Folk Roots, March 1992 p 15
By John Tobler
John Tobler meets controversial blues flailer John Campbell
White country blues singer/guitarist John Campbell has polarised opinions perhaps more than anyone since Johnny Winter emerged over twenty years ago. Campbell, from Shreveport, Louisiana was drag racing in the late '60s when an accident - his own fault, he confesses, for indulging in such activiites - left him without his right eye and with 5,000 stitches in his face. Surely perfect credentials for a bluesman, yet others regard him as somehow ersatz and, more damningly, dull. Without wishing to criticise Buddy Guy (for whom Campbell opened on a recent tour) Campbell's live act seemed infinitely more genuine and exciting than Guy's Memphis soul crossed with post-British invasion guitar heroics.
A high point of Campbell's stage act is his explanation of his flailing guitar style: "It just developed. I got my first guitar at Max's Loan on Fannin Street, and right there was Stan's Records. Fannin Street was the notorious red-light sporting district of Shreveport, where Leadbelly played in the barrel-houses. It was predominantly piano players at that time, and he came along playing his 12-string in what people called piano style - he played octaves in a barrel-house rhythm, and that guitar style from the area where I was from was my early roots. Then I crossed over to Texas, where there was more of an arpeggio - banjo style was how I referred to it, with a Spanish influence - and the Mississippi thing is where the bottleneck comes in. My slide style is a mixture of moving piano style, finger picking trills and Mississippi slide."
The first many people knew of Campbell was in the 1991 release of his first album for Elektra, One Believer, which his biog obliquely suggested was his debut - he claimed never to have sent anyone a demo tape. "Where I came from, rural south, there wasn't an emphasis on recording: it wasn't part of my mentality. I was a travelling guitar player, so why make a tape? Moving to New York, I did shows with Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins and I always believed that if I developed to where I had something to offer, I would meet someone I could realte to."
F.R.'s Dave Peabody prefers 1988's A Man and His Blues, an album produced by Ronnie Earl on a specialist Germal label, Crosscut, which came out when Earl sent a tape of Campbell to the recording company. "I cut that album in two three and a half hour sessions, and whatever went on the tape was on the record. It represents what I was doing at that time, whereas One Believer is an album we conceptualized. Peter Lubin of Elektra saw me opening for Albert King at the Lone Star Cafe, and the only mandate was to make the best album I could. Essentially it was like an empty room, and they said you can hang ten of your paintings in this room. You don't want to paint the same picture ten times but you do want a thread. So I met Dennis Walker (also Robert Cray's producer) through Peter and Dennis and myself and my guitarist Zonder (Alexander) Kennedy wrote for the record - we tried to serve as mirrors for each other to give this things some bones that would let it stand up and walk."
Campbell has an interesting and realistic view of Europe's influence on the blues: "I'm not trying to over romanticise, but when I listened to Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton records, I always wanted to come over here. I think a huge debt is owed to the European blues audience, who educated Americans about their own brilliant native musicians like John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, when guitarists like Clapton and Beck cited them as influences. The blues renaissance was sparked over here in Europe.
He doesn't use fingerpicks but dips his fingers in superglue, noting that he has to be careful who he shakes hands with: "I worked with a lot of blues guys over the years. I learned quite abit about playing with Gatemouth Brown and Hubert Sumlin, but I'm not the best backup guitarist because I tune open G flat and I'm self-taught. Playing solo I'm trying to do a stride piano style on the guitar and simultaneously play bass, rhythm and lead, so there's not a lot of room for anything else."
Campbell's general good-humouredness conflicts with the black image on the album sleeve. "That's not an image, that's the way I photograph." You don't seem like that in person at all... "Well, I like you! When I play guitar, people say that I look like I'm going to chew their arm off, but music's a very visceral experience for me, and I try to do it with all I've got, in case it's the last time, beacuse you never know. It's the only game in town every night for me. No matter how hard the issue may be, honesty is the most important thing - if you're not aware of the darkness, you can't be aware of the light. To me, art should seek both."
Copyright 1992 Folk Roots