Technically it was Sunday morning, but Bishop Don "Magic" Juan Campbell was nowhere near church. Just after midnight on December 3, Chicago's most notorious preacher man led a posse of his colorful pals to the stage of the East of the Ryan nightclub on East 79th Street. Campbell, who'd turned 49 on November 30, was the guest of honor at the "Famous Player Chicago Millennium Birthday Celebration." The former pimp is now an ordained minister, but he's still proud to call himself a player. "A pimp has prostitutes," Campbell explained. "A player is just trying to make it, trying to hustle. It doesn't necessarily have to do with females."
He wore a green velour suit, a green fedora with a gold brim, and a full-length evergreen mink coat trimmed in gold. He sipped champagne from a rhinestone-encrusted chalice, and drenched in his trademark Royal Bain de Champagne cologne, he even smelled like a greenhouse. Following him to the stage were a trail of players: Future, King Boo, God (aka King Burrell Godfather), Jo-Jo (in a brown-and-white crocodile suit and matching hat), and Larry Thomas (elder brother of Indiana Pacers coach Isiah Thomas). Big Daddy Woo Woo, a DJ for WGCI, took the microphone and set the tone for the evening:
"Ho's to the flo'!"
About 350 people, including DJ Herb Kent and legendary south-side stripper Racetrack Rosie, attended the all-night party (Campbell himself lined up the sponsors: Piper Heidseick Champagne, Remy Red Cognac, and Joe's BarBQue in Austin). Rapper Big Daddy Kane was in the house; so was Rudy Ray Moore, who appeared in such 70s blaxploitation classics as Disco Godfather, Petey Wheatstraw, and Dolemite. Ice-T was advertised as part of the program, but he was a no-show. Ron Hightower, who's appeared in such porn films as Malcolm XXX, Gang Bang Face Bath, and 2 Hung 2 Tung, was filming the party for a documentary he's making about Campbell. Detroit soulsters the Dramatics were the first act to hit the stage, at a quarter to two.
Though the crowd was there to celebrate Campbell's birthday, the event was something of a homecoming dance as well; a year ago, Campbell left town to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. This year he appeared as a strip-club patron on Pamela Anderson's TV series V.I.P. He also appeared in a ten-minute sequence of the Hughes brothers' documentary American Pimp, leading a prostitute-spotting tour down West Madison, and he's testified on rap albums by Ice-T, Killa Tay, Method Man, and Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew (no relation).
One of Campbell's new west-coast friends is Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal bordello near Carson City, Nevada. Like Campbell, he appeared in American Pimp. "I'm amazed by all of this," said Hof, observing the party. "The Bishop has tremendous charisma and salesmanship. He is a master of the game." Asked about Campbell's conversion, he replied, "Religious people like to have sex too. We have a limo that takes some of our girls to [worship at] a Carson City church every Sunday."
"I want to know where he thinks he is at with the Lord," says Leonard Rascher, director of practical Christian ministry at Moody Bible Institute. In 1985, shortly after Campbell's conversion to Christianity, Rascher took the former pimp under his wing and mentored him on a weekly basis for three years. "He really made an impact on people. What started him backsliding--for lack of a better word--was promoting the book." In 1994, Campbell contracted with Vantage, a vanity press, to publish his memoir, From Pimp Stick to Pulpit-- It's Magic (The Life Story of Don "Magic" Juan). "He was close to being broke. In fact, he wanted to buy a car and asked me if I would cosign.
He was humbled. I couldn't because I had just cosigned on a car for my son. But the Bishop got down that low.
"There was a time he was looking for the will of God in his life, and he wanted to please his Lord. I know one reason he didn't cut himself loose from all his contacts was because he felt they weren't being reached by the church. He believed God wanted him to reach them. And I thought that made sense." Rascher lost touch with his student after Campbell moved, and he says he can no longer comment on the state of the preacher's soul. "I wish I had the answer to that myself."
Campbell was born in 1951 and raised in a three-flat at 1757 W. Adams; he and his seven siblings attended Saint Michael Baptist Church at Adams and Keeler. His father, Levy Bryant, ran a soul-food restaurant on Madison near Ashland and owned a few buildings in the neighborhood. Bryant drove a fancy Buick, and when father and son ran errands together they'd gaze at the downtown skyline. Young Donald believed glamour and riches were within his reach, though his father probably thought not. In 1963 Bryant died in Cook County Hospital, the victim of a blood clot in his head.
"When I found out I had a way with girls, I went in that direction," says Campbell. "There's not many opportunities out here. When I was going to school at an early age, my sister told me her girlfriends talked about how cute I was. I got my first piece of sex at five years old. My babysitter said not to tell anybody. She put me on top of her."
As a teenager he read Pimp: The Story of My Life (1969) by former pimp Iceberg Slim (aka Robert Beck). "A pimp is the loneliest bastard on Earth," wrote Slim. "He's gotta know his whores. He can't let them know him....He's gotta be a God all the way."
"My role model next door was not a doctor or a lawyer," says Campbell. "I'd see a pimp, so I'd pattern myself after that. I'd read Iceberg Slim. I'd watch Superfly, with the flashy cars and clothes. I went for all of that. When I came to the game I was 16." A year later he was leaving a friend's house to play basketball when he was hit in the back by shotgun fire. Campbell still carries some of the buckshot around with him, though he never learned who pulled the trigger.
Somehow he managed to avoid major brushes with the law. He says that, unlike other pimps, he never pushed drugs on his stable. "That's why people on the street listen to me. I let them know you settle things with understanding. You don't settle things with guns....Even when I was in the life, I didn't sell drugs. I smoked marijuana and drank champagne. But I never used cocaine, that wasn't my thing. And I didn't want my girls to do that." At age 20 he did 50 days in the Cook County Jail after snatching some money from a kid walking down West Washington, but he says that was his last conviction. "One time was enough for me. I don't break the law. Anybody breaking the law will go to jail. I might bend it--you don't go to jail for that."
Campbell says that during the mid-70s, when he was at the top of his game, his peers often voted him "Pimp of the Year," based on the quality of his clothes, cars, jewelry, and women. "Pimps and players come from all over the country to parties just like my birthday party," he says. "We'd exchange comments about different things going on in different cities. One player would say, 'The track is burnt up here.' Another player would say, 'Hey, man, come to Vegas, they're letting them work.' It's a network game."
During the late 70s he owned Don Juan's Music World, a record store on Madison near Leamington. It had crystal chandeliers and green-and-gold wall-to-wall carpeting. "It was more than a record shop," he says. "It was a turn-out joint. We used to have girls come in there when they wanted to learn how to play the game. We'd take them in the back and let guys exercise them."
Maggie Campbell, the Bishop's mother, still lives in Austin, and a week before the party I sat in her kitchen talking to her and her daughter, Ann Bromfield, who cowrote From Pimp Stick to Pulpit. Christmas lights already sparkled on the neighboring houses, illuminating the dark streets.
Neither of them was planning to attend the celebration. "I never liked it, and I still don't like it," said Maggie. "I never go to his nightlife events. I went to one of his barbecues. I don't like the fast life."
"When they put you in a hall of fame, that means you're retired," said Bromfield. "I told him that. And I want him to retire."
Retire from what?
"This game. Go back to church. Don't wait until something happens or he gets killed. I pray that he retires. I've always been afraid for him. It's dangerous out there. People get jealous and stuff. If he can get the members in church that he got in this game, you don't need nothin' else."
The room fell quiet. A color photograph of Campbell and Dennis Rodman, taken in Vegas at a Mike Tyson fight, looked over the kitchen table. "He tries to be something," said Maggie. "He wants to be something."
Maggie began to lose track of her son when he was a teenager. He would go downtown to the tapings for Soul Train. "I'd wonder where he was at. He was an outgoing boy. He had to go where the music and the kids were. Girls bought him fancy shirts and pimp hats. It made him feel like a pimp. And I didn't like it." She still remembers the day he staggered home, full of buckshot and drenched in blood.
Campbell had told me that he always stays with his mother when he comes back to Chicago. "She treats me like a little baby," he'd said. "She asks me if I want some Frosted Flakes. She asks, 'Did you sleep good last night?'"
His mother liked hearing that story. "He is my baby." During the late 60s, Campbell had been married and fathered two children, but I didn't see their photos anywhere. Maggie paused and collected her thoughts. "You say he's a pimp. Everyone says he's a pimp. But when he comes home, he's no pimp."
During a visit to West Hollywood in February 1985, Campbell was napping after a long night smoking weed and doing PCP when he awoke suddenly. "Man, first it got light in the apartment, then it got dark. Something told me to turn the television on, and a preacher was talking about how someone had been saved. It was like he was talking to me. It was a vision I could hear clearly. And if I didn't change my life, I wouldn't live another two weeks. I called my mother and said I had been saved. I called my girls and told them they didn't have to go back on the streets. They were living in the same house. They called me back and said, 'Daddy, why?' I said, 'God don't want me to do it no more.' It was like something grabbed my heart to convince me."
A few months later he bought a Bible at the Moody Bookstore and began auditing a class with Leonard Rascher at the Moody Institute's night school. "He has an astute understanding of the Bible," says Rascher. "He's got to have one of the most brilliant minds of anyone I've been associated with. He memorized hundreds and hundreds of scriptures. It was amazing. He'd come down to my office and I would teach him. He would go home and teach the scriptures to his mother and sister. And I'd hear it from them, almost word for word, verbatim. And he never took notes. He had the capacity to learn. Here's a guy that for 20 years was stoned out of his head most of his time yet was on top of his profession. You've got to have something up there going for you."
Later that year, Campbell was ordained by Dr. F.L. Johnson of the Christian Ministers' Congress Non-Denominational Council, Inc., and by 1989 he had opened the Magic World Christian Kingdom Church of the Royal Family in a tiny storefront at 5425 W. Madison; Rascher came out every week to teach a Bible study class. "He paid the rent for the church out of his own pocket," says Rascher. "He sold the cars and got rid of most of his jewelry to pay the rent." According to Rascher, Campbell was best known for conducting funerals for casualties of drugs and gang warfare on the west side. "They were people who didn't have a church connection. They turned to him."
Rascher concedes that Campbell's flashy lifestyle seems to conflict with his pursuit of God. "The Bishop answers in two ways: he gave up women, alcohol, and drugs because the Lord told him to. And if the Lord told him to give up the fancy clothes, he would. But the Lord didn't tell him to. The other answer is that if he had gotten rid of all the cars and jewelry, people would say the only reason he turned to Christianity was because he lost it all. He wanted to show them you can be a Christian not just because you bottomed out."
In 1993, Campbell closed the church, preferring to do God's work "in the field"; he now considers himself a street minister. He and Rascher were briefly reunited last month when Campbell attended Rascher's retirement luncheon. "I was never skeptical about this until recent years," says Rascher. "I know he's done things that to me would be very questionable. He goes on the Mancow program, which is questionable for someone that has a Christian testimony. We didn't have a lot of time to talk. I told him I was glad he came. He had his green suit on, but that's him. That's OK....My peers or colleagues? Some said I was foolish to get involved with him. Others believe like I, that when Jesus died for the world, that included people like him."
Danny Davis has known Campbell since 1980, when he met him on the west side; ten years later, Campbell challenged Davis in the aldermanic race for the 29th Ward and lost. "Naturally we try to steer young people to a different mind-set," says Davis, now representative for the Seventh Congressional District. "Some of the world in which Magic Juan lives--and I think 'Magic' is an indication of a certain make-believe--is not a world in which lots of people live."
Yet there's no denying Campbell's appeal in Austin. "There's a mystique about him.... People view the Bishop and some of the people associated with him as colorful. Interesting. Witty. They can never pinpoint exactly what it is. For example, I went to a regular church the other night where they were having a big gospel-music explosion. Lo and behold, I walk in, and I didn't see the Bishop, but I saw some of his sidekicks. Nothing special. They were singing like everybody else, with their sky blue suits on or whatever they were wearing."
Davis calls Campbell and his players "a culture of their own. The ministering they do is unto each other. There are some individuals who attempt to lead the same kind of life they live, but they can't control it, and it takes control of them. They become strung out on drugs, alcohol, or become prostitutes or whatever. Then the Bishop and some of the stronger individuals play a role in the lives of these people. I've seen the Bishop give Christmas baskets to people in the community who need them. I've seen him give school supplies to children.
"I know law enforcement people who vowed that if the Bishop was doing anything for which they could arrest him they would do so. There is a police commander I won't name, but who is a dear friend of mine, who told me, 'If I ever get one scintilla of evidence, I will lock. Him. Up. In terms of mainline Christianity, which is what most people around here practice, actions of his type do not sit well. Having affinity for one's peers or individuals who have fallen on hard times do sit well. So in a sense, there's a contradiction."
This summer Campbell paid a visit to Austin and held court beside his Triple Gold Mercedes 2000, about four blocks from where he used to operate his little storefront church. William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got" boomed on the car stereo. I asked him about the apparent contradiction of his life as a player.
"It's a good question," he replied. "I don't worry what people say. The church is in my heart every day. The Bible teaches us we are the church and Jesus is the head. God showed me He had all the power. I tell people what God has done even with all this jewelry on.... It's their decision to believe or not. People say, 'He was a pimp.' There's a lot of unbelief. It's hard to work a lot of miracles when there's unbelief." The siren of a passing ambulance nearly drowned him out. "You're standing in my pulpit right now."
He wore a lime green silk suit, a lime green shirt, and lime green snakeskin boots. He has green emeralds embedded in three of his front teeth. "I like green and gold," he told me as he sat in the driver's seat of his Mercedes. "Because green is for the money and gold is for the honey."
His hands were adorned with four gold diamond rings. "I used to wear rings like dice and women's bodies shaped into different things," he said. "After the Lord converted me, I had the cross made on one of my rings." He wiggled the pinkie of his left hand, showing off an enormous ring in the shape of a church, with a gold cathedral, a diamond steeple, and emerald windows. "This is my vision of building a church."
A man in a wheelchair rolled up to the Mercedes and asked Campbell for a dollar. Campbell extended his hand, closed his eyes, and blessed the man. "We'll give you a dollar in a minute," he said. "After we do this interview."
The man scooted away before getting his dollar, but I spoke to him later. Forty-four years old, going by the nickname "Wop," he told me about the time he was in trouble and Campbell gave him food and clothes. "I had polio, then about five years ago I got shot. They were shooting at somebody else. I was in bad shape, but the Bishop was there for me."
Campbell has never been away from Chicago this long, another reason his family worries. "I miss Chicago," he said, "but the move has been profitable for me. It was the right thing to do." Actually his movie career predates his conversion: Jimmy Spinks, the late Chicago entertainer and casting agent, got him a part in the Steve McQueen film The Hunter (1980), and in 1983 he appeared in the Dan Aykroyd comedy Doctor Detroit, about a college professor who gets mixed up with pimps and prostitutes. More recently he appeared in the crime flick Original Gangstas (1996) with Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree, and the next year he had a bit part in the family drama Soul Food. These days he makes his money by appearing in movies, in videos, and on records. He hosts "Player's Balls" across the country and claims that record companies pay him as much as $7,000 a pop to host record-release parties.
Rudy Ray Moore met Campbell in 1975, when he came to the Oriental Theatre to promote his gangster spoof Dolemite, and he's cast the preacher as a Chicago hit man in the film's upcoming sequel Return of Dolemite 2001. But Moore says he's no player. "I'm a professional entertainer, and I don't go in that game. I rub shoulders with it, but that's as far as it goes. It's not good for me to be associated with pimping and hustling. Now, the Bishop is using his flamboyance from a different angle. The Bishop is still in the same world he's always been in. He hasn't betrayed his friends."
Many of Campbell's friends are members of his Famous Players club. According to Campbell, who serves as chairman of the board, a prospective member fills out an application form that includes his education history and sends it to a Hollywood post office box, along with $33 in annual dues. Campbell settled on the amount because Jesus Christ was 33 when he died; a lifetime membership is $3,333. In return the member gets a "Famous Player" gold card, which Campbell says entitles him to discounts at parties and retail outlets like the Mister Shops clothing store in North Riverside mall. (Asked about the gold card, a manager at Mister Shops laughed. "Once upon a time he was trying to help bring customers to our store, but we don't have a discount program.")
Campbell says the club's membership exceeds 3,000, including Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. Sitting on the board of directors are treasurer Future (who owns the Taste Bud restaurant, a players' hangout at 4236 W. Madison), creative director King Boo, and outreach director Larry Thomas. "I grew up with the Bishop," says Thomas, a 48-year-old em-ployee of the Chicago Board of Education. "He's a Chicago celebrity to the people in the ghetto. People can see him. They can touch him. Most celebrities are scared to come to the west side. Once they leave and go to LA and make some money, they never come back. Not the Bishop."
True to that sentiment, Campbell says he wants to give Austin a state-of-the-art nightclub, church, and hotel--in no particular order. "It would be right here on West Madison Street," he told me. "I'd call it 'Magic City.' It would be Las Vegas-style. It would cost $20, $30 million." He also wants to recruit other players and rap stars to help finance the Pimp Players Hall of Fame--of which he's now become the first official member. Separate from Magic City, it would house the memorabilia collected by his son Don Jr., a 30-year-old real estate agent on the west side: the trophies Campbell has been awarded at various Player's Balls, a library of the films in which he's appeared, and some of his most outlandish outfits, like the green-and-gold tuxedo he wore in 1975 when he captured the "Pimp of the Year" crown from Las Vegas pimp Jimmy Valentine.
"One day I'd like to see players recognized just like the Oscars, by what's considered the mainstream," says Campbell. "Players and pimps have become household names, even though it's the oldest profession ever. It's been revived. Players and pimps are on records. In films. On the Internet. And Chi-town has a strong legacy of gangsters, pimps, players, and entertainers. Where there was once Frank Nitti and Al Capone, there was also the Bishop."
But the ultimate shrine to Campbell may be the documentary on his life currently being shot by Ron Hightower. The director, who grew up in the rough Canarsie and Red Hook neighborhoods of Brooklyn, met Campbell in 1998 while shooting "Still Po Pimpin'," a video for the rap act Do or Die that featured Campbell and Rudy Ray Moore. After he proposed the idea of a film biography, Campbell procured the financing. In the early 90s, Hightower wrote, directed, and appeared in dozens of porn films, but having made the transition to legitimate features, he can relate to Campbell's life journey.
"Instead of staying strong on what we were originally doing, we try to keep the same amount of cash rolling in as legal as we possibly can," he explains. "Not too many people have long futures in lifestyles that don't worship tomorrow, that live for today. To the best of our ability, we're in the process of seeking to do other things." He's convinced that Campbell is the real deal. "This is a religious situation. It's just not your commercial religious situation. Let's face it--that man is lucky to still be alive and living in the manner in which he's living in. There is a miracle there."
Around 4 AM, Campbell's friends presented him with a cold bottle of champagne, a check for $3,000, and a trophy naming him the very first inductee into the fanciful Pimp Players Hall of Fame. Emperor John of the south-side tattoo parlor Creative Body Design presented him with a regal oil painting of himself, dressed in a lime green suit and matching hat and clutching a champagne goblet. "They made me cry," said Campbell after the party was finally over. "So many people all night told me I was the greatest player. I'll use the money to make myself happy."
The party wound down around 5:30, then Campbell conferred with contacts from near and far at a downtown hotel. More champagne was served, the stories got bigger and better. "We just kicked it," he said. "Lots of fellowship. We stayed up all night long."
He seems to have an awful lot of friends. "I don't think I have enemies," Campbell told me. "In order to have an enemy you must have done something. I don't do nothing but to try to love, give, and help people. Everybody can't be a pimp or a player or a hustler. Somebody has to be the trick daddy. I'm looking to be a role model to show that you can come straight up from the concrete and make it."
In a strange twist, one of Campbell's next gigs in LA will be a film adaptation of Pimp, the Iceberg Slim book he read as a teenager. Ice Cube will play the title role, and his company CubeVision and Quincy Jones Entertainment will produce the film for New Line Features. Bill Duke (Hoodlum) will direct, and in addition to serving as a consultant, Campbell will play a small role. "I'll be more less a pimp."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.