John Campbell, Press and Media Relations, Elektra Entertainment, August, 1991.
John Campbell can speak about the blues because it is the music that defines him. On "One Believer" his electrifying Elektra Entertainment debut, he unleashes powerful, disturbing, exhilarating and ultimately life affirming down and and dirty blues. It's a sound and a fury born out of pain, joy, redemption and John's singular approach to age old tradition.
"When I was about 15 I used to drag race cars and bikes, I got into a real bad accident, and I was real messed up. I lost my right eye and had 5,000 stitches and surgery to hold my face together. I spent a lot of time at home recovering and it was during that time that I met the blues," John explains. "The feeling that the guitar gave me became different. I kind of withdrew inside myself and the guitar was the way I'd try and get in touch with my feelings. Shortly after that I quit school, caught a bus and started playing on the streets. Playing was my life's work. I knew that you didn't get a hold of this form when you were young."
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1952, John drifted between home and Texas from the age of 15, eventually moving to New York City five years ago. He picked up the guitar at an early age. "My grandmother played Hawaiian lap steel and I started playing it when I was almost three," he recounts. He began gigging professionally at the age of 13, playing a field parties and gradually moving on to the rough and tumble world of the clubs and roadhouses that lay between Houston and New Orleans.
Encouraged by an old friend that there was a blues scene up north worth exploring, John headed to NYC. He quickly began appearing at various clubs in town where he opened up for Jimmie Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, and other luminaries.
Eventually he began playing at Crossroads, a club in SoHo. "I was just down there passing the hat, like I used to do in the old days. I used to play in the streets of Louisiana, play gas stations, pool halls, with the guitar case open," he says. John began a residency there which lasted for two years. "We never advertised, there wasn't even a stage, and the crowds just grew. We had to start turning people away."
As John moved to larger and larger venues his following continued to expand, eventually attracting the attention of Elektra Entertainment.
"One Believer" is part of the natural evolutionary process begun back in Shreveport. Once John was signed, he was teamed with songwriter Dennis Walker (Robert Cray) to expand and refine the material for his LP, which was co-produced by Walker and Elektra's Peter Lubin.
One of the Campbell/Walker efforts is the first single "Wild Streak." "I figured we needed a love song" John says. "It's a groove thing. It's about some bad-to-the-bone girl and the night life." One of the most powerful songs is "Tiny Coffin". "It's about a drive-by shooting of an innocent child. It's something that I feel very strongly about."
"I never sent a tape to a record company in my whole life, I was jsut a guitar player. I've worked for this and I prayed for this" John says quietly. "So every day, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to go out and do it." - Elektra 8/91
Copyright 1991 Elektra Entertainment
Press Photo #2
John Campbell, Press and Media Relations, Elektra Entertainment, January, 1993.
"It was a pretty rough, low-down circuit I was on," says John Campbell of his 25 years hauling his bones "from Houston to New Orleans, every city that Greyhound runs. The places I worked, if you didn't have a gun they gave you one. One place had the chicken wire, but just across the top of the stage. The owner says, 'that's for the people in back who are arcing the bottles. If they're close enough to throw' em straight, you can either catch 'em or get outta the way.'"
The result of Campbell's obsession with the blues is his second Elektra release, Howlin Mercy -- downright posessed, imbued with a mesmerizing, bone-marrow-deep power that can't be faked. But more about that record later. This is how he got here:
"I became guitar crazy when I first heard somebody play one," he remembers. [That someone was his Louisiana grandma, proud owner of a Hawaiian pedal steel guitar.] "I finally got my own guitar when I was eight, at Max's Loan, a pawn shop on the corner of Line Avenue and Fannin Street, a red light district that Leadbelly once wrote a song about. My dad paid $30 for it; I played the first day till my fingers started to bleeding an dput on bandaids and kept playing.
"I started playing professionally when I was 13. We had to sneak out of the house to do it. Teenagers would throw these field parties, they'd set up a gasoline-powered generator, give us 35 bucks and a couple of cases of beer. I did get sidetracked in my teens -- I got into drag racing. On a bad rainy night on the Hart's Island Strip, we lost control and hit a telephone pole and the accelerator stuck -- I went in and out of the windshiled about three times. My eye was hanging out of my socket. When the plastic surgeons were done, I looked like the mummy. I couldn't even walk around the house. So I listened to music, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker; playing along with those records, I felt something I'd never felt before. I wasn't able to express myself verbally at that time, I became very introverted. So the blues was a release. I realized that this was what I was going to to do for the rest of my life."
At age 16, Campbell left school for Nacogdoches, Texas with a bus ticket, his guitar and ten bucks to his name. He stayed in the back of an abandoned church. "The only way I was going to get good was to play the guitar as much as I could, so I played 14, 15 hours a day. I'd stay in town for a week, play on a college campus for tips, gas stations, pool halls, street corners, anywhere I could. I was restless, I couldn't be satisfied. I was looking for something, or something was chasing me. But it seemed that when I got somewhere, I had something extra I didn't have before I made the trip -- another experience, something else to put in the song. The worst times were laying pipe in a chemical factory to buy a guitar, in 104-degree heat, or selling a pint of blood to buy guitar strings and a sandwhich, or sitting in the bus station after a job just so you'd have a roof over your head."
Campbell was never in a permanent band back then, and never watned to be. "I didn't want to play some strict thing. To me, you're not playing real music. The early blues recordings gave me the sense that the artists were talking about what was going on in their life that day. I never did a song the same way twice. Even on the last record, the fellas in the band were saying, how many times do we do this before we break into the fast part? I'd say, we do it until I feel like making the break, then I'll give you the look."
Five years ago, Campbell came to New York. "A friend of mine sent me a ticket and a newspaper clipping from the Village Voice: I saw Albert King, RObert Cray, Dr. John, and all these people playing the same week! New York affected my music. I was used to an acoustic guitar, but in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I was staying, the J and M train would come out of the ground right by my window, so I had to play with a pick-up and amp to hear myself practice. At first, it felt like the city was going to engulf a lonely, single guitar."
But within a few weeks, Campbell had secured a long-lasting gig at the Abilene Cafe. When that club closed, "I hit a low point," he remembers. For a year, he put away his guitars, even selling his beloved National that once belonged to Lightnin Hopkins, and worked in a guitar store. When fate reunited him with his National, he started playing again with a newfound resolve and sense of purpose. This time, Campbell joined a blues jam at Monsoons, a Vietnamese restaurant. "We started at midnight and passsed the hat. First night, we made $12. Next thing I knew, the place was packed." The ensemble moved to the Lone Star Cafe, where Campbell was discovered by Elektra.
In the recording of Campbell's debut, One Believer, "I came face to face with what I was feeling -- it's a slow, shadowy album, me alone with all my phantoms; the skeletons in my closet were dancing around my apartment. It was an exorcism." "Haunted and brooding like [John Lee] Hooker at his primeval best," declared New York Newsday. "Deep vocals and ferocious guitar playing...distinct, true, mean blues, without apology," praised Billboard; "an important new voice in a powerful genre."
For Howlin' Mercy, "my approach was different," Campbell explains. "My life suddenly became very high energy: I have a band and we were on the road for six months with Buddy Guy, one of my all-time heroes. We're showing up and slamming it down. These songs have road muscle on them. This record is more in touch both with my roots and with another direction at the same time. 'Saddle Up My Pony' is one of the oldest blues songs, I know, and I jump from one song into another, just like I used to. I'm comfortable doing that in the studio now."
From the eloquent gloom of 'Love's Name" to the ominous steel-pedal twang of 'Wolf Among the Lambs' to his rollicking neo-traditional reading of 'When the Levee Breaks,' Campbell creates a world of violent, heart-rending beauty. The ferocious 'I Ain't Afraid of Midnight,' "is a celebration to me, a reaffirmation," he explains. "If there was a phantom hellhound chasing me at one point in my life, maybe now he's sitting beside me. I taught the him to sit, so I can stand my ground a little bit more. Still I feel like I'm just beginning. All this time, I've been preparing myself as a student. "I'm not near done." - Elektra 1/93
Copyright 1993 Elektra Entertainment
Press Photo #2
"John Campbell", All Music Guide to the Blues, edited by Michael Erlewine, Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, CA, 1999
Guitarist, singer and songwriter John Campbell had the potential of turning a whole new generation of people onto the blues in the 1990s, much the same way Stevie Ray Vaughan did in the 1980s. His vocals were so powerful and his guitar playing so fiery, you couldn't help but stop what you were doing and pay attention to what you were hearing. But unfortunately, because of frail health and a rough European tour, he suffered a heart attack while sleeping on June 13, 1993, at the age of 41.
Campbell was born in Shreveport, LA, on January 20, 1952, and grew up in Center, TX. Although he got his own guitar at age eight and began playing professionally when he was 13, he didn't get serious about playing blues for a living until he was involved in a near - fatal drag racing accident that broke several ribs, collapsed a lung and took his right eye. In his teens, Campbell opened for people like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Albert Collins and Son Seals, but he later got sidetracked by drag racing, and it was while he was recuperating from his near - death drag racing accident that he re - learned guitar, developing his own distinctive, rhythm and slide - heavy style, based in some measure on the music of Lightnin' Hopkins.
In 1985, after playing a variety of clubs between east Texas and New Orleans, Campbell moved to New York. One night in New York, guitarist Ronnie Earl happened upon Campbell in a club, playing with Johnny Littlejohn. Earl was so impressed that he offered to produce an album by Campbell, and the result was A Man and His Blues (Crosscut 1019), a Germany - only release that has since been made available in the U.S. That album earned Campbell a W.C. Handy Award nomination in 1989, and not long after that, the rock & roll world started to take notice of him. Although he never sent a tape to a record company in his life, after drawing ever - growing crowds to the downtown New York clubs where he played, executives at Elektra Records took notice of him and signed him to a contract. Both of his albums for Elektra, One Believer (1991) and Howlin' Mercy (1993) are brilliant, well-produced recordings, yet they only hint at Campbell's potential for greatness, had he lived longer. - Richard Skelly
Copyright 1999 All Music Guide
"John Campbell", Blues on CD, Kyle Cathie Ltd., London, Great Britain, 1993
Louisiana-born John Campbell (1952-1993) was, essentially, Roy Rogers with more angst, less chops, a bigger voice, auteurist songwriting ambitions and a too-bad-to-die attitude acquired the hard way. On the other hand, while Roger�s voice is unassuming to the point of anonymity, at least it�s his; too often Campbell�s spooky two-keys-below-his-natural-range growl sounded like hw was just trying it on for size while Charley Patton, Screamin� Jay Hawkins, Blind Willie Johnson and Howlin Wolf stepped outside for a hand of poker. Some idea of his lyrical agenda can be gauged by the fact that his first album began �Got the Devil in my Closet/Wolves howlin at my Door� and his second �Taught the hellhound to sit/cheated the devil at cards.� Campbell was the hoodoo man for the 90s, playing the demon-haunted Robert Johnson card for all he was worth, and metaphorically bedecked with so many mojo hands and black cat bones that I�m surprised that he could stand up straight.
He got away with it because many of his songs � like �Tiny Coffins� on the first album � were so powerful that even the occasional hokiness of his singing could not undermine them; because, while he lacked the virtuosity of a Rogers or Brozman, his amplified acoustic guitar-playing was solid and unpretentious; and because � partially as a result of spiritual and physical traumas of the horrific teenage auto accident which required 5000 stitches worth of facial reconstruction and provided him with a hard-earned key to the inner mysteries of the blues � he resembled a 19th century riverboat gambler from hell. Discovered street-singing and small-clubbing in New York, and produced by Robert Cray honcho Dennis Walker, he got over on his live performances, which were considerably less pretentious and theatrical than his records might suggest. In fact, the gig I saw was friendly, varied and engaging enough to blow away the headlining Johnny Winter, whose current idea of a show is to stand in one spot and spray the audience with guitar solos for up to fifteen minutes at a time. John Campbell had enormous potential and only lived to realize a fraction of it � which brought him rather closer to Robert Johnson than he probably wanted to be.
Sample song titles from Campbell�s two albums: �Devil in My Closet,� �Voodoo Edge,� �Tiny Coffin,� �Ain�t Afraid of Midnight,� and �Wolf Among the Lambs.� Well alright. One Believer alternated his road rhythm section with moonlighting Cray sidemen like bassist Richard Cousins and keybist Jimmy Pugh and established Campbell�s right to hang at that by-now crowded crossroads, while the more rock-friendly Howlin Mercy added a superfluous lead guitarist to the lineup and, rather too often turned the density of Walker�s production into mere clutter. Here he covers Tom Waits and Charley Patton, and works over Led Zeppelin�s version of �When the Levee Breaks� rather than Memphis Minnie�s, a genuine populist move and a hilarious slap at the blues purists with whom he was, no doubt, distressingly familiar. Campbell never made the great blues-rock album he undoubtedly had in him, let alone the live album.
Subjects for further investigation: Campbell was the driving force behind Strike a Deep Chord: Blues Guitar for the Homeless (Justice JR 0003-2), an impressive all-star effort co-featuring, among others, Dr. John, Clarence �Gatemouth� Brown, Johnny Copeland, Odetta, and Sue Foley. He was also frequently compared to Chris Whitley, a broodingly sensitive hunk who intones his singer-songwriterisms across a shimmering Paris, Texas-styled National steel backdrop on Living With the Law (Columbia 468586 2).
Copyright 1993 Charles Shaar Murray
"John Campbell", MusicHound Blues: The Essential Album Guide, edited by Leland Rucker, Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI, 1998
Born January 20, 1952, Shreveport, LA; died June 13, 1993, New York, N.Y.
Many people say that music saved their lives, but in John Campbell�s case it just might be true. Or was for a time, anyway. Campbell took up the guitar as a child and began playing professionally when he was barely a teen. But it was a near fatal drag-racing accident when he was 15 that taught him the meaning of the Blues. Campbell lost his right eye in the crash, a lung collapsed and 5,000 stitches were required to reconstruct his face. While convalescing, he looked to the guitar for solace, and it was during that time that he discovered that music could provide an outlet for his emotions like nothing else.
Seasoned by years of gigging in Louisiana and a residency at a club in New York�s Soho district, Campbell became a guitarist whose fierce licks matched the scarifying growl of his vocals. He achieved some degree of notoriety, though hardly commensurate with his talent, before he died an untimely death by heart attack while on a European tour.
What to buy: �I got the devil in my closet/ and the wolf is at my door,� Campbell growls over the opening bars of his major label debut, One Believer (Elektra, 1991, prod. Dennis Walker, Peter Lubin), and after one jolt of his gruff baritone and a few stellar licks from his guitar, there�s no way you�ll accuse him of taking shit. The whole album is like that, combining metaphysics � check out the prescient doom laden �Angel of Sorrow� � and sad tales from this world, such as �Tiny Coffins,� which describes the young, unintended victim of a drive-by shooting. Campbell�s blues are utterly contemporary, but he plays and sings like he might have taken a long-ago trip to the crossroads, too.
The rest: Howlin Mercy (Elektra, 1993)
Worth searching for: An early selection of tracks produced in 1985 by guitarist Ronnie Earl, A Man and his Blues (Cross-cut, 1988) offers an indication of good things to come.
Influences: Howlin� Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker - Daniel Durchholz
Copyright 1998 Visible Ink Press
"Most Criminally Overlooked Guitarists: John Campbell", Excerpt from the book: Texas Music, published by St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998.
Not Surprisingly, Texas blues guitar is not strictly an Austin phonomenon. John Campbell, who was born in Shreveport and reared in East Texas, was a white guitarist of vibrant and compelling ability with a tortured, haunting body of work.
Campbell's legacy will probably be the closest thing the young blues dudes have to a Robert Johnson/Satan legend. An intense artist whose lyrics, stage setting, and CD covers were rife with the paraphernalia of voodoo, Campbell's driven guitar and mouthful-of-graveyard-dirt vocals were positively creepy - but absolutely riveting.
His first album, A Man and His Blues, was released on the German Crosscut label and nominated for a 1989 W.C. Handy Award. This led to an American major label deal with Elektra. One Believer (1991) was a stridentand much-lauded record, and the encore, 1993's Howlin Mercy, is simply one of the best modern blues albums ever made. A disturbing, wailing, driven record obsessed with images of gris-gris, High John the Conqueror, evil and decay, the record would have come off like some sort of blues version of death metal if it weren't so vibrant and authentic.
Howlin Mercy was incredibly promising, but the forty-one year old Campbell suffered an unexpected and fatal heart attack - and rumors that the artist was deeply involved with voodoo and drugs can only nurture his eerie legend. - Rick Koster
Copyright 2000 Rick Koster
Excerpt from the book: Louisiana Music, published by Da Capo Press, New York, 2002, p 149.
A Shreveport precursor to Shepherd was John Campbell (1952-1993). He was playing guitar by the age of eight and was opening for big name acts such as "Gatemouth" Brown and Albert Collins in his early teens.
Campbell didn't get serious about music until he had a drag racing accident when he was sixteen. Left bedridden for months, blind in one eye, and with permanent facial scars, Campbell turned inward and sought release in his guitar. Not surprisingly, he flew like a kestrel straight into the arm of the blues.
Campbell was heavily into spiritual church and sundry voodooisms - "folk magic and the power of the earth" was how one friend described it; that imagery peppered not only his material but also his stage show, adding a Robert Johnson-esque sense of the menace to his already vibrant and haunted conviction. His guitar tone was searingly great, his chops fueled by a fury, and his voice and songs straight out of hell.
After moving to New York in the late eighties, Campbell was nominated for W.C. Handy award for his first CD, A Man and His Blues, released in 1989 on a German label. That led to two albums with Elektra, One Believer (1991), an urgently impressive effort, and 1993's Howlin Mercy, one of the best modern blues albums ever made. Infused with tortured, voodoo cloaked images of loss, sorrow, and decay, Howlin Mercy lives up to its title.
For all the darkness, Campbell was a generous person. He went to war with his record label because he wanted unsigned artists of his choice to open tours for him, and he frequently performed charity shows benefiting the homeless.
Campbell passed away shortly after Howlin Mercy of causes that are still a mystery. He'd experienced drug and alcohol problems in the past but had reportedly been clean at the time of his death. Campbell's friend Dr. John delivered a eulogy at the funeral - he had, years earlier, performed the wedding ceremony for the guitarist and his wife. - Rick Koster
Copyright 2002 Rick Koster
"John Campbell", 1000 Great Guitarists
Born: 1952, Shreveport, Louisiana, US.
Died: June 13th 1993.
Turning to the guitar after an almost fatal injury in a drag-racing crash in 1967, Campbell developed a rhythmically percussive style that owed much to Lightnin�Hopkins. At first he toured extensively, playing club and bar circuit, making his debut with A Man And His Blues (1988) and teaming with fellow guitarist Alexander Kennedy. This came to the attention of Robert Cray�s producer Dennis Walker, who encouraged the duo�s writing and oversaw the production of One Believer (1991) and Howlin� Mercy (1993). Unfortunately in 1993, just as Campbell�s following was increasing, he died.
Copyright Hugh Gregory
"John Campbell", The big book of blues: A biographical Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, New York, New York, 1993
Born January 20, 1952, Shreveport, La; died June 13, 1993, New York, N.Y.
Blues guitarist and singer John Campbell was born in Louisiana and, as a youth, was involved in a drag racing accident that claimed his right eye and scarred his face. During long months of recuperation, Campbell discovered the blues and taught himself how to play guitar. He performed in juke joints and roadhouses in Louisiana and Texas before moving to New York in 1985.
Campbell played in various Big Apple clubs, opening for Jimmie Rogers, Pine Top Perkins, and other visiting bluesmen. When club gigs weren�t available, he played street corners and subways for spare change. Campbell eventually settled into steady work at Crossroads, a club in the Soho section of Manhattan, which eventually lead to his recording contract. His 1991 debut album, One Believer, won critical praise for its stark, detached imagery and the guitarmanship that graces most of the cuts. Campbell�s 1993 follow-up album, Howlin Mercy, received similar acclaim. However, a few months after its release, Campbell suffered a fatal heart attack. He was forty-one years old.
One Believer/Elektra (961086-2)
Howlin Mercy/Elektra (961440-2)
Copyright 1993 Penguin Books
"John Campbell", Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Edited by Colin Larkin, Vol 1, Guiness Publishing, Ltd., England, UK Stockton Press, New York, N.Y. 1995
b. 1952, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA,
d. 13 June 1993, New York, USA.
Campbell, a white man, became an authentic-sounding blues singer/guitarist after a serious drag racing accident in 1967, which left him without one of his eyes and a mass of stitches in his face, which became permanently scarred. Prior to this crash, he had been curious about music - his grandmother played lap steel guitar - but he was more interested in being a tearaway. During his lengthy period of recuperation, much of it spent in solitude, he taught himself to play guitar and became devoted to the work of the black bluesmen who had recorded for the local Jewel label in Shreveport - in particular, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins, the latter of whom became his major influence.
Leaving school in the late 60s, he became a travelling troubadour, working as the opening act for "Gatemouth" Brown and Hubert Smith, ultimately relocating to New York where he played local clubs for many years. His recording debut came in 1988, when guitarist Ronnie Earl sent a tape of Campbell to the specialist Crosscut label in Germany. Earl produced his first album, A Man And His Blues, but it had little distribution in the USA, and he remained an obscure cult figure until he began working with guitarist Alexander Kennedy. He and Kennedy were opening for Albert King in New York when he was signed by Elektra Records, and in 1991 he released One Believer, produced by Dennis Walker (also Robert Gray's producer), and backed by members of both Gray's band and Joe Ely's group.
Campbell played solely amplified acoustic guitar, and his songwriting partnership with Walker and Kennedy produced several modern blues classics such as "Devil In My Closet", "Tiny Coffin" and "Take Me Down'. Howlin" Mercy consolidated his standing as an important (although cult) figure in the recent blues boom. He died in 1993 prior to undertaking a European tour.
Discography: A Man And His Blues (Crosscut 1988)***, One Believer (Elektra 1991)****, Howlin' Mercy (Elektra 1993)***, Tyler, Texas Session (Sphere 2000)**.
Copyright 1995 Stockton Press
"John Campbell", The Rolling Stone-The Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Edited by Jim Swenson
John Campbell (1952-1993), like Robert Johnson 30 years before him, sang and played as if he had hellhounds on his trail. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Campbell grew up in Texas and began playing blues after a drag-racing accident claimed his right eye, developing an aggressive and rhythmic fingerpicking style modeled after Lightnin� Hopkins. Campbell subsequently moved to New York City, where a chance meeting with contemporary blues guitarist Ronnie Earl initiated his first recording.
An impressive debut, A Man and His Blues features a well-chosen mix of solo acoustic numbers and group efforts bolstered by Earl and ex-Muddy Waters harpist Jerry Portnoy. Campbell�s voice has a lived-in quality rare for a bluesman in his 30�s, and his deep, intricate six-string work on �Deep River Rag� reveals an innate understanding of the use of space for maximum emotional effect.
Campbell underwent a major stylistic on his first major-label release, One Believer, reemerging as a mysterious figure obsessed with the spirit world. His voice became a rabid snarl, and he pumped up the volume and unleashed some hell-bent slide-guitar playing. The songs are spine-chilling: �Devil in My Closet�, �Angel of Sorrow�, �Tiny Coffin� and �World of Trouble� illustrate Campbell�s ability to tap into the unknown with scary authenticity.
Howlin� Mercy attempts to lead that journey further, with mixed results. Full-throttle covers of Memphis Minnie�s/Led Zeppelin�s �When the Levee Breaks� and the traditional �Saddle Up My Pony� are supercharged slide workouts, but on tracks like �Ain�t Afraid of Midnight� Campbell�s over-the-top vocal delivery borders on self-parody. Campbell�s unexpected death from a heart attack at age 41 fostered speculation over the influence on his supernatural beliefs but, more important, robbed contemporary blues of an original voice.
Copyright 2004 Rolling Stone