|SANFORD BRUNSON CAMPBELL
Sanford Brunson Campbell
WWI Draft Registration Card
6th September 1918
The ragtime era, stretching from the last years of the 19th century to the end of the second decade of the 20th century, produced many fine pianists who were forced by the social conventions of the time to ply their trade in honkytonks, barrelhouses, vaudeville theatres, movie theatres, music stores, hotels, steamboats, saloons, and, of course, the multitude of sporting houses throughout the United States. One of the very early white ragtime pianists spreading the ragtime gospel in extensive travels throughout the Midwest, the South and the Southwest, was Brun Campbell, known variously as The Ragtime Kid, The Original Ragtime Kid, The Dude, The Indian Kid, Kid Campbell, and Brunnie Campbell.
Sanford Brunson Campbell was born on 26th March 1884 in Washington, Washington County, Kansas, a small town founded in 1860 in the northern central part of the territory, which was admitted to Statehood on 29th January 1861 as the 34th State of the Union. His father was Lewis E. Campbell, a barber and later travelling salesman, born in Wisconsin in 1867, and his mother was Lula (Emilie) Bourquin, born in Indiana of French parents in 1868. Both parents were musical. His father strummed the guitar and sang in a barbershop quartet and his mother picked the banjo, so it was natural that Brun took up the piano at an early age and became a competent pianist by the time he reached his teens.
The Campbell family had the proverbial itchy feet, and just about every other year was a moving day for them. From Washington, Kansas they went to Oberlin, Kansas where Brun’s younger brother, Harold, was born on 15th July 1891; then on to St. Joseph, Missouri followed by Arkansas City, Kansas in 1893; Guthrie, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and El Reno, Oklahoma; and back to Arkansas City, Kansas, as recorded in the Kansas Census of 1st March 1905. Their final recorded moves in the Midwest were to Tulsa and Chickasha, both in Oklahoma around 1910. From Oklahoma, they turned up in Los Angeles, California with Brun and Harold by the time of the U.S. Census of 1st January 1920.
Brun was even more of a wanderer and, in 1898, ran away from home with the son of a local doctor to Oklahoma City, an event that was to introduce him to the classic ragtime of African-Americans. In Oklahoma City, he found his way to the Armstrong-Byrd Music Store, sat down at the piano, and began playing some popular songs of the day. A crowd gathered and after a time, a young mulatto stepped forward and placed a pen and ink manuscript on the piano bearing the title Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin. Campbell played the piece at sight with only a few mistakes, and the young mulatto introduced himself as Otis Saunders, a fine pianist, who said he was going to Sedalia, Missouri in a few days to see his friend, Joplin.
After his return to Arkansas City, his newly acquired interest in classic ragtime inspired him to leave home again, and seek out Joplin and Saunders in Sedalia, Missouri. This he did, and, at Saunders’ request, played for Joplin who agreed to teach him the Joplin style of ragtime. In addition, Joplin taught Campbell to play his first four rags: Original Rags, Maple Leaf Rag, Sun Flower Slow Drag, and Swipesy Cake Walk. Brun became the first white pianist to play and master these Joplin rags. The Sedalia trip also encompassed Saint Louis and Kansas City where he met and heard almost all of the early African-American pianists and composers of ragtime. Besides Joplin and Saunders, he met Tom Turpin, Louis Chauvin whom he considered as one of the great pianists of that era, Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, Tony Williams, Melford Alexander, Jim and Ida Hastings. He had this to say about their playing:
“None of the original pianists played ragtime the way it was written. They played their own style. Some played march time, fast time, slow time and some played ragtime blues style. But none of them lost the melody and if you knew the player and heard him a block away you could name him by his ragtime style.” [JRBC 11]
Later on, Campbell met Charley Thompson, the Saint Louis pianist he considered as better than Louis Chauvin, and the great New Orleans duo, Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton:
“I would like to give the late Jelly Roll Morton, of New Orleans, credit for his early contribution to ragtime, which was King Porter Stomp, of 1906. He named it after Porter King, a great Negro pianist of the Gulf Coast. Another great Negro pianist of New Orleans was Tony Jackson, and he could out-play the great Jelly Roll Morton. The music these great Negro composers developed will live forever, and I am proud of the fact I was associated with them at the beginning.” [JJBC]
Playing ragtime was an exciting life for Campbell, and he played for many famous people of his day: Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill (William C. Cody), Pawnee Bill, Governor Ferguson of Indian Territory, the noted minstrel man Lew Dockstader, Bat Masterson, and the outlaws, Cole Younger, Frank James, Emmett Dalton and Henry Starr. His greatest thrill was playing Maple Leaf Rag at the Kerfoot Hotel in El Reno, Oklahoma for Pawnee Bill, whose real name was Gordon Lillie. Lillie was the proprietor with his wife, May Manning, of the Pawnee Bill Historical Wild West Show, a spectacular show which was usually staged at their ranch at Pawnee, Oklahoma. Brun recalled that “twenty years later I met him in Tulsa and he asked me to play it again.” [TAPR 30]
The wandering life of a ragtime pianist came to a halt for Brun when he married his first wife, Ethel, in 1908 and settled down in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a barber, a trade he had learned from his father. The marriage does not appear to have lasted much more than a few years for he was living with his parents in Los Angeles at the time of the 1920 U.S. Census. Brun married his second wife, Marjorie, in the 1920s and they settled in Venice, California about 1928. They lived at 770-C Crestmore Place, Venice, from 1930 until the early 1950s.
Brun operated a barber shop for more than twenty years at 711 Venice Boulevard, next to the Venice City Hall, which became a Mecca for the growing number of ragtime enthusiasts in the 1940s. Despite the fact that he claimed he had not touched a piano from the early 1920s to the early 1940s, Norm Pierce, proprietor of Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco, informed Paul Affeldt, of Euphonic Records and Jazz Report Magazine, that he sold barber’s supplies door to door in 1933 in the depression, and visited the Campbell barber shop regularly. Pierce said that Brun had a piano in the back room of his shop, and played for him a number of times and impressed him greatly. For Brun, it seemed to be a case of never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. A rare photograph of Brun and Kid Ory, taken about 1951, is reproduced in Floyd Levin’s fine article on Brun published in the December 1970 issue of Jazz Journal. [BCFL]
Placed at the forefront of the ragtime revival of the 1940s on the West Coast, he was a fountain of information for Blesh and Janis in their research for their great book, “They All Played Ragtime”. Recordings of his playing were made by West Coast Records and Ray Avery’s Echoes label, both of which were acquired by Paul Affeldt who issued most of the recordings on Euphonic LPs ESR 1201 and 1202, which have recently been reissued on Delmark CD 753 with all the surviving alternate takes. Campbell’s playing on these recordings reveals a folk style rather than a classic style of playing, with snatches of popular tunes incorporated in his rags, much in the manner of Francis X. McFadden’s Rags to Burn, published in 1899, and the fine rags of Charles Hunter.
Sanford Brunson Campbell died in Venice, California on 23rd November 1952. [PH 36]
© February 2009 Peter Hanley