Harmonica player, Steve Campbell, has a Forrest Gump-like existence, being at the right place at the right time, and meeting all kinds of influential musicians including blues master B.B. King and Muddy Waters. He proves you can take it with you, especially if your instrument is pocket-sized, and even the little guy can hang with the pros.
Like a kid in a candy store, eight-year-old Steve Campbell couldn’t resist swiping a trumpet from the storage room stuffed with stacks of gleaming instruments in his elementary school. He didn’t get very far—the room was right next to the principal’s office—and the administration swiftly assigned him to a detention-reading program with the school’s notorious disciplinarian, Mrs. Williams. The teacher had a reputation that made McDonough Elementary School students squirm, and Campbell dreaded their first meeting.
“What are you doing stealing a trumpet?” Mrs. Williams asked sternly on the first day of detention.
“I like the blues, ma’am,” Campbell responded. “I love Louis Armstrong.”
Mrs. Williams’ face softened. “Rock n’ roll is everywhere,” she said waving her hands around. “Classical is right here,” she pointed to her head. “But, blues is right here,” she finished, placing her hand on her heart.
From that day on, Mrs. Williams, mother of renowned blues guitarist, Taj Mahal, opened up the world of music to Campbell. She brought in records of blues harmonica players like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Blue, and Junior Wells, who inspired Campbell to hone his harmonica skills.
Almost 40 years later, 51-year-old Campbell carries his Hohner Pro Harmonica around just incase he gets an impromptu impulse to perform. A Longmeadow, Massachusetts, resident and former member of local band, Hot Hammer Soup, Campbell spends his days as an assistant director of events management at Smith College. “I love my job, but my passion is my music, it’s me,” says Campbell.
A year before his fateful encounter with Mrs. Williams, Campbell had moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. He befriended a boy in his class who took him to Friday and Saturday night pot luck-style fish fries in the black community. Local musicians brought their instruments to these mouth-watering jam sessions where Campbell first reveled in the rhythmic style of Piedmont Blues. Campbell’s dad played harmonica, so sometimes he brought one along and began learning to play. He affectionately calls the harmonica, “a poor man’s trumpet.”
Campbell continued playing harmonica when he moved to Massachusetts, perfecting his rhythm blues harp in the Piedmont style. Although watching his father play harmonica introduced him to the instrument, his major influences were Blues musicians. “He was stylistically different from what turned me on,” says Campbell of his father. “He played straight C-style diatonic, which was on old style for big band music.” Campbell plays cross style with the chromatic scale, which is more prevalent to blues and rock n’ roll.
When he was 14-years-old, Campbell’s mom carted him around to different gigs, performing with a band called Open Road. They toured local spots in western Massachusetts. One night at The Center of Town, a bar with an entertainment stage, Campbell met his future mentor, Chicago harmonica player Junior Wells, who was performing with guitarist Buddy Guy. Campbell just bought the duo’s latest album and he had admired Wells since he was eight years old. Campbell spotted Wells and Guy in the second-floor pool hall and then eagerly emptied his pockets buying Wells drinks so Wells would show him how to perform a deep bend known as “choking the chicken.”
After guzzling down many drinks, Wells looked at his young fan and said, “You’re never going to do it; get out of my face. You’re never going to develop your own style.” Although crushed, Campbell jammed a little with Guy that night and later, Wells made peace with Campbell and he played his signature song, “Messin’ with the Kid.” They became good friends after that first meeting—Wells, the mentor and Campbell, the protégée.
Today Campbell doesn’t consider himself a professional musician, though he plays in public as often as he can. When he attends concerts or travels with his family, he has his harmonica close by so when he sees a street performer, he can jam. Campbell usually breaks the ice by playing the standard, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with the other musician. Many times, his flair for attention-grabbing performances causes crowds to form.
A devoted Red Sox fan, Campbell attended the 2004 World Series in St. Louis, where he helped a 13-year-old trumpet player get some recognition by accompanying him on the harmonica. Attracting a crowd—even Red Sox players Mark Bellhorn and Kevin Millar stopped briefly to see the commotion—Campbell landed a spot on a Rhode Island Fox News segment the next day playing the blues behind the reporter. “One of the luxuries of harmonica is that I can travel and play in various places,” says Campbell. “A lot of people don’t play the harmonica well, so even though I’m an unknown, I can blow people away.”
Being an unknown who can improvise using 10 harmonica keys, opens up the opportunity to jam with blues greats looking to pick up a player. Another musician who’s influenced Campbell’s style is “Father of Chicago Blues” Muddy Waters. When Campbell has a gig, he’s sure to wear his “Sunday best,” a mantra he learned from Waters.
When Campbell was 15, his band opened for Muddy Waters at the Rusty Nail, a blues joint in Sunderland, Massachusetts, and Waters asked Campbell to help him pick out a performance outfit from a coat rack packed with suits.
“But Muddy,” Campbell protested, “you already have a suit on.”
“Every time I play, I give them my Sunday best,” said Waters. “People who have never seen me before, never seen me play, I want to give them my best.”
Now Campbell admits he wears some pretty wild outfits at gigs and always dons a fedora—a habit he picked up from Junior Wells.
He doesn’t care to elaborate on or list all the people he’s met, because it loses the significance after awhile. Campbell will say he’s privileged to have met his heroes. The best part about meeting musicians like Muddy Waters and Junior Wells, among others, is the human connection music makes. “B.B. King is one of the most genuine people and I got to know him as a human being,” says Campbell.
His Own Style
While there is less opportunity for playing, Campbell still values the health benefits of making music. Playing harmonica not only is a stress reliever but it also gives him plenty of lung exercise. Gigs also give him a chance to squeeze in a workout. “I’ll go through three shirts a night, I love dancing around,” says Campbell. “Some guys go out and play poker, I go out and play the blues.”
Perhaps the greatest thing Campbell accomplished in his music career is finally developing his own style. A few years before Wells died, Campbell and his wife rode with Junior on the way to a gig in Northampton. In the car, Campbell played, “Messin’ with the Kid,” a song reminiscent of their first meeting. Wells said, “That’s not the way to play it, I’ve got to show you how to play it!”
“But, that’s the way I play it,” Campbell responded.
Wells said, “You finally got it.”
Originally published in the Sep/Oct 2008 issue.