Samuel A. Campbell (a.k.a. Magic Sam), 74, died on June 27, 2017. He crossed over to the spirit plane after a long battle with cancer. His wife of 35 years, Ann Rosenkranz (Antigone), was at his side as always, as he peacefully and gently departed. His fight to persist against and overcome the ravages of the disease was heroic, and as he fought with ferocity and utter stoicism, he taught many lessons about great inner strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Sam was born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 14, 1943. He was born at home in his grandma’s bed. He was raised by his grandparents, and lived on a small farm as a child, helping to pick cotton and look after livestock, mules, pigs, and chickens. Sam showed musical talent early on, and learned to play the violin in fourth grade (joining the Stringbean Band), and later took up the drums, tenor sax, and bass guitar. At 12he played with Jazzbo and the Diamonds, and then by 15 made some hefty money playing in nightclubs with the Larkindells, sneaking out of the house do so since he was underage and his grandmother considered that music sinful.
During his high school years, he participated in sit-ins at the lunch counters at Belks Department Store to protest the Jim Crow segregation laws in Charlotte. After graduating from high school, he declined a music scholarship to attend college, and instead left home, along with his brother Chocolate (Robert Wright), to seek his fortune as a musician in New York City. They had met the Isley Brothers when they played with them at a club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Ronnie Isley offered them a job if they could get to New York City. They set out for the big city with an unshaken faith that they would find the Isleys — and so they did, by a stroke of luck! They lived together for a time in the Isleys’ house in Englewood, N.J., sometime during the late ’50s and early ’60s, and cut the gold records “Shout” and “Twist and Shout” (original version of the same tune that the Beatles recorded later). During these years, Sam, who had a talent for arranging and also choreographing eyecatching moves onstage, became known by fellow musicians as Mr. Magic Sam because he could spark an audience.
Around this time, Jimi Hendrix also played with the Isleys briefly, and Sam and Jimi roomed together in the city and then went to London together. Jimi stayed, and Sam returned to the U.S. In the early to mid-’60s, Sam split ways with the Isleys and did some world tours with James Brown, despite quitting three times. Sam’s music career in the limelight came to a virtual end when he was arrested at the airport for unintended draft evasion during the Vietnam War upon returning home from tour in Europe. He was imprisoned for 44 months and moved from one federal prison to another around the country.
In the late ’60s Sam, Chocolate, and a few other musicians formed a rhythm and blues group, the Purpose. They traveled, performing and collaborating to write some original songs: “Sally Goes Up the Ladder” and “My Baby,” among others. The band was featured in Esquire magazine in 1968 as an up-and-coming group. However, due to the cutthroat nature of the music industry and lack of an ethical manager and legal support, the band never got off the ground.
Disenchanted with the music industry and New York City, Sam came to Massachusetts to live, and eventually found his way to and settled on Martha’s Vineyard in the early ’70s. He started the Magic Sam Band, which became a fixture at the Sea View, helping to spice up the long, bleak winters of the ’70s when the year-round population was small. In 1983, he met his future wife at a cast party for the play “Member of the Wedding,” performed at the Amphitheater. It was his first and only experience as an actor, but his wife recalls he stole the show for her with his charismatic presence onstage. They married on Oct. 12, 1986.
Though Magic Sam left music for other endeavors, he never lost his love of it. He learned many other skills, and performed them well — among them driving 18-wheel trucks across New England and commercial fishing on Georges Bank. He loved fishing, and enjoyed cooking his delicious Southern dishes. He loved to recount the colorful stories of his life and his exploits as a musician in the ’60s in his own inimitable style, drawing from an astonishing memory. Many will always remember him as a sharp, colorful dresser who was impeccably coordinated from head to foot. Sam was a great dancer as well. His sense of humor, playfulness, insistence on speaking his mind without fear of reprisal, his joy for life, love of children and animals, and his lifelong endeavors to help others in need and to be a strong and reasoning force for those in turmoil are all some of the things that endeared Sam I Am to so many, and earned him their respect and love.
Sam leaves behind many loving siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins, two biological and two adopted children. He also leaves a loving wife of 35 years, who feels blessed to have shared her life with this special, unique, loyal and caring soul. Magic will long be watching out for all who hold him in their hearts.
There will be a celebration of Sam’s life on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs from 4 to 7 pm. Pot luck. Bring your fond memories of Magic to share. Any donations on behalf of Sam, please direct to Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.