|Music has the ability to create long-lasting memories that are an everlasting monument solid as rock. Recorded only months before his tragic death and set for a posthumous release, Be Cool, the debut solo album from Willie J. Campbell, is an enduring tribute to the journeyman bassist, vocalist, songwriter, counselor and his 50-year career as a member of award-winning groups, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Harman Band, Mannish Boys, and the Proven Ones.
Campbell was supported by a cavalcade of musical friends and family to complete this one-and-only album that highlights his expansive talent following a terminal diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Close friend and guitarist, Kid Ramos, along with Brian Templeton, co-produced the project with Willie J, bringing in over a dozen incredible musicians to guest including Kim Wilson, Sugaray Rayford, David Hidalgo, Joe Louis Walker, Janiva Magness, Jimi Bott, Jimmie Wood, Jason Ricci, Anson Funderburgh, Mike Morgan, Shawn Pittman, Johnny Ramos, Condron Hampton, Mondo Cortez, Pat McDougall, and Brooks Milgate. Blue Heart Records worked closely with the Campbell family on all aspects of preparing the music for release to ensure that this fifteen-song collection of rock, soul and blues accurately reflects the impact Willie had on those around him from fans to fellow musicians, clinical patients, and his loving family.
Sugaray leads the ensemble on the opening track, “You Better Let Go,” a funkified sermon on the evils of materialism. Jimi Bott’s thundering tom toms match Milgate’s driving piano on the scorching rocker, “No More,” and David Hildalgo from Los Lobos lends his well-known East LA voice to the laid-back shuffle “This Time.” Janiva Magness delivers one of her signature powerhouse performances on the charismatic slow blues “Can’t Stay Away,” and Jason Ricci blows greasy blues harp over the guitar onslaught and Hill Country beat of the Fat Possum blues “Drone.” Campbell’s walking bass fits hand in glove with Bott’s swinging groove on the rambunctious instrumental “Docksidin’,” perfectly supporting the ripping solos and Milgate’s B3 tinkling. Everyone joins in on the Stones influenced loose groove rocker “My Fault,” and Templeton gives stirring testimony to his belief in love on the gospel showstopper “Forever Shall Be.”
The horn driven R&B track with a Jersey Shore feel, “Standby,” is a great vehicle for Sugaray’s showmanship. Shawn Pittman brought in the slinky back porch blues in “Devil On My Shoulder” that features hot solos from Ramos ,Wilson, and Morgan. Kid and Templeton have a load of fun singing about a wild woman while Milgate pumps the barrelhouse piano on “She’s A Twister.” Jimmie Wood pleads his case as the fellas back him and sojourn singers on the gritty “One Man Chain Gang.” Kim Wilson steps to the mic to sing and play his vaunted harmonica on a rousing rundown of “You Can’t Stop Her,” in tribute to Huey “Piano” Smith the New Orleans R&B and rock ’n’ roll pioneer. The expansive ballad “Use As Needed,” is the album’s emotional pinnacle with Ramos and Templeton pouring their heart and soul into the track to honor their dear friend and brother in arms.
The much-loved Peter Green composition, “Albatross,” closes the album with the iconic guitar instrumental a fitting allegory for Willie J. Campbell’s life being one of the first rock tracks to place emphasis on feeling, rather than technique.
Rick J Bowen
Born on June 19, 1957, blues-rock bassist Willie J. Campbell attributes his love for music to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. His move to Huntington Beach, California, at a young age, created further exposure to music and the idea of becoming a musician. He was instantly surrounded by people with the same passion, making the transition to Southern California a turning point musically. The first pivotal music moment came courtesy of Dave Lee Bartel. Dave moved in across the street from Willie J. and shortly after, they formed their first band, Southern Select Blues Band. In the mid-1970s, Willie J.’s music career started to pick up when he joined The James Harman Band where he would spend the next decade. Following The James Harman Band was a six-year run with The Fabulous Thunderbirds where he played alongside an all-star lineup including Kim Wilson, Gene Taylor, Kid Ramos, and Jimi Bott. Most recently, Willie J. has played with The Mannish Boys, The Blues Giants, and his final band, The Proven Ones, comprised of an impressive collection of musicians with centuries of combined experience. Willie J. has an expansive discography with these groups as well as numerous other artists in the Blues music scene. His musical breadth, spanning more than five decades, encompasses Willie J.’s extensive history of touring, writing, and recording. He has been fortunate to share the stage with a veritable Who’s Who in Blues, Soul, Rock, Country, and Punk music. Willie J. has been honored multiple times by the Blues Foundation with nominations for Instrumentalist, Band, Album, and a Blues Music Award for record of the year.
Willie J. was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in March of 2022. Although this disease is what took him far too early, he did not let it define him. He pushed through as hard and as long as he could. Just eight weeks before he passed, at the time already having significantly declined, he recorded his final record with all his musical friends. His music family surrounded him with an overwhelming amount of love that he deeply cherished.
On December 18, 2022, Willie J. passed away peacefully in the comfort of his home with his wife, Lisa and daughters, Siara and Symone beside him. He always wanted to care for and help others and struggled when it was his turn to be cared for. Throughout the toughest battle he ever encountered, he never lost himself. He was always the Willie J. that we all loved, appreciated, sought out, and wanted to be around. His presence will remain in our souls for eternity and as Willie J. would say, “Be cool.”