In Memoriam: Eddie C. Campbell

The West Side Chicago blues great was 79

Eddie C. Campbell means business on the cover of his 1977 LP King of the Jungle

On November 20, the Chicago blues world tragically lost another asset: Eddie C. Campbell.

I was a friend of Mr. Campbell’s. Once, I bumped into him at a restaurant while I was on my way to band practice. When he found out my destination, he just laughed. According to Campbell, his band did not rehearse. He said the band had better know the tunes – or else.

 

 


From a description like that, you’d expect Campbell to be one of those lazy bluesmen, with pickup musicians on every gig, whose entire set list would be the familiar twelve-bar shuffle repeated a thousand different ways. He most certainly wasn’t. In reality, besides being an excellent guitarist and expressive singer, he was also a wickedly original songwriter. His most famous song, “Santa’s Messin’ With The Kid,” was essentially “Messin’ With The Kid” with holiday-appropriate lyrics; it originally appeared on his debut album, 1977’s King Of The Jungle. This was a pretty good set of West Side blues, with songs made famous by Willie Mabon (“Poison Ivy”), Johnnie Taylor (“Cheaper To Keep Her”), and two Muddy Waters numbers. However, by the time of 1994’s When I Know, he’d penned all twelve songs. From the kickoff, the autobiographical “Sister Taught Me Guitar,” you knew that this wasn’t another case of cliché lyrics quickly being moved out of the way for the guitar solo. Even at his least-inspired lyrically (“Hey, The Blues Is Alright”), his sense of groove quickly took over. And as much as his songwriting skills blossomed over the next decade and a half, dabbling in the sacred and the surreal, he could still tear the top of your head off with the occasional great cover version, like his stinging version of “Summertime” from the 2009 album Tear This World Up.

 



Eddie C. emerged from the same West Side scene that gave us the likes of Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Jimmy Dawkins. Like Eddy Clearwater (whom we lost earlier this year), he had a flashy presence on stage that you felt even when he wasn’t moving around. The stories of his exploits as a motorcycle rider and karate expert are what legends are built on. One would be tempted to say that he was the last of his breed, but rather than coasting on that rep, he steadily kept developing the craft as he got older. Compared to others, his discography was relatively small (born in 1939, his first album didn’t appear until he was in his late thirties, and he only released three singles prior to this). Campbell made up for lost time fairly quickly. He knew the value of the classic West Side sound, too; he was once quoted as saying “a lot [of musicians] try [to get the classic West Side sound], but then, they get mad and change it into Jimi Hendrix.” This is a real problem, as anyone who has attended a Chicago blues show since the eighties knows. Eddie C. stayed true to the sound, but it never felt like a nostalgic reaction to changing times; if anything, it felt like he kept a valid tradition going. For all this regional pride, Campbell knew that the blues wasn’t always indigenous to a time or place as it was to the person.

Eddie C. Campbell’s Mind Trouble

This hurts to write, as I was good friends with Eddie and would often see him hanging around Chicago’s Hyde Park area, sometimes with his lovely wife Barbara, other times with Oscar Coleman, a record label and store owner who occasionally recorded under the names “Bo Dud” or “Bo Dudley.” I’d run into him at venues as diverse as the original Checkerboard Lounge (on 43rd St.), the Valois Restaurant (long-running cafeteria on 53rd St. near Harper) and Soul Queen (a now-defunct soul food restaurant), and the conversation would be as lively as his music, with his familiar high-pitched laugh occasionally punctuating the statement.

In 2012, not long after releasing his last album, Spider-Eating Preacher, Campbell suffered a stroke while on tour in Germany. It left him partially paralyzed, and while he would occasionally be seen in local clubs sitting in, he never really recovered. Just last week, he died of heart failure. For the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about the fabled Last Man Standing in Chicago blues. We’ve lost a scary amount of links to the 1950s glory years – besides Campbell and Clearwater, we have also been forced to say farewell to Otis Rush. This is something I personally don’t like to dwell on, but with the loss of his unique stylings, Eddie C. Campbell has definitely left a gap.

And now that the holiday season is upon us, every radio station with a 24-hour Christmas format should add “Santa’s Messin’ With The Kid.” After 41 years, it’s sounding more and more like a standard every December.

 

James Porter

James Porter writes about rock & soul history. He is also a DJ on Chicago's WLUW.

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