by Gary Graff
c.2012 Gary Graff
Glen Campbell gets a warm but wary reception as he strides onstage at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium.
It’s no secret that the five-time Grammy Award winner is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He announced it himself, in June 2011, and has said that his latest album, “Ghost on the Canvas,” will be his last. He’s in the midst of a “Goodbye Tour” that his manager says will go on for as long as Campbell is able to play.
And, sure enough, there are rough moments during his 45-minute set—forgotten lines and guitar licks, visible momentary disorientation. He even acknowledges, with a self-deprecating smile, that “I forget a lot nowadays.”
But Campbell’s resilient spirit, and the gently rendered aid of a band that features three of his children and longtime musical director T.J. Kuenster, ultimately win the night. The new songs hold their own alongside hits such as “Wichita Lineman” (1968), “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) and “Southern Nights” (1977), and the moving “A Better Place,” with its promise that “One thing I know/The world is good to me/A better place awaits you, you see,” indicates that Campbell plans to go down swinging.
Or at least singing.
“I feel great,” the 75-year-old Campbell says. “The Alzheimer’s hasn’t had that much impact on my ability to perform. I’ve used a teleprompter for years, so that’s nothing new. I don’t notice much difference.”
Julian Raymond, who produced “Ghost on the Canvas” and its predecessor, the covers album “Meet Glen Campbell” (2008), says that the Alzheimer’s first became evident during the earlier sessions.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” he recalls in a separate interview. “He was fantastic during the sessions, but there were some issues regarding forgetfulness, having trouble remembering here and there. But it seemed minor. I mean, some of it I attributed to working with a guy who was 72. I know people younger than that who can’t remember what they did yesterday or people’s names, so I didn’t think that much about it.”
Campbell was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in early 2011, and he and his wife made the news public six months later, in an interview with People. When “Ghost on the Canvas” came out in August, it signaled the start of an open-ended celebration of Campbell’s 50-year career.
“Glen can still go out and perform,” says Stan Schneider, Campbell’s manager of 50 years. “He’s not just mailing it in. His voice is still as beautiful as it always was, and his guitar playing is still Glen Campbell. Why not go out and say goodbye to the country? As long as people are enjoying it and not coming out of pity, it’s still a great show.
“If he ever goes out and does not deliver what the people enjoy, then we’ll just say, `Let’s not do this anymore.'”
Campbell’s career is certainly worth celebrating. He’s sold more than 45 million albums and sent more than six dozen hits onto the country charts. He also logged stints playing guitar for Gene Autry, the Beach Boys—including the landmark “Good Vibrations” (1966)—and Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew. He co-starred with John Wayne in “True Grit” (1969) and hosted a television variety show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” (1969-1972). He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
It all started in the tiny town of Billstown, Ark., where Campbell was one of a sharecropper’s dozen children. He learned guitar from his uncle Boo, but it was his father who showed him how to use a capo on the neck of his guitar to hold down his strings, which became his signature sound.
“The strings on that old guitar he had gotten from Sears and Roebuck for $7 were real high,” Campbell recalls. “He put a clamp down on it and that became my capo, and that’s how I got that open, ringing sound. I remember once Brian Wilson looked at me and said, `Where’d you learn all this?’ I said, `I’ve been playing like this ever since I was a kid.'”
When he was 16 Campbell headed for Albuquerque, where he played in a band with another uncle, Dick Bills, and then in his own Western Wranglers. He quickly left New Mexico for Los Angeles, however, joined the Champs and helped Spector create his Wall of Sound. With another producer, Jimmy Bowen, he sat in on songs for Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and others.
“I never learned to read charts or anything,” Campbell recalls. “I just played. I had that open, ringing sound with the capo, which is what they wanted then. That’s why I got so many sessions.
“I’ll never forget the date for (Sinatra’s) `Strangers in the Night,'” he continues. “We did three takes on that, and Frank said, `That’s good enough for me, Jimmy.’ But I’d come out of a Jan & Dean session and go into a Nat `King’ Cole session. I think we did every song that came out of L.A. for awhile, me and the rest of the Wrecking Crew.”
Campbell joined the Beach Boys in 1964, touring with the band after Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown. He recalls Wilson as a brilliant songwriter and musician.
“He would just come up with one song after another,” the guitarist says, “and they just got better and better. `Pet Sounds’ (1966) is probably as good an album as I’ve ever heard.”
Campbell had signed with Capitol Records in 1962, but despite some singles and a couple of instrumental albums he claims that he never thought of becoming a solo artist during that time.
“I was enjoying being a session player and getting to play with the best musicians in the world,” says Campbell, whose resume also included work with Bread, Neil Diamond, the Monkees, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt and many others. “I really enjoyed that, and I didn’t want to give it up. And, besides that, I had never made that kind of money before in my life. You don’t make that kind of money picking cotton, you know? So I wasn’t in a hurry to go out and try to be a star or anything like that.”
His path changed when he met producer Al DeLory, however. Campbell’s 1967 cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” hit the Billboard charts and netted him his first Grammy, for Best Country & Western Solo Vocal Performance, Male.
It was the beginning of his career prime. Besides dominating the country charts, singles such as “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” (1969) and “Rhinestone Cowboy” crossed over into the pop Top 10. “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” launched as a 1968 summer replacement for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and ran for the next four years. He also appeared in films such as “Norwood” (1970), “Any Which Way You Can” (1980) and “Uphill All the Way” (1986), as well as hosting “The Glen Campbell Music Show” (1982-1983).
Although he has acknowledged struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, Campbell’s career leveled out more than crashed during the 1980s and 1990s.
“We were flying pretty high for a long time,” he says. “It’s hard to keep that going.”
It was the ironically titled “Meet Glen Campbell,” featuring covers of songs by Jackson Browne, the Foo Fighters, Green Day, John Lennon, Tom Petty, Randy Travis, U2 and others, which brought the singer/songwriter back onto the contemporary scene. It came, he admits, at a time when he had been contemplating retirement.
“I never thought of it till I reached this age,” Campbell said at the time. “I told my wife, `Hey, I think it’s time I sat back and went and played golf when I want to.’ But she said, `You can’t quit now. You enjoy it too much.'”
Now, however, he faces an end not of his own choosing. With “Ghost on the Canvas” out, Campbell’s handlers are keeping things loose and open-ended.
“I’ve got offers right now going into August, September, October,” Schneider says. “We’re not going to do a `final final’ show—it would be disingenuous to do that. The end date is when he can’t do it anymore.”
The singer/songwriter himself professes to be happy with thing as they are, performing as long as he can, enjoying the time he has left and not bemoaning his fate.
“I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to do,” Campbell says. “I’ve been blessed. When I think back to where I came from, I have been able to do some amazing things in my life. And music will always be part of my life. I plan to just keep playing.”
(Gary Graff is a Beverly Hills, Mich.-based freelance writer.)
Note: This story was released by the New York Times Syndicate in March, 2012; it was written by Gary Graff, through whose kind permission it is reprinted here, and edited by Gayden Wren. Glen Campbell’s final performance was on November 30, 2012; early the next year he recorded his last album, “Adios,” which was released this year. He died on August 8, 2017, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.