Glen Campbell Remembered

Long before Glen Campbell’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease was made public it was obvious he was struggling with his memory.

When I interviewed him in late 2007 it was very clear as he began to tell the same stories several times within our 20-minute interview. I decided that it would be his story to tell when he was ready to tell it and did not mention this in the piece. After all the hours of pleasure this son of Arkansas had brought this fan it seemed the least I could do. He had announced it would be his last Australian tour and that was enough for me. I certainly didn’t want to scare off any potential concert-goers. 

The review for the concert is included after the story. It remains the finest performance I have ever seen between a popular music performer and the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. 

The story ran in The Sunday Times in December, 2007. The live review is from The Australian in February, 2008

RIP Glen Campbell

'You’ve got to have a good horse if you’re gonna win a race'

Grammy winner Glen Campbell has just announced that his impending Australian tour, which begins with two dates with WASO, will be his last official visit to Australia.

Since he was a young boy in Delight, Arkansas, Glen Campbell has been able to make money with music. First as a guitarist in his uncle’s band, then as a radio DJ, well regarded (and paid) session musician, Brian Wilson’s temporary replacement in the Beach Boys, a pop singer, and TV star. Throw in a brief flirtation with hit movies and by almost any measure it’s been a successful life.

You get the feeling that 71-year-old Campbell is just glad to have come out with his faculties intact. He has had considerable highs in his career including dozens of hits on both the pop and country charts, but has also been involved in some infamous incidents, the result of well publicised problems with drink and drugs.

The passionate golfer says he can’t remember the last time he took a drink – despite being found guilty of DUI in 2003 – and deflects any discussions about this period in his life by saying light heartedly, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke anything. I gave my mind and soul to God because I thought he’d do a better job of looking after them than I did.”

In conversation, he is prone to dropping corny jokes like he was still on camera on his variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (which coincidentally has just been released on DVD), but amid the laughs there is a humility that is positively charming.

Asked about whether he wants to be recalled principally as a singer or guitarist, Campbell says that he still plays most days, but doesn’t necessarily sing. Then quick as a flash he starts talking about current musicians he admires. Top of his list is Keith Urban and American chart-topper, Brad Paisley. Unsurprisingly both those artists are appreciated for both their playing and singing. Campbell says that while he was honoured to pick up an award for his guitar work in 1968, he thinks his abilities have dimmed a little since then and believes he’d have trouble keeping up with the youngsters. He has had occasion to watch both up close in the past year, Urban in concert, Paisley in an informal jam session.

Campbell’s hit recordings feature his always tasteful picking but he has never gone out of his way to show off. All those years in studios playing on recordings like Strangers In The Night, I’m A Believer and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ taught him that the song was paramount, and when his opportunity came to stand in the spotlight he broke through with a series of melodically sound songs. While the likes of Gentle On My Mind, Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights have been taken to heart by both pop and country fans, when pushed, Campbell says that if he had to describe his playing he’d say he loves to play jazz licks over non jazz backgrounds.

One name that will be forever entwined with Campbell is that of master songwriter, Jimmy Webb. Campbell had no less than six major hits with Webb’s compositions, and songs like Wichita Lineman, Galveston, By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Where’s The Playground Susie are likely to feature in the WA concerts.

Wichita Lineman appears to have a particularly special spot in Campbell’s heart. The composition, and his recording of it, regularly features in lists of the finest songs ever. The singer defers to the brilliance of Webb and says he is proud for his friend, and of his own accomplishments in the song’s bid for immortality will only add, “You’ve got to have a good horse if you’re gonna win a race.”

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Glen Campbell with WASO

Burswood Theatre, Perth, February 1, 2008

On his final Australian tour, Glen Campbell showed that time may be catching up with him but he’s going out while still a formidable singer, guitarist and entertainer. With his tight four-piece band, including ever-smiling drummer Gary Bruzzese who sang along with every song on the program, and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, a genial Campbell offered a selection of his greatest hits and took a few unexpected detours.

You’d have to go a long way to hear a better opening triple shot than Gentle On My Mind, Galveston and By The Time I Get To Phoenix and that salvo encapsulated all that was to come. Firstly, it was immediately apparent that there was a huskiness creeping in to the higher register of Campbell’s voice and it was not the pristine, clear instrument it once was. That said he’s still a hell of a singer with an almost impeccable taste in song selection and delivery. He took a slightly extended guitar solo on Galveston, which showed his ability in that area remains sharp. Always in touch with the melody – and when dealing with the sublime work of his frequent collaborator Jimmy Webb, why wouldn’t you? - as on his hit recordings, Campbell the guitar picker has the knack of leaving you wanting more.

Just as important as the star’s abilities and the material was the orchestra. Later in the night Campbell would declare that WASO was ‘as good as I’ve ever played with’ and it was hard to not get a touch of hometown pride hearing these great songs come to life and be shown to their full potential. On Phoenix the arrangement emphasised the bottom end, particularly the trombone, and this came straight after the stirring strings that had coloured Galveston.

These clash-of-two-cultures concerts are always pleasurable, but sometimes there can be an overriding sense of novelty and too often one leaves feeling the orchestra has been under-utilised. This wasn’t the case on Friday. Campbell’s set was geared towards fully exploiting the ensemble. As well as stirring renditions of Classical Gas and The William Tell Overture, he added songs that weren’t hits for him like MacArthur Park and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, classics that demanded this scale of presentation.

Campbell did not hide the fact he was relying on his teleprompter for the lyrics, and at one point even went to tell the same joke again, but rather than diminishing from the show these foibles actually added to it. Singing songs that frequently, that have almost superhuman properties, here was a man who realised he was past his prime but still delighted in sharing his gifts. Fingers crossed there’ll be a Melba-like change of heart on the cards.

 

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