May 24, 2024

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CD review: Willie J. Campbell – Be Cool – 2023: Video, CD cover

Willie J. Campbell (June 19, 1957 – December 17, 2022) was born in Detroit. His mother was a huge fan of Motown music, which also captured Willie’s interest.

James Jamerson was the session bass player for many of the 1960’s – 1970’s Motown songs and frequently was uncredited. Willie’s mother got him listening to the bass runs in those songs and Willie got hooked on becoming a musician.

He stretched his music experience as he started listening to the blues greats such as BB King, Albert King, Johnny Winter and many others. He moved to Huntington Beach, California as a young boy where he continued to pursue music as a career. The cover of the album is a picture of the Huntington Beach pier, a place his wife, Lisa, cited as a place he visited frequently as a place of peace that he said touched his soul deeply. Lisa stated that “Be cool!” was a phrase that Willie frequently used and thus became an apt title for the album.

Willie’s carrier was extensive and touched many performers. He performed as the regular bass player for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The James Harman Band, The Mannish Boys, and more recently The Proven Ones. He was nominated several times for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards. As Willie’s health continued to decline, his good friend and guitarist Kid Ramos arranged a recording session which he produced with Willie and Brian Templeton.

The core group for the session were Willie on bass; Kid Ramos on guitar; Brian Templeton on lead and backing vocals, and harmonica; Jimi Bott on drums, percussion and tympani; and Brooks Milgate on keyboards. In addition, a vast array of guest performers joined in for an expression of love and appreciation for Willie. Guitarists Anson Funderburg, Mike Morgan and Shawn Pittman joined Ramos trading runs on multiple songs. The recording session was completed just eight weeks prior to Willie’s death from a terminal diagnosis of ALS.

The album opens with Sugaray Rayford guesting on vocals on “You Better Let Go”, a funky original dealing with the evils of materialism and declaring that “you can’t take it with you.” Jimmie Wood joins the core group on harmonica as Milgate’s piano drives a rocking “No More”. David Hidalgo provides vocals and guests on guitar alongside of Kim Wilson on harmonica for a cover of Los Lobos’ “This Time”.

Janiva Magness delivers a powerhouse emotional vocal performance on the slow blues as she just “Can’t Stay Away” ‘…from you”. “Drone” gets down into Hill country behind Ramos’ guitar, Templeton’s moaning vocals, and a greasy harp blown by Jason Ricci. The core group performs the instrumental “Docksidin’” which allows Willie’s bass to get out front with Bott’s groove and Milgate’s B3 sliding in.

The previously mentioned barrage of guitarists joins together on “My Fault”, originally performed by Rod Stewart and written by Stewart, Ron Wood, and Ian McLagan and turns the song into a Rolling Stones styled romp. The music slows down again as Templeton delivers the gospel styled “Forever Shall Be”, a testimony to his love.

Sax Gordon on tenor sax and Joe “Mack” McCarthy on horns leads a Jersey Shore R&B “Standby” with Sugar Ray Rayford again doing the lead vocals and Joe Louis Walker adding a solo guitar performance. Shawn Pittman sings that he has a “Devil on My Shoulder” and an “angel at my side” as he calls out Anson Funderburgh to provide a slinky guitar boogie and additional solos from Ramos, Kim Wilson on harmonica, and Pittman also adding acoustic guitar.

Ramos rocks out against Milgate’s barrelhouse piano in a Chuck Berry styled “She’s A Twister”. The gritty “One Man Chain Gang” features Jimmie Wood on vocals with Templeton adding harmonica and as Wood begs for a team of angels “to come down from heaven to set me free.” Kim Wilson returns on vocals and harmonica for a cover of New Orlean’s Huey P. Smith’s “You Can’t Stop Her”, a rock n’ roll classic. Ramos and Templeton pack an emotional punch to the ballad “Use as Needed” as Brian sings that “I can be your escape…have no fear I am here.”

The album concludes with Peter Green’s instrumental “Albatross”, a fitting end that perhaps let you feel the tranquility Willie sought in his ventures onto the Huntington Beach pier. The end quote in the liner notes from Willie says “Love fully in the moment. Enjoy everyone and everything that you can, while you can”.

R.I.P. Willie – the album serves as a strong tribute to your talents and the people who became connected to you.

Be Cool | Willie J. Campbell

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