Born: January 20, 1952 in Shreveport, Louisiana
Died: June 13, 1993 in New York, New York
Singer, songwriter, and blues guitarist John Campbell was pegged by many to be the next big guitar hero of the blues in the wake of the death of the great Stevie Ray Vaughan. A fiery player with a unique sound, Campbell was also an extraordinary vocalist and an imaginative songwriter that brought great power and emotion to his performances. Tragically, Campbell was destined to die young, suffering a heart attack in his sleep and passing away at the age of 41 years old.
Blues Guitarist & Drag Racer
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana but raised across the border in nearby Center, Texas Campbell first picked up the guitar at the age of eight, and began playing professionally at the age of thirteen. Self-taught by listening to records by such blues greats as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, as a teenager Campbell would open for artists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Son Seals.
Campbell had another obsession, however, and he brought the same passion and energy to drag racing as he did to playing the blues. A near-tragic racing accident that broke his ribs and took out his right eye caused the guitarist to reconsider the direction of his life, and while recuperating from his accident, Campbell re-learned how to play the guitar, developing his rhythm-heavy trademark style as well as a slide-guitar technique patterned after his idol, Lightnin' Hopkins.
Campbell's Life As A Bluesman
After his accident, Campbell quit school and hit the road as an itinerant bluesman, performing wherever somebody would let him, sleeping in abandoned buildings and bus stations. Campbell gradually built a reputation as a dynamic and entertaining performer, first with his early-1970s power-trio Junction, and later as a solo artist. Campbell released Street Suite, his first solo album, in 1975 and would later record several acoustic covers of blues standards at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas that would be released in 2000 as Tyler, Texas Session.
After a decade of playing the rough-n-tumble blues clubs of East Texas and Louisiana, Campbell moved to New York City to take a shot at stardom. The guitarist recorded A Man And His Blues in 1988 with producer and guitarist Ronnie Earl, the album released by Germany's Cross Cut Records. As Campbell's audience continued to grow, he came to the attention of the major labels, and would sign a deal with Elektra Records based entirely on his incendiary live performances.
The Elektra Years
One Believer, Campbell's 1991 Elektra Records debut, was unusual in that it displayed a more atmospheric and ethereal sound than the guitarist's typical live performance. His groaning, howling black cat moan of a voice offset by his swampy slide-guitar and Jimmy Pugh's shimmering keyboards, One Believer featured many of the lyrical obsessions that would become known as Campbell's stock-in-trade: death, graveyards, voodoo spells, and hoodoo charms, the songs a mix of somber, late-night New York City ambience, electric Texas blues, and New Orleans gumbo.
Campbell's second and last album for Elektra, 1993's Howlin' Mercy, was written and performed like the guitarist saw Robert Johnson's hellhounds on his trail. Heavier, darker, and edgier than his label debut, Campbell took his slide-guitar into the swamp and delivered an album that clearly foreshadowed his impending death. A stunning collection of Delta blues-inspired original songs and imaginative covers of Tom Waits and Led Zeppelin songs (a haunting take on "When The Levee Breaks"), Campbell poured his heart and soul into the performances.
A few months after the release of Howlin' Mercy, after two extensive tours of Europe that cemented his popularity on the continent, and a coveted spot opening for Buddy Guy, Campbell's death would come even as his music was growing in popularity and acclaim. Nearly 20 years after his untimely passing, Campbell's albums remain in print and blues fans continue to discover his immense talents.
Recommended Albums:For an artist that spent nearly two decades in the trenches, Campbell's album catalog is tragically sparse. Howlin' Mercy is the place to start, a firecracker of an album that features some of the most haunting slide-guitar work this side of Robert Johnson. One Believer displays a different side of Campbell's talents, while A Man and His Blues remains a fan favorite, the first representation of the music to come in the future.
John Campbell Discography
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