John Campbell, the Shreveport-born slide guitarist and self-professed hoodoo man, hated going to sleep, for fear he would not wake up.
“He didn’t like the day to end,” remembers his wife, Dolly Campbell. “He fought sleep all the time.”
In the early morning hours of June 13, his fears were realized: Campbell, 41, died in his sleep at his New York City apartment, reportedly due to heart failure.
The John Campbell story is an intriguing one, right up to its abrupt conclusion, and beyond.
He survived a terrible crash car crash as a teenager, years of traveling the South alone by bus, drug abuse and lung and heart problems (he was on medication at the time of his death). After toiling in New York City clubs for years, the Lightnin’ Hopkins disciple was signed by Elektra Records, and released his debut, One Believer, in 1991. On the follow-up Howlin Mercy, issued earlier this year, Campbell barks through a wicked, jacked-up cover of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and moans and claws through a spooky version of Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole.”
Campbell’s ties to New Orleans and its music community were strong. Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis was an early John Campbell patron. Barbara “B.B.” Becker, Dr. John’s personal manager, helped guide the guitarist in the early stages of his career, and became a close friend of John and Dolly Campbell, as did Dr. John.
The Good Doctor, a minister in his own “Temple of Voodoo,” officiated at Campbell’s July 1991 wedding; as fate would have it, he delivered the eulogy at a memorial for Campbell in New York on June 17.
Similarly, the Vice-President of a New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels was best man at Campbell’s wedding; following the memorial service, the Angel transported an urn containing Campbell’s ashes from the church back to the apartment on his motorcycle.
“He took his last ride with the pack,” says Dolly. “The whole pack of Hell’s Angels drove the ashes from the church to my house. He got to ride with the pack—John would have wanted to die just to do that.”
Those on hand for Campbell’s Jazz Fest set at the Fair Grounds on April 24 bore witness to a man at the peak of his powers. Backed by a rock-hard band, Campbell was ferocious, tearing riffs from his ’34 National steel guitar—but he paused long enough to lecture the audience on slide guitar theory, and never neglected to express his appreciation for their applause.
“I was really taken by the power of his playing,” says Becker. “It was another dimension from any other blues player.”
Such performances had apparently begun to take a toll. Campbell had trouble recovering from seven weeks of dates that included the Jazz Fest stop. “He would sleep for 14 hours at a time, and wake up exhausted,” says Dolly.
But Dolly, speaking a week after her husband’s memorial from the apartment she shared with Campbell and their daughter, says John was in a positive frame of mind despite his exhaustion.
“He was in the best mood I’d seen him in in about a year,” she recalls. “Our financial problems were going to be cleared away—he had a bunch of gigs that were going to pay a lot of money. Our daughter is going to be six-months-old, and she’s perfectly healthy. We were about to celebrate our wedding anniversary. He went out and bought me flowers and told me he was in love with me all over again.
“He’d been sober for a long time, and he was really happy about that. He was writing songs with my mother. Tommy Shannon (the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s bassist, Shannon is currently a member of the Arc Angels) and he had become close friends, and that meant a lot to him.
“The last demo session that he did the day he died was amazing. The music was coming out of him easily again, and he felt hope for the future. He saw money coming in, and he had a family, and he was in love. He was happy.”
The impressions John Campbell left on associates were deep. He was a firm believer in the power of talismans and charms—Becker and others have described Campbell’s ability to perform feats that defied conventional explanation.
“He definitely was a medium for things,” says Becker. “I considered him a real hoodoo man—he definitely had powers that were beyond human understanding.”
After attending the memorial, and spending time with Dolly Campbell in the couple’s apartment, Becker had collected a catalog of bizarre occurrences. “Every person I’ve talked with has something strange to relate—things going on that shouldn’t,” says Becker. The night after the funeral, while visiting Dolly, Becker was convinced that Campbell’s spirit was present. “I could even feel where it was in the room.”
Dr. John issued the following statement: “John Campbell was a guitar player from the Delta blues tradition who was not locked into the past—he was ready to jump head-first into the wild unknown. But he was a cat that never was too much a part of this earth. He was more in the spirit than in the meat, more in the unseen than the seen.”
Campbell was cremated along with his bolo tie, a lock of his daughter’s hair, some guitar picks, a black-and-white bead from B.B., a piece of root from Dr. John and other gris-gris items, and some of his wife’s jewelry. “Maybe it’s better to cremate him…he’d try to crack open the coffin,” chuckles his old friend Becker. “There’d be nothing but trouble from him.”
I had phoned Campbell in early April, intending to include an interview with him in OffBeat‘s May issue. The voice on the line that day was not the ominous, whispered growl I expected, but strong and forthright, bearing more than a trace of its owner’s north Louisiana upbringing.
Due to space and time constraints, the interview did not run in May; excerpts from that conversation, which was two months and one week before Campbell’s death, are reprinted here for the first time.
When did you first come to New Orleans?
I was born in Shreveport, and my dad was in the construction business, so we kind of moved around all throughout Louisiana when I was a kid. I lived a good while in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, and when I left to be a guitar player when I was 16, at that point my mom had moved to Texas and I just kind of started going to where the music was. So that brought me down to New Orleans as a teenager. It’s always had the legacy of being a great music melting pot, so it was someplace that I always was drawn to. I never really lived there for any extended period of time, but it was always a place that was in my travels.
So were you doing the street corner thing?
I would say for, oh gosh, I don’t know how many years, I just did wherever I could play. I realized what kind of music I wanted to play, then I started learning a little about the people that made the music. As a result, I realized that it was going to take a while. I had to put some life into this experience, and it would be a lifetime thing for me. So I just went wherever I could to keep the guitar in my hands, whether it be on a street corner, or an open mic situation, or a gig, all pretty much things that were arranged on the spot. I just kind of went with it and played the guitar.
Through most of this you were traveling by yourself?
Oh yeah. It was the Greyhound circuit, you know? The way I did it man, I might be in New Orleans one day to pick up a little change—back in those days, when I was drifting, for $5 or $6 you could get to Baton Rouge from New Orleans. So I might be in New Orleans one day, that night catch a bus to Baton Rouge, and then the next morning to Shreveport, and the next morning to East Texas. Just going from place to place, and along the way you make some friends and find out where you could play some music. Hell, I played in everything from pool halls to gas stations to night clubs.
You were networking on a very street level.
Exactly—the couch circuit.
When you first went into this, what was your parents’ reaction? At 16, to take off on the bus is a pretty bold step.
Well, I think they were a little concerned, but at the same time they knew I was serious. My grandmother played Hawaiian steel guitar, so I had been fascinated by the sound of the strings since I was a little kid. I started professionally when I was 13. I was pretty serious about what I was going to do, but at the same time I’m sure they were wondering how it was going to turn out for me, and thinking maybe it was a little premature. But ultimately I think they were supportive as well.
When did you first hook up with Quint Davis?
I had gone to New Orleans with Hubert Sumlin [to play] a Popeye’s festival. I was set up on this stage with my acoustic by this creek with gators in it—it was a wild set-up. After the show, I met Quint. He invited me to partake in the Jazz Festival the following year (1989). I was still doing the drifting thing, but he tracked me down.
Along the years he’s become someone very special to me. He’s given me a lot of inspiration. I think he’s a real champion of American roots music, and the Jazz Fest, I think, has to be the premier music event in the world. I’m just very fascinated by him—I think his commitment…he’s real special to me, and I really admire what he’s done.
What about B.B.?
I was playing the way I always did, in a little restaurant on a corner in New York, kind of passing the hat around, so to speak, and just kind of sat down with B.B. She was just someone who stepped into my corner and helped me focus, and gave me a lot of inspiration, and really was instrumental in helping to—it’s hard to describe, it’s something very special—kind of inspired me to seek out another level of how to present my music.
It was real grounding. Through B.B. I had an opportunity to get to know Dr. John on a personal level, and it was something that was really moving to me. Dr. John is someone else who has just really helped me focus on my music in a way that helped to clear things up for me. I had become a disciple of the traditional music, but along the way I realized I had to strive to put my life into the song. Interacting with people like this gave me a chance to be real clear with what I was doing.
I had lived a pretty solitary existence. I didn’t work with bands much, always had one foot out the door. The chance to interact with people that were heroes of mine kind of made me feel young again about it.
You’re 41—you’re not that old.
No, that’s true, but I’ve been doing this almost 28 years now.
There’s a definite spirituality to your whole approach, starting with the album artwork, which conjures up a certain, almost dark spirituality. Where is all that coming from?
Well, there is a strong spiritual connection for me with music. When you mentioned the dark element…to me, one of the great powers of the blues spoke to me at a time—which I refer to as when I “met the blues”—I had been playing guitar since I was a young kid, but I was in an accident as a teenager (Campbell was severely injured when a car he was riding in crashed during a drag race) that kind of put the brakes on everything for me, it changed my view of what was going on. I spent about a year in a recuperative period at home, and I was really isolated. It was at this time that I started learning songs by the great blues masters—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. In the process of doing this, bending a string, I was feeling something inside.
It was at this time I realized the guitar could be more than just something to make a noise on—it could be a way to get in touch with your own feelings and to communicate what you feel that you couldn’t put into words. I remember the moment I felt that. It was through the power of the blues song. It was like a victorious thing—it was something that came through to me.
Being young, and not really fully understanding, but I think I came to realize the power of the music was music of life—it would look at a nightmare and a dream. It wasn’t like a pop song that would just say, “I want to hold your hand” or something. This acknowledged both the dark and the light—the reality of life. That spoke to me. On a very fundamental level, it made me feel life, you know?
My earliest connections with music as a way to express myself came at a time when I was very aware of my own mortality and I was going through something that was very physically and emotionally difficult for me, and this music embraced something that I was able to hold on to.
Was there a specific song, or just being bombarded with all this traditional blues material?
I remember the first song I ever played on a bandstand in a club for money was “Hobo Blues” by John Lee Hooker. That’s the way I felt.
It was something on a very tribal level. It hit me: be a guitar player. It seemed to make sense. In the process of trying to get inside a song, repeating a phrase, it was almost like a mantra for me, and it was something that made me feel ready to continue living. It was very spiritual to me; it was something that would transcend to a place that had a lot of life force in it. But at the same time I had to come through that dark that I was experiencing to reach that.
And so the performance became very ritualistic for me at that time—I was playing the guitar 10, 15 hours a day—and it’s remained that. As we tour today, I feel more in touch with my roots then ever before. To do maybe 250 cities in a year—that’s like I started, that thing that drove me out to keep that guitar in my hands.
For me, I have to address aspects whether they be dark or light, because I think that’s one of the powers of the music that spoke to me.
But it does seem like you concentrate a little bit more on the dark. There’s not a lot of good cheer on your records.
Well…could be. That’s just…how can I say? That’s something that’s affecting me, you know? Everybody, I think, brings their own individual expression in your life to a song. And a lot of my roads have been crooked, and they’ve been at night. That’s what I have to sing about.
You don’t come across as an especially brooding person. Talking to you now, you sound fairly upbeat.
No, I don’t consider myself a negative person or anything like that. But for me to perform, to pick up the instrument and to tap in to whatever source is inside of me, and to present that through music, it comes from a place inside of me that is deeply rooted in—how do I say?—issues that address very fundamental issues of life and death and mortality and the struggle of good and evil. This is where my music is rooted and so this is what I address with my music. It’s a very intense and physical ritual with me.
There’s an element of resistance to it. I’ve remained playing an instrument that some people consider archaic. The guitars I play are acoustic guitars, 1934 Nationals—I didn’t want to let go of this connection to do what I’m doing today. There’s an element of struggle in there. It’s not that I consciously brood in my life or look for the negativity, but to me, the song is a victory, to come through something and acknowledge it and maybe fight it until it becomes a dance. That’s kind of where I’m rooted.
Your take on love in “Love’s Name” [from Howlin Mercy] is kind of ironic. You were married a couple of years ago—the song’s tone is unusual for a recently married man. You talk about love bringing heartache. Does that jive with what you are experiencing?
If you listen to that song, this is someone who is saying, “love stay away from my door,” but I think this is also someone who desperately wants love. When you fully release yourself to somebody, you risk total annihilation. When you come to that point, there’s a catharsis there. That song just struck me. When we wrote it, it’s like you don’t want love around your door, because of what it can do. There’s a risk.
Was that written after you were married, or before?
That song’s been in the works for a while.
But you’re happy surrendering yourself to love?
Well, yeah. But also, there’s “Look What Love Can Do.” That was a song that addressed feelings. There is a constant dichotomy.
With “Wolf Among the Lambs,” are you casting yourself as the wolf?
OK, that’s interesting. That’s one of the things…To me, the wolf may be symbolic of characteristics within our nature that sometimes people suppress or don’t want to look at. As in “Love’s Name,” that aspect of the experience of love. We are animals, no matter how civilized we are. As the song says, when the moon is high, I began to howl. This is a characteristic that’s been in my life. It may be one of the things that made me drift as many years as I did.
But I think that you have to acknowledge it. I think there’s an element of a predator in there, and if it exists, I think we have to be willing to take a look at it.
The Metallica song “Of Wolf and Man” addresses the same thing—the hunter within us all, being able to recognize that side and make it work for us.
Exactly…that’s right. I think we have to take responsibility. For me, a song, if you feel something, you got to say it for it to be honest. If you feel something and don’t say it, that’s not being true either. You’ve got to say it.
One last thing on the spirituality. Someone told me that you’re able to walk into a room and sense whether an odd or even number of candles are lit.
Well, that’s right.
Where does that come from?
Well, you know, I try and keep my mind on the higher mojo, and I am, in music and life, very much in tune to the spiritual, and it’s a big part of my life. I believe in the power of magic, and I try and actualize that in my life and my music on a daily basis. I’m a hoodoo man, and I try to keep it working.
Is an odd or even number of candles preferable?
Why is that?
It’s just better.