bus and go play the kind of roadhouse where you buy two beers; one to drink and one to throw. I did lots of field parties, where we�d sit on the back of a pickup, with the barbecue smokin�. I always looked at myself as �the guitar player� in a very tribal sense.�

Devotees will hear tributes to may artists fused into his blues, from the late Elmore James to Gatemouth Brown, who taught him about dynamics: �He said, �Boy you play real good, but you�re makin� that thing holler all the time. If you don�t make it whisper, no one�s gonna pay attention to you.�� Now, listening to him whisper in the firelight, hearing the butterfly flutter of his fingers suddenly snap like the pool balls echoing from the back-room game, watching every note play directly on his face, which twists with pain, then smiles at a private joke between him and his guitar, I remember what he said about his true spiritual mentor, Lightnin� Hopkins: �Everything he was playin� was happenin� at that moment. Whatever came into his mind, whatever he felt, was a conversation between him and his instrument, and whoever was there with him.�

The song of this particular moment is �Hidden Charms,� and it sets the stage for the Great Campbello, who�s about to perform some afterhours magic with a pool cue. But first he tingles my spine with the final chapter of a yet-unfinished tale. Campbell�s soul mate is his �trash can with strings� � his 1934 National steel guitar � and the saga of their relationship is the heart of his story.

This much I already know. In 1982, shortly after Lightnin died, Campbell went to see a fortune-teller. He�d been saving to buy a hand-made guitar, and he asked her if it was really his instrument. The cards said no; you won�t get that guitar. But you will get a legacy. Next day, he high tails it to Rockin� Robin in Houston, and plays a lot of different Nationals. He lingers awhile on a trashed-out relic, but finally opts for a loud, shiny mint one. �Next morning, I call the guy and say I made a mistake. I want the real old beat-up one. I drove 180 miles in my white Cadillac Coupe De Ville, with my German shepherd dog, stopped at a Dairy Queen to buy her an ice cream. I go in to swap guitars, and the guy says, �Now that it�s a done deal, I�m gonna tell you the story. Lightnin� played that guitar, and �Amazing Grace� was played on it at his funeral. It�s not for sale, but I heard you play it and you can have it.��

Now he tells me what happened several years later, when he followed his heart to New York, only to split up with the woman who drew him here. "My spirit was dampened, and suddenly here I am in the most high-tech city in the world, playin� acoustic blues guitar. I felt like my music got totally swallowed. I�m kinda ashamed to say this, but I lost myself. I felt like it had come and gone for me.� He sighs so deeply I can feel the shards of pain in my own lungs. �I just went crazy, man. I took my guitars to a music store and traded them for a fancy modern Fender.

�I immediately realized I�d made a mistake. I went rushin� back, and the man said I still have the Gibson but the National�s gone. I felt like I had sold my soul, that I�d done an injustice to those who�d gone before me. I�d lost my talismans. I ended up sellin� the Gibson, and for nine months, I didn�t even have a guitar.� Campbell took a day job at Matt Umamov�s guitar shop, a gathering place in the Village for acoustic and electric aficionados. There he developed a friendship with a colleague of Umamov�s, Steve Uhrik. Over a couple of beers, he told him the whole Lightnin� guitar story. Turns out Uhrik was the guy who bought that guitar.

�Time goes by and I start kinda findin� myself again. One day Steve walks in and says, you know, I think it�s time for you to have that National back. Same day, I got a call from a friend who found a 1952 Gibson in Louisiana made the month and year that I was born, and he shipped it up to me. Same night, I got a call from Germany and got a record contract. Steve fine-tuned both guitars, he tapped them with the bones and touched them with the water, and I ain�t strayed since. And I never will. I walked to the edge of the abyss, hung one foot over, and I got a second chance.�

It�s one chance only in the pool room, where Campbell�s step takes on a swagger and his voice transforms into the honey-dipped tones of the Great Campbello. As he sets up a Willie Mosconi triple-bank trick shot, shuffling the balls in the rack till the rhythm of numbers and colors feels just right, divining the rack�s precise placement by moving it back and forth like the table was a Ouija board, he sets it up too. �I ain�t played pool ten times in the last twenty years, and I ain�t even gonna bank it one time to get in the mood. I can�t stand rehearsin�.�

I�m reminded that he�s never rehearsed with bass player Gordon Wands and drummer David Hansen, who meld seamlessly into the Saturday-night sessions when he electrifies the acoustic and lets his mood take the music where it will. As Wands puts it earlier tonight, �I�m not playing the fuckin� songs, I�m playin� him.� Now, after balancing the rack on top of one ball, Campbell gives us the bottom line. �For me to make this shot, there has to be somethin� at risk. It has to mean somethin�.� And it�s Wands, his �personal spiritual advisor,� who raises the stakes. �If you don�t make this shot, we�re gonna steal your boots.�

The room is as tense as an unresolved chord as he leans over the table and shoots. The cue ball glides into the triangular arc of the triple-bank, then kisses the one ball aside and slips under the rack to nestle inside, exactly the way he called it. It�s a whisper shot, quietly elegant, and for a moment time is suspended in silence until the chord resolves in spontaneous applause. Then the Great Campbello disappears inside the shadows of his personal history, as John Campbell ponders his deepest roots.

We�re discussing the elusive Robert Johnson, who in a brief life span of twenty-seven years left his mark on every blues-influenced artist to follow, form his Thirties peers to Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Defying the existing cultural mores, Johnson affirmed his personal power, and his �Crossroads Blues� is as much a pact with God as it is with the Devil. His life remains shrouded in mystery, so I ask Campbell for illumination: If he could ask Robert Johnson just one question, what would it be?

He deliberates awhile, leaning back in his chair, fingering the talisman of his thunderbird bolo tie. �Well, if I�d been there, and I could have asked him a question,� he says at last, speaking in a near whisper, �it would have been: Will you take me with you when you go?� - Cree McCree

Copyright 1990 Details Magazine - Conde Nast Publications


Copyright � 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003