Michael Campagna – guitarist, songwriter - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2014
When Michael Campagna was a teenager, his mom drove him downtown to the Governors Inn so he could play with the Jesse James & the Outlaws blues band. He recalls the night that bandleader James Peterson reached under the stage and pulled out a guitar.It was a late ’60 Stratocaster, an early “slabboard” model of the variety Steve Ray Vaughan would become known for.
“Mr. Peterson, as I would call him, said ‘this is for you’,” Campagna recalled in a recent conversation. “It had that bigfat sound to it.”
It was one of the great moments in Campagna’s life, but it was only one of the musical awakenings in his life as he has followed a trail that would find him co-writing songs for Chaka Khan, Maxine Nightingale and Jennifer Holliday and playing guitar for Psychic TV.
But for Campagna, that list of accomplishments can wait until he’s through acknowledging the people that helped shape him in his native Western New York.
The trip began when he was still a youngster taking piano lessons, but wanting to play guitar. His father bought him one, but it was a classical model, not the Bob Dylan-style folk model he really wanted. Then his parents signed him up for lessons with Oswald Rantucci, the legendary classical guitar instructor for whom the RantucciInternational Guitar Festival & Competition was named.
“I studied for a couple of years with him, and it really gave me technique on guitar,” Campagna said. “When the folk music craze hit, I was already able to do all the finger picking stuff. It really affected how I played.”
While playing at the Governors Inn he was invited to watch when artists like Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf were playing there. “When you’re sitting 5 feet away from Muddy Waters, nobody can be unaffected by that,” Campagna said.
When guitar great Freddie King came to town, he had lost his bass player to an arrest in a previous tour stop. James Peterson told him, “’The white kid is a good bass player.’ So I did the whole week with King,” Campagna recalled. “He offered me the gig. It was a powerful experience to sit in and feel the groove he played with.”
Campagna credits a slew of Buffalo characters with opening him up to different aspects of music. There was Joe LaCoco, who got him started playing bass in his band when Campagna was about 14.
Then there was jazzman Joe Azarello, who pulled him aside after one of Cisum Revival’s shows (Campagna’sband Cisum Revival opened for Sly & the Family Stone at Kleinhan’s Music Hall). Campagna remembered Azarellofrom when the pianist was playing with Don Menza, Sam Noto and his brother, Tom Azarello, at the Allentown Art Festival. Campagna recalls, “He came up to me and said, ‘I like how you play guitar. I can help you expand your musical horizons.’ So I started going to his house. I started learning modal theory. It changed how I approached the guitar completely.”
There was Livingston Gearhart, who accepted him into the University at Buffalo piano program after Campagna found out the guitar program was full – even though Campagna was a relative novice on keyboards when he auditioned.
“I was auditioningby playing some barrelhouse blues. Livingston said, ‘I’ll give you this, you’ve got a lot of nerve.’ He took me. He said, ‘there’s something musical about you, so I’ll teach you.’ And he taught me things I’ve used in compositions for Chaka Khan. I became adept at ‘arrangers piano,’ mastering all the chords. He was an amazing musician who taught me what I needed to know.”
There were others, too, like Deborah Ash. One big reason Michael turned down Freddie King’s offer to go on the road was he was on the verge of getting married to Deborah … and she became his main songwriting partner as well as pairing with him to hold down a regular Monday night show at the legendary Bona Vista nightclub on Hertel Avenue. He says working with her forced him to look at lyrics differently.
Jeremy Wall and Jay Beckenstein – soon to become mainstays in jazz giants SpyroGyra – ended up playing with them at the Bona Vista, and sharing an a living space with Campagna. Steve Nathan, now a Nashville session legend, was there too, as was John Weitz. Tuesday nights at the Bona Vista meant a full band, with Campagna, Ash, Jimmy Calire (keys), Steve Sadoff (bass) and Tom Walsh (drums). And Campagnaplayed with Spoon & the Houserockers, fellow 2014 Hall inductees. Meanwhile Stan Szelest was looming over them all.
But it was Bonnie Raitt who saw Campagna and Ash at the Bona Vista and told them “Go West!” So they did. That kicked off the second part of Campagna’s career.
The pair found success while they were married , working with Khan and putting two songs (Nothing’s Gonna Take You Away” and “Father He Said”) on her Warner Brothers records. They also wrote “Shaking Me Up” for disco/soul star Nightingale and “It Will Haunt Me” for Holliday.
But Campagna’s skills weren’t limited to R&B. He served as guitarist for Psychic TV in the 1990s, working with its leader, Genesis P-Orridge (formerly of Throbbing Gristle, which lays claim to perhaps being the first true industrial band). Campagana both toured and recorded with Psychic TV.
Campagna said that he’s always had an interest in the avantgarde, although there wasn’t really a place for it in the clubs when he was in Buffalo.
“My favorite musician to this day is John Coltrane because he made the music more inclusive, using younger musicians, and not turning things into a cutting session; he was spiritual,” Campagna said. “Psychic TV was a huge amount of noise, and I know how to make noise … I know how to do drones.”
Campagna said he licenses some of the drones and tones he makes for soundtrack use.
In 2000, he served as the music consultant on the release of Peter Tosh’s 1978 Jamaica concert recording, “Live at the One Love Peace Concert.”
More recently, he co-wrote and performed a jazz quartet song, “The Forgotten One,” for “The Big Wedding,” a 2013 film starting Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.
Campagna has also led a band called the Average Johnsons since the 1980s. He has also stayed in touch with Buffalo native and drummer Gary Mallaber and has often collaborated with him. Mallaberappeared as drummer, co-producer and, on some songs, co-writer, on the Average Johnsons’ 2000 CD. It has been internationally released on the Varese Sarabande record label. He also had three songs with the Average Johnsons on the soundtrack of the indy film “White Irish Drinkers.”
Mallaber remembers hearing a young Michael Campagna and said the blues training – going back to when he was playing with Elmo Weatherspoon – has served Campagna well.
“He’s got that wonderful sense of blues which is so very much a necessary ingredient for making other categories of music come alive,” Mallaber said. “I thought he should be recognized as one of the more important, serious guitar people coming out of Buffalo.”
Mallaber and Campagna have also co-written music for the Dan Patrick show on ESPN Radio and the NBC Sports Network. The pair has a catalog of over 100 licensed songs.
“Over these last several years, we formed a great writing partnership,” Mallaber said. “We just have a slew of new stuff we’ve been coming up with.”
Campagna has also been collaborating in an East Indian improv group and also recording with spoken word artist Michael C. Ford. He is currently the Creative Director of the South Pasadena Music Center and Conservatory.
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