Glen Campbell: Memory Maker

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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If, as Malcolm Gladwell has proposed, success is predicated on practicing a specific task for 10,000 hours, Glen got in his 10,000 hours early. Born in Billstown, Arkansas, in 1936, a town so tiny it isn’t even on the map, he was the youngest of 12 children, his father a sharecropper. His ticket out of poverty was his uncanny ability to play guitar. His mastery of the instrument began on a three-quarter sized guitar his father bought him from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Glen’s Uncle Boo, the best guitarist in the family, taught him to play, then took him on the road to play honky-tonks and dives in Wyoming. He wound up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, singing and playing with another musical uncle, Dick Bills.

Glen remembers this part like it was yesterday: “He had a radio show in Albuquerque – Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys. And he really taught me a lot about music. I was only about 15 years old. I played lead, I played rhythm, I played anything.” Uncle Dick also had a children’s TV show on Saturday morning.

Kim interrupts: “Sing him the song, honey …”

Glen sings:

Ridin’ down the trail to Albuquerque
Saddlebags all filled with beans and jerky
Headin’ for K Circle B
The TV ranch for you and me
K Circle B in Albuquerque.

“We did five shows a week. And I sure learned a lot of songs,” he says. It was also in Albuquerque that he started listening to jazz guitarists, especially Django Reinhardt. “There’s not a better guitar player I’ve ever heard,” Glen says. “I found his records and would imitate them … the ones I could keep up with. He would do this thing … [he scats a Django guitar part] … and my hair would stand up.”

He stayed eight years, honing his craft every day on the radio, playing the clubs at night, until a friend, a disc jockey at a Los Angeles radio station, lured him away. “I headed for California, man … best move I ever made.”

It was 1960, and L.A. was the recording capital of the country. Attending a session with his DJ friend, Glen paid careful attention to the guitarists, who were experienced jazz players. He thought he could play as well as they did, but he would do it differently: he would use a capo.

He scuffled at first, becoming a staff songwriter during the day at American Music. There he met another struggling songwriter and producer, Jimmy Bowen – later to become the legendary producer and record executive. Bowen helped Glen find studio work. Glen also became a member of The Champs, of “Tequila” fame; a band that also included the founding members of Seals & Crofts.

Before long, Glen was running with the town’s premier session players, the legendary Wrecking Crew, as they came to be known. The group included guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, piano and organ man Larry Knechtel and bassist Carol Kaye, the sole woman among the session elite. Brilliant musicians all, they were dazzled by Glen’s facility despite his lack of formal musical training.

On this point, Glen’s long-term memory is precise. “I could read chord charts,” he says. “And I was the only that knew how to use a capo!  Tommy was the guy who was running (the crew). And I’d show him the different positions that I could play in G – because they wanted open sevenths – a ringing sound. In the C position with the capo, you could play E-flat – open and ringing, which you can’t do without a capo. It’s airier. And I got to play on every session, man.”

He’s not kidding. He worked dates for Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, The Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Bobby Darin, The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, The Association, The Monkees and many more. “Everybody and his dog was getting that group to do their sessions. It was great. I was making more money there than I had ever made in my life.”

Glen’s playing is all over Pet Sounds, which Brian Wilson created over many months in the studio, relying heavily on The Wrecking Crew. He seemed to be everywhere in those years: playing in the house band on the landmark ABC-TV rock and roll variety show Shindig; guesting on NBC-TV’s Hootenanny; and replacing Wilson as a Beach Boy for about six months on the road.  He can even be seen playing guitar in the house band for the legendary ‘60s concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, along with other Wrecking Crew members.

Running from session to session – as many as six in one day– he also did jingle work with Bowen. One of his biggest jingles was a hit commercial for Lady Clairol, made to sound like a Beach Boys song.

Glen enjoys reliving that session. He sings me the lead – “Is it true blondes have more fun?” – then imitates the other parts of the arrangement, including the bass vocal part (actually sung by a young, struggling singer and piano player named Leon Russell), ending with the shout, “Go Clairol!” He laughs. “Now that had some money to it … that was high cotton!  It was more money than I’d ever made.”

His singing and good looks caught the attention of the record companies. His first single, on the Crest label, was “Turn Around, Look at Me,” a tune he co-wrote; it became a regional hit, peaking at No. 62.  It sounds like many other ballads of the era, and Glen sings it with an uncharacteristic vibrato. The song made a huge impression, however, on a 14-year-old in Oklahoma by the name of Jimmy Webb.

“I borrowed a dollar off of my Dad,” Jimmy remembers, “and I went out and bought a hit single that Glen had, ten years before I ever met him, called ‘Turn Around, Look at Me.’ I played the record over and over again. Great little song, and it was very inspirational for me. And I can remember getting down on my knees by my bed – because I was a very good little Baptist boy – and saying, ‘Dear God please let me grow up and maybe meet someone like Glen Campbell, and maybe he’ll do one of my songs.’ I was really dreaming large. The odds of that actually happening in the real world are astronomical, but that’s exactly what happened.”

Glen signed with Capitol the following year, in 1962. At first, the label had no idea what to do with him, releasing a bluegrass album, then a couple of albums of instrumentals. His first Capitol single, “Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry,” however, is a revelation – a bluesy, torchy countrypolitan performance that sounds like it would have been at home on Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music released the previous year, including the strings and lush chorus.

Although he had no major hits, Capitol stuck with him. Their investment paid off big-time in 1967 when they released Glen’s country-pop version of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.” The record, released to country and Top 40 radio, became a huge hit, going on to win the Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording of 1967.

Everything changed again, when Glen began recording the songs of Jimmy Webb. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” hit No. 2 on the country charts, and No. 26 on the pop charts. By early 1968 he began appearing regularly on the top-rated Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. Tom and Dick chose Glen as their summer replacement, and he was a hit. CBS gave Glen his own variety show the next year, The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, which lasted four seasons. Musical highlights, including duets with Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and other greats, live still on YouTube.

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