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Glen Campbell: April 22, 1936 – August 8, 2017

A portrait of Glen Campbell

In 1964, Capitol Records released The Astounding 12-String Guitar Of Glen Campbell, an album of slick instrumental folk featuring covers of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. In the sleeve notes, disc jockey Hugh Cherry – the man who later introduced Johnny Cash on stage at his legendary Folsom Prison shows – makes a prediction: “Glen Campbell has recently gained great fame as an instrumentalist,” he says, “but it is the opinion of this writer that Glen will ultimately gain equal fame and acceptance as a vocalist of rare interpretive ability. He can provide a lyric with humour or pathos, warmth and sincerity.”

Cherry was half-right. While Campbell was indeed an enormously successful guitarist – he was a leading member of famed Los Angeles session musicians the Wrecking Crew, whose Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer also appeared on the album – his later success as a singer dwarfed his achievements as a musician.

But Cherry was spot-on in one respect, astutely describing Campbell’s “rare interpretive ability”. For Campbell could take a song – any song – and effortlessly infuse it with the kind of yearning that made people empathise with the songwriter rather than the singer. It was a strange gift, as if Campbell were able to channel someone else’s sadness directly to the listener, without ever adding any of his own emotional baggage along the way. And when coupled with the right songwriter, as he was when partnered with Jimmy Webb on classics such as Wichita Lineman, Galveston or By The Time I Get To Phoenix, they created perfection.

Campbell and Webb. Two southerners attempting to make it big in Los Angeles, one the son of a sharecropper, the other the son of a Baptist preacher. Their careers would be intertwined from the moment in 1961 when, attracted by the singer’s wistful voice, Webb bought his first single, Glen Campbell’s cover of Jerry Capehart’s Turn Around, Look At Me. The pair wouldn’t meet for another six years, but from that moment on they created occasional magic. Campbell’s best songs were also Webb’s. When Campbell flew to London in 1977 to perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Webb was the conductor. A decade later they hooked up for Light Years, an album featuring eight Webb tracks. And earlier this year, when Campbell’s final studio album, Adios, was released, there were four Webb songs on it. It was a touching relationship. During solo gigs, both men would talk about the other with enormous affection.

“When it came to friendship, Glen was the real deal,” Webb wrote following Campbell’s death. “He spoke my name from ten thousand stages. He was my big brother, my protector, my co-culprit, my John crying in the wilderness. Nobody liked a Jimmy Webb song as much as Glen! And yet he was generous with other writers: Larry Weiss, Allen Toussaint, John Hartford. You have to look hard for a bad song on a Glen Campbell album. He was giving people their money’s worth before it became fashionable.”

For more than 50 years and across more than 50 albums, Campbell repeated the formula, taking other people’s songs and providing an emotional conduit between writer and receiver. Like Elvis Presley – another man whose strengths lay as an interpreter rather than as an originator – he was never really an ‘album artist’, even if his collections were unerringly cohesive. It was always about the song, right up until the end, when he made four albums that were put together almost as state-of-the-union addresses. They were albums curated with sympathy and taste, from 2008’s Meet Glen Campbell, which included covers of songs from Green Day, Paul Westerberg, the Velvet Underground, Travis, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne, to the trio of albums he made after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. The first, Ghost On The Canvas, might just be the best album ever made by a 75-year-old, and featured contributions Billy Corgan, Rick Nielson, Dick Dale and Brian Setzer, plus another two songs by Westerberg. It sounded current.

Campbell was more than just a musician. He was a film star, appearing opposite an Oscar-winning John Wayne in True Grit. He hosted The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which ran for four seasons on CBS, beaming the singer into American living rooms every Sunday evening. In 1969 he introduced the American TV premiere of The Beatles’ final live performance, shot on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building in London. Hell, at the time, Campbell was outselling The Beatles in the US.

But he was first and foremost a musician. Heavily influenced by the jazz great Django Reinhart, he left home to 17 to join his uncle’s band in New Mexico, from where he could send money home to his family in Arkansas. By 1960 he was in Los Angeles, joining The Champs, who’d had a global hit with Tequila two years earlier. The following year he got together with Phil Everly and Carole King for a one-off single as the Keestone Family Singers, and with the Wrecking Crew he played on hits by The Hollies, Dick Dale, The Monkees, Elvis, Bobby Darin, Rick Nelson, The Byrds, Merle Haggard, Lee Hazlewood, Nancy Sinatra, the Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner and dozens of others. When Brian Wilson decided he didn’t want to play live with the Beach Boys, Campbell switched to bass and went on tour. And when Wilson needed a guitarist during the Pet Sounds sessions, Campbell got the call again.

Glen Campbell was a genius guitarist. In 1999 he appeared on The Nashville Network’s Country Legend’s Homecoming, appearing on a stage surrounded by Nashville royalty: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, Crystal Gayle and more. Handed an acoustic guitar, the pressure on, he plays a fleet-fingered version of his first big hit, Gentle On My Mind. Mouths drop. Fellow guitarists study his fingers and grin with delight. There’s an impromptu round of applause at the climax. And The Rhinestone Cowboy proves, once again, that no one was ever better at making difficult look easy.

The stars pay tribute

“I’m very broken up to hear about my friend Glen Campbell. He was an incredible musician and an even better person. I’m at a loss. Love & Mercy.” - Brian Wilson

“God bless and peace and love to Glen Campbell. Thanks for the music. The real rhinestone cowboy and love to all his family.” - Ringo Starr

“As well as your incredible musical abilities you were one of the most down to earth people I have ever known. RIP.” - Peter Frampton

“So sad to hear of Glen Campbell passing. A stellar session player, singer and performer. I loved his Jimmy Webb songs.” - Paul Stanley

“Huge loss in the world of music today. Rest In Peace.” - Sheryl Crow

“Glen was one of the premier guitar players in rock and country. A lot of people don’t know the respect he had in the rock’n’roll world.” - Alice Cooper

“I’m so very sorry to hear this. Glen was such a talented, great guy. Thankful to have known him.” - Kenny Rogers

“Besides being an amazing solo artist, Glen was also a genius studio musician.” - Lenny Kravitz

Glen Campbell, 1936 - 2017: The Man With The Perfect Voice

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.