Glen Campbell: Memory Maker

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The relationship with Jimmy Webb, which went on to change music history, began inauspiciously enough, as Jimmy tells it. “The first time we actually met … I remember it real well, and it’s a story that Glen denies. But there’s no chance that I’m wrong about it, because Glen was a big deal to me, and he was on television every week.  He had recorded “Phoenix,” and it had already been a substantial hit record, and we had never met.

“Because of that uproar, General Motors approached us about collaborating on a commercial … I was one of the first people to “sell out” completely to corporate interests, which I’m very proud of,” he jokes.

Webb wrote a tune for the date called “Song For The Open Road.”  “I was gonna meet Glen Campbell – this was a big deal … I walked into the recording studio, and Glen was sitting in a chair, tuning his guitar … and he hardly looked at me; his nose was buried in his guitar. And I walk toward him across the room, with my hand out to say, ‘Hello, Mr. Campbell.’ And he looked up at me and said, ‘When you gonna get a haircut?’  My hair was shoulder-length. He claims he didn’t, but he did.”

The partnership went on to change music history. “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” both became number one singles. Jimmy says Glen was an active partner in making the records, arranging, changing chords and lyrics to fit him better and make a better product.

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“He was always coming up with arrangement ideas, and he was adept at it,” Jimmy says. “For example,” he says, “the classic ending to ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ where it goes, ‘She just didn’t know / That I would really go.’ That goes from a C to an A7, kind of a strange change.  Glen came up with that.”

Jimmy credits Glen with popularizing a genre of music. “He created ‘soft country,’ MOR country music that allowed the careers of Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie and other people like that to flourish and prosper. He was the pioneer. Country music was rarely heard on Top 40 Radio, but he brought it into the mainstream.

“You certainly don’t hear any country music on pop radio today,” Jimmy adds. “But for a while you did, and it was a lovely thing to have all the different genres of music cohabiting the Top 40 – the folk sound, The Beatles, the British sound, the Motown sounds, that kind of light country – it was a welcome relief after a few hard rock records. Everyone was sharing the airwaves, and I think it was a beautiful time for American music.”

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When I ask Glen which of his songs meant the most to him, he begins to sing: “‘I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road …’ When I first heard that, I started to cry,” he says. “And I got in my car and I drove to Arkansas to see my folks.”

The song is equally special to Jimmy, who describes it as a “character” song about a blue-collar guy. He says he wrote it expressly for Glen, “because Glen’s voice is the perfect voice for that guy, that ordinary person. And he expressed those feelings for a lot of people who couldn’t sing.”

Despite all the success that followed his Wrecking Crew days, Glen still speaks wistfully about leaving his fellow session musicians behind to become a recording artist. He has difficulty remembering specific songs and sessions; but he distinctly remembers the period as being the most fun he ever had.

“We could just do one take; we didn’t mess around. Laughin’ and poking fun at each other is one thing; but then it was ‘OK, one-two …’ and that’s what I really liked.  The camaraderie of everybody in that Wrecking Crew. That wasn’t work – that was joy.  I got to play with the best musicians in the world.”

He told another interviewer, “I wanted to stay and play with the musicians. It was what I really enjoyed doing, more so than singing.”

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We’re getting ready to wrap up.  Glen is in the middle of a reverie, about his days on tour with The Beach Boys. Playing bass and singing Brian’s parts – “that was the hardest thing I ever did live,” he says. “It was like rubbing your head and patting your stomach. It was maddening.”

Through the gathering fog of memory, it’s interesting to see what stands out in his mind: the grinding poverty of his childhood and his spectacular rise from those humble roots. Time and again he refers to how much money he was paid for doing what he loved.

His memory alights on a recording session with Jan and Dean. Hal Blaine, Leon Russell and Brian Wilson, among other luminaries, were on the date.  He sings me the high falsetto part, perfectly: “It’s the little old lady from Pasadena.” Then he sings the bass part.  “It drove me nuts. But I felt if you’re gonna pay me that much, yeah, I’ll do that.”

He tried to play both parts live in the studio. “It got to the point where I said, ‘I will do mine over,’ please. And I’ll play my guitar over, too …” (he sings the rhythm guitar part) … I’ll play that on bass, and overdub it … double scale!” He breaks into a guffaw.

“Those are great memories, I’ll tell you.”

 

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