On the night of June 13, 2003, the 10th anniversary of his death, friends gathered at the XR Bar (formerly known as the Crossroads) to remember one of the great legends of the blues and one of best guitarists to ever pick up the instrument. John Campbell used the guitar like a powerful mojo – leading those lucky enough to hear his music on an intense and powerful spiritual journey. His performances are still remembered by many for the sheer power and ferocity of his playing and the way he seemed to channel something mystical into his guitar driven blues.
I never met John Campbell or heard him play live. I am just a fan who loves his music. I first heard “Howlin Mercy,” John’s second Elektra release around the time that John died. That record changed me – not all at once, but over time I have come to realize its greatness. I believe it is a spiritual masterpiece. I have to thank my Dad for turning me onto John Campbell and it is fitting that he journeyed with me to New York for this gathering. It was Father’s Day weekend and we were just two fans from Ohio walking in the footsteps of John’s greatness.
I had been planning to visit the Crossroads for some time, so when I heard about a gathering to remember John, I knew I had to go. In a few articles, the Crossroads is referred to as ‘John’s church.’ It is now my church, too. For me, going to the Crossroads is like going to Mecca. Going was my way of honoring John. But, I also wanted to soak up the atmosphere and get a sense of what John must have felt or thought when he played there. I know it was a place that John loved to hang out at and a place that he had spent many hours playing and singing his blues. I was not disappointed. Just being there was special. From the moment I walked in I knew it was a special place. There are two posters on the wall - there is a poster of Robert Johnson on the wall behind the band's area - and a poster of John Campbell on the opposite side of the bar. I think that is fitting, too. John Campbell was in many respects, the Robert Johnson of his era. In my mind, they stand like bookend guardians protecting the integrity of the blues.
The evening started at approximately 9:30 PM. Zonder Kennedy and a few of his friends kicked off the night by playing two of John’s songs. Zonder played ‘Devil In My Closet’ and then followed it up with ‘Ain’t Afraid of Midnight.’ In between songs, Zonder told the crowd about John, the power of his music, and shared a few stories about playing and writing with John. I would like to have heard them play more of John’s songs, but then again – perhaps it was just the right amount. Playing a few more of John’s songs – while it would have pleased the fan in me – may not have done them or John justice. John Campbell was special and his music had a fierceness that would have been difficult to duplicate or reproduce. I mean no disrespect to Zonder or any of the fine musicians that followed him – but, there will never be another guitarist quite like John.
Unfortunately, the importance of the evening and the greatness of the music slipped by many of the people in the early crowd, who were mostly there to enjoy a normal Friday night of drinking and good times. Later on, as the evening continued and the crowd thinned a bit, the audience seemed to be dominated more by John’s friends. At least it felt that way. It is a testament to John that so many friends showed up to honor him 10 years after his death. It might have been tempting to turn the evening into a somber affair, but that would not have honored the memory of a man who played night in and night out with such an intensity and passion for his music and his fans. I don’t think that John would have wanted it that way. Instead, his friends danced, partied, and remembered John’s spirit and friendship. The evening was life affirming and I know that if he had been there John would have enjoyed the music, his friends and the shared experience.
In some ways, I felt like an outsider to the event. I could tell that John was heavy on many of the hearts and minds of those in attendance. While the event was public, it was also a very private affair, too. For many of John’s friends it was a chance to catch up and reminisce about old times.
When we first arrived, our waitress/bartender - Bobbi, took us under her wing. She introduced us to her sister, the owner of the XR Bar and a friend of John's, Lesley Bush. As the night passed, Lesley and Bobbi introduced me and my Dad to many of John’s friends. They did their best to make us feel at home.
As luck would have it, I wound up sitting at a table right next to Peter Lubin, who produced John’s first album for Elektra, ‘One Believer.’ Peter told me a couple of great stories about John and I probably bored him with many of my questions. Thank you, Peter for being so generous with me. I really appreciate it. As the night passed by I was fortunate to meet and talk briefly to David and Candace Hansen, Jennifer Floyd, Wendy Oxenhorn, Jonathon Bass, and Gordon Wands to name a few.
Zonder and the house band did not play any more John Campbell tunes that night. But, they did keep the place rocking. I did not get a chance to talk to the members of the house band or get their names, but there were several highlights as many of John’s friends joined them and jammed. Mark Grandfield is a sensational harp player. Babi Floyd, who is Jennifer’s husband got everyone up on their feet and dancing – and seemed to return to the stage whenever things needed a jolt. During one set, Wendy Oxenhorn introduced Ladel McLin, a hot young guitarist, who proceeded to tear it up playing in a way that was very reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. I tell you what – Wendy plays a mean harp, too! The music was wild and veered from straight blues to R&B, funk, and even into hip-hop just a bit. The atmosphere was electric and everyone on stage was having a great time. The mood was anything but somber. Everyone was up and moving and dancing. It was great!
John’s band during the Crossroads days, bassist Gordon Wands and drummer David Hansen then jammed with Zonder on a few great blues rock numbers. David Hansen even came out from behind the drums to belt out a few 50s sounding tunes that made me think of Ricky Nelson and even reminded me a little bit of Elvis Presley. At one point, Davi Abrams (Zinsler), an old friend of John’s, who knew him from as far back as high school sang a few bluesy songs, too. She has a really great voice and can really dance, too! Sometime later, a few members of Zonder’s current band, Loup Garou, joined him on stage for some great down home Louisiana music. Even though we left at 2:00 AM, I am sure that John’s friends were still playing music and talking way into the night.
At midnight, Lesley played a recording that John had left on Jennifer’s answering machine. On the recording, John sounded happy and full of life. I’m not sure what John was saying on the message, and I am not sure what he said is all that important. The bar was quiet and the only sounds seemed to be John’s voice as if he was speaking to us – right then and there! I know I felt that way. His voice was so warm and his spirit seemed to be so full of joy that it made me remember why I had traveled to New York to honor and remember him. Thank you, John. You did not know me, but your music and spirit continue to bring happiness to my life and the lives of countless others.
A personal highlight for me was meeting Dolly Fox-Campbell. Dolly arrived at about 1 AM. After Dolly said a few hellos, Lesley introduced me to her. Dolly sat and talked with me for a few minutes about John and thanked me for coming. Dolly also showed me a picture of John’s daughter Paris, too. I know that John would be very proud of her. I am so grateful that she chose to speak with me and share a few of her memories of John. For me, it was the perfect ending to a great night.
Even though John has been dead 10 years, his passion for life and the power of his music is not forgotten by those who knew and loved him. John Campbell touched the lives of everyone he met and everyone who heard him play. I think John would have been pleased to know that so many of his friends showed up to remember his special mark on their lives. John’s true legacy is not just in the great music that he recorded while he was alive – but also in the great memories he shared with his friends.
I would like to thank Lesley and Bobbi for being so gracious and warm. They took great care of us and made us both feel more than welcome. My fondest thanks and warmest wishes go out to Lesley, Bobbi, and the rest of the folks at the XR Bar for making the night a special and memorable one.