A FEW MINUTES WITH… Phil Campbell of the Campbell Brothers

By Don Wilcock
Photographs by Stan Johnson

What kind of relationship does the sacred steel music of the Campbell Brothers have with the music of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Son House?

If you’re like me, your first reaction is none. And maybe at one time that was true. Seminal bluesman Son House who died in 1988 is credited with being a primary influence on Robert Johnson’s slide guitar. House lived in Rochester, also home to the Campbell Brothers. The myth that helped sell Robert Johnson to a mass audience is that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar prowess.

The Campbell Brothers, on the other hand, play pedal and steel guitar for the Church of God. Technically, the Campbell Brother’s sacred steel style is very similar to Son House’s blues slide guitar. And while the Campbell Brothers and Son House lived in the same city at the same time and were both considered masters of the guitar and extremely influential in their own realm, they never met.


“We were pretty much banned from ever thinking about the blues,” says electric guitarist Phil Campbell who performs with his son Carlton on drums and his brothers Chuck on pedal steel and Darick on lap steel at 8pm Friday (July 28) at PS21 in Chatham.

Thirty or 40 years ago, to even think about the collusion of a delta blues artist with a scared steel band was considered at best a fatal attraction… if it were considered at all. And yet Son House was a part time preacher. But when the late bluesman John Campbell (no relation to the Campbell Brothers) made a pilgrimage to Rochester to learn licks from Son House, Son’s wife made them jam on the porch because she didn’t want the devil’s music to enter their home.

“Son House was also a once-in-a-while preacher, which is pretty common with blues, also,” says Phil Campbell. A prime example being the Reverend Gary Davis.

Ten years ago, sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph virtually overnight switched from a religious player to secular performer. He was summarily kicked out of the church, but he became an almost instant sensation with a
sound that reminded pop audiences of Jimi Hendrix. Randolph told me in an interview at that time that his primary influence was the Campbell Brothers.

“Robert Randolph has absolutely been stellar in representing sacred steel on world stages, and he knocked it out of the park,” says Phil. “As far as crossing over, I think Robert really led that whole movement. What we did was play in secular venues, and our church was not on board with that. Some of the leadership was, but depending on where the leadership stood, it changed and they evolved on their position with that. But when we first started touring, there was resistance in many pockets of the church that did not believe the music should be played outside the church services.”

The event that let the genie out of the bottle for the Campbell Brothers was a Boston bar gig. The bar owner told them, “I don’t want you to change anything (about your music), but the reason I’m inviting you is because if anyone ever needed to hear this music, it’s the people in my bar.” Phil concludes, “It was a great concert. People enjoyed the music. The bar owner said that his beer sales were down, but it was a wonderful experience, and he very much appreciated us taking the risk to step outside our comfort zone and come to share our music and our way of praising God.”

Robert Randolph co-opted a guitar delivery from the Campbell Brothers that had as much to do with Jimi Hendrix as it did the origins of sacred steel that go back to the 1930s steely sounds of Hawaiian guitar. “It’s amazing all the genres Jimi Hendrix crossed in his own playing. There are solo pieces that he was doing. Eddie Kramer (Hendrix’s producer) let us hear some of that, and then you could truly, clearly hear that was coming from gospel, and he absolutely brought that gospel vibe and took it from there.”

Janie Hendrix confirmed to Phil that her brother Jimi had more in common with the Campbell Brothers music than almost anybody in rock ‘n roll. “When we were working on the live Brothers album (Sacred Steel on Tour!, Arhoolie, 2001), Eddie Kramer let us hear some of Jimi’s early works, and he sounded like a quartet guitar player on some of the tunes and some of the passages and movements that he did, and then he would move on and expand into jazz and rock and blues. It was crazy.”

The John Coltrane connection with the Campbell Brothers’ sacred steel sound was even more direct. “We were commissioned in 2014 by the Lincoln Center and Duke University to do an interpretation of John Coltrane’s ‘A
Love Supreme’ on the 50th anniversary of the work. We were starting to go down a path of studying jazz to get into where Coltrane was.”

The Campbell Brothers found Coltrane’s work to be both spiritual and artistic. “We came to that realization, and that’s when we were able to connect with the music and then actually come in with something that we thought would be fitting of an interpretation of such a giant seminal piece.”

You might think that Coltrane’s lifestyle would have turned them off. “They were pretty wild,” admits Phil. “A wild lifestyle is not exclusive to secular musicians. There are church musicians who have a reality TV show as well. I think the point being these gentlemen were raised in church, raised with values. They strayed. We all know what happens with drug abuse that you get caught up. Once you’re addicted, there’s no telling what you end up doing to satisfy the habit or while you’re under the influence.

“So yeah, it takes you places you had no intention of going, but I think the redeeming thing about all of this, especially with John Coltrane, is that he was able to come to grips with himself and beat that addiction. That worked and ‘A Love Supreme’ was really his homage to God, and it was that love that actually brought him out. He was just grateful, and there was gratitude in all the things he did to be able to come to that place. That’s what inspired the work, and that’s why it’s such a powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful piece.”

Phil calls sacred steel “a long-lost cousin of the blues.”

“Almost every blues player or blues singer or artist would tell you that their roots are in church, that they started in church. So, I don’t think there’s ever been from a stylistic standpoint that much of a difference in the music from traditional gospel and blues.

“I think where the dividing line has always been primarily in the lyrics and of course the style in which it was delivered, but all these musics have to be brought from the heart. The best of them always comes from the heart and the soul, and when you’re talking those places, anybody can identify with that.”

The walls that once separated societies, races, religions and musical genres are being torn down in our ever-smaller global world. This weekend’s PS21 programming is a prime example. Friday’s Campbell Brothers concert is the first of three shows being billed as Rory Block’s Gospel and Blues Fest Weekend. Veteran blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Rory Block performs with Texas Music Hall of Famer Cindy Cashdollar in a show called Sisters of Slide at 8pm on Saturday, and a gospel concert featuring four area gospel choirs wraps things up on Sunday afternoon at ChurchLIVE in Chatham Center.

WHO: The Campbell Brothers
WHERE: PS21, Chatham
WHEN: Friday (July 28), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $25; $12 students

ALSO part of the Rory Block Gospel & Blues Fest Weekend:
Sisters of Slide featuring Rory Block and Cindy Cashdollar at PS21 in Chatham at 8pm on Saturday ($25; $12 students); and Gospel Choir Fest featuring choirs from Payne AME Church (Chatham), Shiloh Baptist Church (Hudson), St. Mark Chapel AME Church (Kingston) and First Israel AME Church (Albany) at ChurchLIVE in Chatham Center at 2pm Sunday (donations accepted).

The Campbell Brothers (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Darick Campbell of the Campbell Brothers
The Campbell Brothers (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers
The Campbell Brothers (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Phil Campbell of the Campbell Brothers
1 Comment
  1. Stan Johnson says

    Good, informative story. I had no idea that Son House lived in Rochester. His influence on Robert Johnson is legendary.

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