The entertainment world lost a true music giant when Glen Campbell passed away on Aug. 8.
When I interviewed Glen in December 2008 for Deadwood Magazine, there was no sign of the Alzheimer’s that would soon afflict him. He was still performing and had recently returned to the studio to record the album “Meet Glen Campbell,” which would peak at number 27 on the Billboard country charts.
For long-time fans, that new recording was an opportunity to rediscover the veteran singer who has entertained America for decades with his Country-Pop fusion style. But as the title suggested, Campbell also wanted to introduce himself to new audiences.
“I’ve been meeting a lot of young people who thought I was just a country and western singer,” Campbell said from his home in Malibu. The album covered a wide variety of songs – some fairly contemporary at the time, and others that went back several decades. “It was most important for me that this still sounded like a Glen Campbell album, and I think it does.”
Tracks included cover versions of “Sing,” the 2001 hit by the Scottish alternative rock group Travis, Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days” from the 1960s, and “Grow Old With Me,” one of the last songs written by John Lennon who recorded it with his wife, Yoko Ono, in their home shortly before Lennon’s death. It has since become a popular tribute song at weddings. “Lennon never got to record it professionally in the studio. Yoko let me use it on the album and you can really 'imagine' him singing it to her.”
Well-known as a vocalist, Campbell was also an accomplished musician. In his early years, he was hotly sought as a reliable and skillful session guitarist. In fact, name almost any music legend from the 60s – Dean Martin, Elvis, Ricky Nelson, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles – and Glen probably played guitar on some of their hit songs.
Listen again to Frank Sinatra’s classic, “Strangers in the Night.” That’s Campbell on rhythm guitar performing all the guitar licks, which no doubt helped push the song to the top of the charts in 1966. “I played the melody along with him,” said Campbell, proudly. “That was the topper of all time, I think, to get to play with Sinatra!”
On stage, Campbell would often wrap his nimble fingers around popular guitar solos such as “Classical Gas,” the Mason Williams’ pop hit from 1968. But Glen knew classical, too. With an orchestral accompaniment, his blistering guitar version of the William Tell Overture ending was a favorite with concert goers, especially when Campbell displayed his theatrical nature by playing the instrument balanced on his head towards the conclusion of the piece.
Campbell found performing with a first-class orchestra a musical treat. “I love playing with big orchestras, everything is so full and rich and it actually makes me sing better.”
Showcasing more of his musical skills – not to mention his Scottish heritage – Campbell would sometimes sing “Amazing Grace” and accompany himself on the bagpipes during a concert. He also played the instrument on several studio albums. But by the time of our interview, he said those days were probably over. “They’re a lot of work to keep in tune and you certainly need a good set of lungs! But with only one-octave range, they are not really all that difficult to play.”
At any Campbell concert, audiences always expected to hear a selection of his classics, such as “Southern Nights,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” But he said there was no mystery behind the success of these mega chart-topping ‘career’ songs that he made his own. “You need a good piece of poetry up front and then a great melody to go with it. That was the genius of Jimmy Webb who wrote many of my biggest hits. He’s one of the best songwriters, ever.”
Webb’s appreciation for Campbell was evident from past comments. “Some songwriters are just blessed in some way,” Webb said in an interview in the late 1990s. “I was blessed by having people like Glen Campbell putting my work out there.”
Despite his own musical talents, Campbell rarely attempted to write songs. “I’m not a writer, I’m really a ‘song doctor.’ If I hear a good song that I like, I’ll change lines and chord progressions, and make it my own.”
Glen Campbell was born just 100 miles from the birthplace of another Arkansas native and country music legend, the late Johnny Cash. The two first crossed paths when Campbell was in his early twenties. “I met him around 1959 in Albuquerque. He was doing a show as ‘Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two’ [the others being Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant]. I’ve never heard anyone sing like that since.”
Campbell and Cash both made the successful jump from country music to pop, and performed together on each other’s TV shows during the 60s and 70s. Campbell’s variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, was watched by up to 50 million viewers each week during its four-season run from 1969-72. Audiences tuned in to CBS on Sunday evenings to watch cheesy humorous skits, typical of the 60s (writers included yet-to-become-famous Steve Martin and Rob Reiner), and the parade of big name singers eager to share the stage with Campbell’s easy-going style of hosting.
Throughout the show’s run, Campbell performed duets with virtually every top artist of the day, including Cher, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Liza Minnelli, Neil Diamond, and Roger Miller. “If I had to pick my favorites, it would be Bobby Gentry and Anne Murray. They were just great to sing with.”
During his concerts, Campbell often tossed in a few anecdotes between songs. Tales about his childhood and the famous entertainers he encountered were fascinating when told in Campbell’s light-hearted and relaxed style. One name that frequently came up was John Wayne – Campbell not only co-starred with Wayne in the 1969 western classic, "True Grit," he sang the movie’s theme song which was nominated for an Oscar. Wayne won the Oscar for Best Actor that year and Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Campbell first met Wayne when “The Duke” strolled onto the set of the Goodtime Hour. “In walked this building!” said Campbell of Wayne’s massive six-foot-four frame. “His daughter was a fan of the show. One day, during a break on the show, in walks the Duke holding his daughter’s hand and she wanted my autograph. A few weeks later, I got a call saying John Wayne wanted me to co-star in 'True Grit.' I wasn’t an actor, but Wayne was pretty smart. He wanted to get popular contemporary entertainers for his films to attract a younger audience. Fabian and Ricky Nelson also did films with him.”
In preparation for our 2008 interview, Campbell’s agent sent me a CD of the “Meet Glen Campbell” album. It remains a personal favorite to this day.
While it may have been a commercial far cry from his numerous chart-toppers of the past, the album had special significance for Campbell. In addition to his daughter, Debby, who has been singing alongside her father for two decades, the record’s list of backing vocalists featured more Campbells than a supermarket soup aisle – Dillon, Cal, Shannon, and Ashley Campbell also joined their famous dad on the album.
“This was the first time so many of my children and grandchildren worked on one of my records,” Campbell said. “It was great to have them all involved.”
And in concerts, Debby would often join her father on stage to perform a duet or two.
“Our voices blend well, and it’s a great joy that we can perform together,” noted Campbell. “I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her when she was young, but she grew up knowing that her dad loved her.”
In his final years, as Alzheimer’s slowly stole his memory, Campbell probably forgot how much his music was loved by his fans. And for others unfamiliar with the man or his music, a quick download is all it takes today to “Meet Glen Campbell.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com.