Little Milton was a huge talent, working equally well within the blues and soul idioms by often mixing the two, and having recorded on Sun Records, Chess Records, and on Stax – the big three! – at various points in his career. In addition to a recording career, he also served as an A&R man on a small label called Bobbin, introducing Albert King, who also recorded on the Stax by the 60s, known for his signature hit ‘Born Under A Bad Sign‘. He also developed the early career of Fontella Bass who was eventually immortalized through her hit ‘Rescue Me’. The label found a distribution channel with legendary blues and R&B label Chess Records, switching over to Chess subsidiary label Checker in the early 60s. While on the Checker label, he scored an R&B hit with this song, his breakthrough as a solo artist in 1965.
Milton had the best of all worlds, particularly here, with a voice that is both a smooth as Sam Cooke’s, and as gutsy as B.B King’s. The song itself could be about a single relationship going through a hard time. But it was recognized as something of a civil rights anthem, staring adversity in the face, acknowledging the reality that a community was facing systemic oppression, but with a firm belief that things would change for the better anyway. The song has such an emotional impact, the first time I heard it I choked up. Optimism in song is often an exercise in self-delusion, or of trying to delude an audience. But, listen to Milton’s delivery here. This is defiant optimism, pure belief in love and in all that is moral and right, even when the odds are stacked against it. It’s cliche to use the word ‘inspiring’, only because it’s a term that’s used too much. But it applies here; it really does.
By the end of the decade, Little Milton would sign with Stax records, a little late for its heyday, and at the beginning of its financial troubles. Yet, Milton continued to expand on his brand of blues-soul, with sumptuous arrangements to bolster his powerhouse voice, although with less chart action than in the 60s. By ’75, Stax was history. Milton continued on the Malaco label by the 80s where he stayed, issuing 13 albums, and winning the coveted W.C Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the year in 1988. Little Milton died in 2005 at the age of 70.
I consider Little Milton to be something of an unsung hero. The guy had it all – great instincts for arrangments, impressive chops as a guitarist, a fantastic feel for delivering a song in a multitude of styles . And this is my favourite of his, a tune just brimming with strength and the power of belief in oneself, and in one’s fellow human being too.
For more, check out the Little Milton MySpace page.
And be sure to investigate the Little Milton official website to play Little Milton’s guitar!