Wasn’t it just yesterday that we tuned in to “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” on television, and watched as a pure-D country boy from Delight, Arkansas, charmed his way into our homes and our hearts? That was 1969.
Delight, Arkansas, proudly claims their native son. It's 34 miles from Delight to Hope, Arkansas, the city best known as a birthplace of a U.S. President. It's also the birthplace of a good friend here in Bryan, Texas, and in my many travels there over past decades, the people there today are as gracious and kind as they were back when Glen was growing up there. Small towns always have charm, good stories, great vegetables to prepare, local color, and rich history worth sharing for the next generations. Most of all, they as a community are proud when one of their own "makes good." They claim you, and that says "everything" about you right there. You belong.
episodes of “Shindig” from 1964–1965 He was a self-taught “guitar picker” of the first order in Arkansas terms. In Los Angeles music circles, he was a first-call studio musician. Years of practice made him one of the most accomplished raw talents ever to find acclaim without having been mentored or shepherded into the field by someone else. He found his own way to Hollywood. Therein began the problem, I think.
Left: Glen Campbell, Wrecking Crew member, in the studio. Photo credit: CNN.
Right (below): Leon Russell, Wrecking Crew member, in the studio. Photo credit: The Gretsch Pages
True, they were for decades unknown celebrities, but today thanks to Denny Tedesco and social media, they're recognized for their genius and role in creating the music we all love and still own. No, anonymity didn't guarantee a happy life, but it preserved a stable existence. Clearly, not all celebrities lived excessive lifestyles, but the boy from Delight was transfixed by what he thought was his playground to enjoy and he chose not to miss a moment of it, the grand, the great, and the tragic. Eventually, he crashed and burned, badly. When it came time for Glen to record his own songs, naturally the Wrecking Crew would be his choice. Quick, hear the opening of “Wichita Lineman” in your head? Opening bass line that sets the whole song for you? Carol Kaye. And so it was that Glen Campbell, playing his guitar on hit after hit, including and especially the Beach Boys’ sound, helped establish and undergird the elements of every pop, rock, and easy listening song on virtually every label coming out of Los Angeles.
Yes, Glen was part of the Beach Boys for a time, but really, he was the first and only one of the Wrecking Crew to really ever break out of the pack on his own and achieve a level of stardom that eclipsed many of the people whose records he was on as a session player.
Someone brilliantly put together a YouTube video of Glen’s best guitar solos, and it’s definitely worth a look.
Glen lost himself inside the world that he'd longed to live in and belong to. In becoming a true member of "the scene," he left behind the safety and stability of the Wrecking Crew, whose lifestyles didn't include drugs and alcohol because they worked unglamorous hours and raised their kids on the money they made in the studios each day. Glen had belonged there, too, and stayed as long as he could, until his desire to stretch and grow overran his good common sense. He crossed the line of safety. While others partied hard, the Wrecking Crew (save for a choice few) have lived full, healthy lives because they knew better than to try and risk stability for drugs.
While he was sprinkled in stardust and lit by spotlights, hit after hit belonged to Glen Campbell, thanks in large measure to the songwriting talents of Jimmy Webb. As a Texan, probably my favorite of Glen’s songs was “Galveston,” penned by Webb.
Again, what's poignant in this video is that Glen allows Steve Wariner plenty of time to share the spotlight, and then he shows on his own solo the virtuoso that he was always will remain in the hearts and minds of those who love him.
Another Webb-Campbell hit was the angst-filled song that became ‘known’ was “Where’s the Playground, Susie,” which Glen poured his soul into as he sang. “Wichita Lineman” was probably the biggest hit of the Webb-Campbell combination, although I’m not relying on chart history, just strong subjective opinion.
Again, you see songwriter John Hartford on banjo on Glen's show. He was always surrounded by the best musicians, and in the studio, he was as well.
Then, perhaps others' favorite Webb-Campbell combo is on "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In this version, Glen is definitely "young Glen" with his newly minted country-style suit, and his guitar with his name on the fretboard, the way many Grand Ol' Opry stars had on their custom guitars. It's charming, really, and it's country.
Glen Campbell’s life and loves and trauma-drama of his middle years were typical tabloid fodder. I recall being extremely angry reading his actions because he had made so many poor choices. It’s funny to read that sentence back, knowing he didn’t give a flying fig about what I, or anyone else, thought of him, and yet, whenever I collect music and follow the careers of singers I enjoy, musicians I admire, I’d like to think that I make smart choices. When they do something dumb, I dismiss them from my mind and say, “Well, that was great music for its time…moving on, now.”
But something happened in the middle of my disdain for Glen and his distracted craziness as he played victim to “living life large,” and that was basically so many of his fans also gave up on him, stopped caring, and he went to being a caricature of himself, it seemed. It wouldn’t have been inappropriate to ask him, “Didn’t you used to be Glen Campbell?”
He had a wicked funny sense of humor. He was popular on television talk shows and kept the hosts in stitches as his natural responses to their questions revealed country-boy charm mixed with big-city wisdom and America sort of fell in love with him again. All was forgiven, sort of, kind of. He was, after all, a maniacally good guitarist who was a savant at how to deliver a song.
In 1993, I had the great fortune of traveling with a dear friend as we took her mother to the mecca trip of all mecca trips: Branson, Missouri. It had been a bucket list item for her and as we made the trek, we saw six shows in three days. The major league brilliant college-age showband backing consummate showman Andy Williams at his Moon River Theatre, to Tony Orlando giving his all at the newly christened Yellow Ribbon Theatre, to Wayne Newton (of course!) being Wayne Newton, Shoji Tabuchi at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre (ask anyone about that theatre and one word comes to mind—bathrooms!—elegant!), and then Glen Campbell and the Smothers Brothers on the same bill, just like the old days on television.
I remember that Glen’s oldest daughter, Debby, performed with him, and it seemed as though the onstage duo was mending hearts as well as blending songs as they reunited to make music. Glen’s musicality was never in question. He played about every instrument someone tossed at him, and made it all look easy. It felt good to watch a calmer, gentler Glen take on the music and connect with the audience “the way he used to do.”
Fast forward to years later and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Never mind the middle of his life, forget the trauma-drama that surrounded much of his conduct and waste of time and talents…America opened their hearts with sympathy to the then current plight and admission that years of living as he lived remained forgotten. The origin of Alzheimer’s in a person’s body is still not very quantifiable but no matter the origin, there it was alive and thriving in Glen Campbell’s brain, robbing him of his own best (and worst) memories. Perhaps that wasn’t so bad.
Either way, at the end of his life, Glen was fortunate enough to marry a woman who provided great loving care for him, and gave his life dignity and meaning at the very end, when it was most important to him.
One of his best friends in the final years of his life was rocker Alice Cooper. Although the two seem an unlikely combination, as this recent video interview shows, the two men were like brothers. It's heartening to hear Alice's words as they bring comfort and consolation to know that all the best circumstances surrounded Glen as his condition began to increase.
I’m not sure what the last things were that Glen Campbell actually thought about as he approached his end of days, confronting his mortality, and being relieved that a long struggle was about to end, but whether or not he realized it, he brought hours and years of joy to so many lives with his music. His talents remain unforgotten among those who respect session players; his sense of humor will always define him, and at the heart of soul of the troubled Glen Campbell, deep down inside, that kid from Delight, Arkansas, really showed up proud in the big city, where he made his fame and fortune on talent, guts, and determination.
Sharing a special video of a favorite song, with both Glen and John Hartford, who wrote the song, performing and showing Glen’s gift of harmony and humility as he allows the songwriter to have a showcase of his own. That’s the true strength of starpower, when you can give the credit where it is due. The singer makes the beautiful song a major hit, but it’s even more beautiful when the singer thanks the songwriter for the hit that brought the magic.
Rest in peace, Glen Travis Campbell. You’ll always be gentle on my mind.
Photo credit: TWC Central.