Twelve Bars and Beyond Blues Innovator and All-Around Maniac Eddie C. Campbell

By David Whiteis

“Eddie C. Campbell?”–Jimmy Rogers once said, so the story goes–“that’s my son! But he’s crazy!”

Campbell isn’t really related to the late guitarist, but he played with him when Rogers was helping Muddy Waters invent the sound we know as postwar Chicago blues. Campbell chuckles at the memory: “When I broke my leg I used to ride this motorcycle around with the cast on. So when you stop at the red light, you have to keel it one way, put it on the good leg, because the other leg is up in the handlebars. Sometimes if the wind was blowing hard enough I’d fall out there in the middle of the street with my leg on the bike, and the people would have to help me back up–take on off, headed down to where Jimmy was playin’ at.”

Campbell, who’ll celebrate his 60th birthday at Buddy Guy’s Legends on Friday, came to Chicago from Mississippi with his family in 1945. As a young guitarist he paid the usual dues, playing around the west side with other aspirants like fellow guitarists Luther Allison and the late Willie James Lyons, later earning the chops and the reputation to work with such luminaries as Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. For a time Campbell worked as director of Jimmy Reed’s band. Then in the 70s he landed a job with Koko Taylor, who recommended him to her mentor, Willie Dixon, who put him in his Chicago Blues All-Stars. Campbell recorded for a few obscure labels, but unlike many of his contemporaries’ recording careers, his didn’t take off until rather late in the game. Campbell’s independent spirit may have been partly to blame. “I play a variety of music,” he says. “I always have, and a lot of people can’t play a variety of music, because as far as they go is 12 bars–that’s as far as they want to think. I got thrown out of the studio when I was trying to record.

“I had that James Brown riff before James Brown come up with that riff–deedee-nee-nee de de dim, doo-doo-doo-doo dum, dee-dee nee-nee de de dim, doo-doo-doo-doo dum–it’s funky! Willie [Dixon] said he didn’t want to hear no stuff like that–if I didn’t have 12 bars, he didn’t want to hear it. Willie’s not a funky man.”

In 1977, while he was still a working member of the All-Stars, Campbell cut King of the Jungle for the Mr. Blues label, an album that reflected his blend of rootsy blues righteousness and trickster’s love of misrule and chaos. The cover photo showed him clad in a sleeveless fur vest clutching a guitar and glowering from under a monstrous Afro. Standards like Willie Mabon’s “Poison Ivy” and Muddy Waters’s “She’s Nineteen Years Old” were interspersed with Campbell originals like the antic “Santa’s Messin’ With the Kid” and the title tune, with its lurching bass-heavy beat, ominously double-tracked vocals, and whammy-bar-enhanced guitar leads. “I don’t want nobody / In the world to mess with me,” he sang, going face-to-face with “Mister Lion” and single-handedly halting an elephant stampede. “I’m the king of the jungle / And I’m mean as I can be.”

After the album’s release, Campbell toured overseas, lured there as much by the prospect of purchasing a British motorcycle as by the opportunity to reach a wider audience, according to his longtime friend Dick Shurman. But upon coming home he found it difficult to focus. In 1984 he left again for Europe. Though Campbell won’t speak about it for the record today, his friends and associates say his abrupt departure had as much to do with disarray in his personal life as with concerns about professional advancement.

But in Europe his career began to take off again. “People already knew me from the King of the Jungle album,” he says. “I’d heard [about] such beautiful treatments in Europe, how they really treat you as far as the music. When I went over to Europe I realized that all the words were true.”

In England, the Netherlands, and Germany, Campbell played nightclubs and festivals as his reputation slowly spread (“I didn’t have a hard time, but finding a booking agent was a little rough”). He even toured in a German stage adaptation of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. He cut an album for the Black Magic label in the Netherlands (Let’s Pick It!, reissued on Evidence in 1993), and back home Rooster Blues reissued King of the Jungle. By the time he returned to Chicago in the early 90s, Campbell was an international celebrity.

His stint overseas did more than invigorate his career. As Shurman writes in the liner notes to That’s When I Know, the album Campbell cut for the Blind Pig label shortly after returning to the States, the guitarist’s escape from the confusion of his life “brought some peace…a greater sense of context and renewed personal stability.”

That newfound serenity is evident on That’s When I Know. Campbell’s lyrics are as surreal as ever (“Look for something, know it ain’t there / Get back now, ‘fore you lose your hair”), and he inserts impish tricks as the mood suits him, such as an unexpected vocal that goes from a sweet falsetto croon to a burlesque growl on “Busted.” But the overall sense is of a hard-won and profoundly welcome inner calm.

At times, as on “Son of Sons,” with its burbling bass line and gentle organ accompaniment, the music sounds almost dreamlike, despite biting topical lyrics. Even when Campbell breaks into his trademark west-side shuffle–as on the title tune, a tender love song set to 12-bar blues and backed up with an angelic chorus–he sounds subdued, or at least no longer compelled to wrestle lions and elephants to get his point across.

Sometimes, though, the hard luck sets in after things have changed for the better. Last August Campbell suffered a heart attack after a performance at Buddy Guy’s Legends. He speaks of the incident and its aftermath in his usual casual manner. “It was my arteries that was plugged up. They wanted to operate, but I wouldn’t let ’em operate, so I’m on medication. Then [in December] I had another little slight problem. My gallstones went out on me, and when they cut, I was a little sore.”

Only recently has Campbell felt strong enough to consider returning to the stage. It’s obvious he was shaken by the attack and that he regards his birthday party as a double celebration. “I’d never put my guitar down,” he says. “But when it threatens my life…that sorta scares me a little bit.”

As eager to keep moving as he was in the days when he roared his motorcycle through the streets perfecting his one-legged dismount, Campbell is at his most animated when he speaks about the CD he hopes to record soon. “I have it here on tape. I wrote all the songs, I made up all the music. I played everything. I did it with the synthesizer. I played the keyboard–the drums is dubbed in–but I played the bass, I blowed the harp. The reason I played it is so they’ll know what to play when we get into the studio, so it won’t be so much time. This is my comeback schedule!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.