By Mark Guarino
The hunt for Glen Campbell can take you places you wouldn’t expect. Those are his frisky guitar fills on the Monkees hit “I’m a Believer.” He is all over “Pet Sounds” (Capitol), the seminal album by the Beach Boys. His guitarwork is heard inside Phil Spector’s wall of sound on hits including “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. And he also did time working on late-career singles from two of the world’s biggest stars, Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”) and Elvis Presley (“Viva Las Vegas”). On the television show he hosted in the late ‘60s, he jammed with the likes of Ray Charles and Roger Miller but also Cream.
Campbell was the epicenter of show business in the ‘60s for his versatility, first as a guitar player, then a recording star who combined pop with country and later, a television host of a popular variety show. As the Woodstock generation grew their hair long and dropped acid, Campbell remained deceptively cleancut despite his own demons. He was the type of star the crosscurrent of America could relate with. But, due to a healthy partnership with songwriter Jimmy Webb, the songs Campbell’s smooth croon sang were lonely stories of drifters and simple folks. While his peers Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and other country stars claimed to be outlaws, Campbell’s songs were middle-of-the-road ordinary, but cast in a sad light.
“If I liked the song, I did it. It didn’t matter if it was trying aim at country trying to aim at pop. I was just trying to do a song best possible way I can,” Campbell, 69, said recently by phone from his home in Malibu. He has racked up 48 country hits and 34 pop hits under his belt between 1967 and 1980, but has slowed performing live (his last country hit was in 1989) aside from the occasional casino and the Branson circuit. He makes a rare live performance tonight at the Old Town School, accompanied by a four-piece band.
The recent spurt of touring has reinvigorated his guitar playing, he said. “I like to play guitar now, stretch everything out,” he said. “If I had my druthers, I’d just play guitar than sing. Because the guitar don’t get colds, frogs in the throats and all that jazz.”
Campbell grew up in a sharecropping family, raised in home with no electricity in rural Arkansas. He remembers discovering music on the battery radio. “Whatever music I could get, that’s what we would listen to. It was big band, it was real cornball country,” he said.
He moved to L.A. in 1960 after stints playing in bands in the South and Southwest. There, he quickly earned accolades as session guitarist, eventually becoming a member of the Wrecking Crew, a back-up band that included pianist Leon Russell and drummer Hal Blaine. Having played on sessions with everyone from Dean Martin to the Beach Boys, the band bridged the gap between stars from a decade earlier and the rock’s transformation into experimentation and volume.
It was a time when studio spontaneity ruled and performers were interested in the emotional feel of a song, not necessary technical precision. Campbell remembered Sinatra cutting “Strangers in the Night” after three takes. “Frank didn’t get there for probably two hours into the session,” he said. “He knew how to do it.”
One of the last landmark sessions Campbell played on before his own career took off was playing on the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” album and later replacing Brian Wilson on a three-month tour in 1965 after Wilson quit to concentrate on studio work. “I didn’t know the lyrics to the songs, man. And to sing the high (parts), I just said ‘wow’. Thank god that Al Jardine would trade off for me sometimes and I could do the lower parts,” he said, laughing.
By then, Campbell had come into his own as a performer. His first song to break through was “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written by Jimmy Webb. The partnership between Campbell and Webb was a fruitful one, resulting in signature hits like “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman.” The songs were easy listening that crossed over to the pop charts due to their lush string arrangements. Plus, Campbell’s sober delivery filled Webb’s characters with true depth. He also knew how to reach the mainstream public. Webb has long said Campbell’s upbeat phrasing of “Galveston” made the song’s anti-war message during the Vietnam era reach a wider audience.
Campbell said his lifelong collaboration with Webb was due to geography. “We come from the same part of the country, he was Oklahoma, I was Arkansas. Probably 150 miles apart,” he said. “I just liked his lyrics. His melodies and chord progressions are as good as anything I’d ever heard.”
His television show gave Campbell further fame that lasted through the ‘70s, peaking with the urban cowboy craze that led to a career boost when he recorded his biggest hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” By then, he was struggling with a lifestyle that incorporated healthy amounts of drugs and alcohol as well as three divorces. Just like the song, he eventually fled L.A. for Phoenix. “When kids started coming … I had to straighten my act up a lot,” he said. Two years ago, he made headlines when he was arrested for driving drunk and kicking a police officer, charges that led to probation and community service. He recently moved to Malibu be close to his daughter, who is attending Pepperdine University.
These days he hits the casino circuit in between rounds of golf. He envisions he and Webb might do some dates next year if he feels up to it. As someone who started to push country in a pop direction, even he feels that modern country music has gone too far. “I think the country music they’re doing today is nothing like that in the ‘50s,” he said. His own factor for choosing what to sing will always be about the song. “Music,” he said. “Is music.”