Daily Mail 10.8.17
Glen Campbell was a brave man. You have to be brave to set off on a vast nationwide tour of the US fully aware that you have Alzheimer’s Disease, that you may not always know where you are, who is on stage with you or the order of the famous songs that you are going to sing.
But that is what Glen Campbell did in 2011 at the age of 75. He knew what his illness was, but he knew, too, that going on tour would draw attention to the disease, a focus that could only help others similarly afflicted.
Some might think it was cruel for his family to put him through such an exhausting, and potentially humiliating, experience. But anyone who saw the documentary of that tour, It’ll Be Me, which will almost certainly be shown again on TV during the next few days, should surely have had any misgivings dispelled.
Because, although some of the singer’s moments at home were upsetting to watch, what you saw when Campbell came on stage was an old man, shrugging off the years and the sickness to become a consummate, happy entertainer again. Bright eyed and happy in his music, the burdens of his everyday living were put aside for his hours in the spotlight.
It didn’t matter if he sometimes unknowingly sang Gentle On My Mind twice. He was enjoying the moment, the music and the audience.
Overwhelmingly it was uplifting to see a man rediscover himself and his dignity in song, to be able to say to the world, ‘I know that, like so many other people, I have a degenerative disease. But I’m still me. I’m still Glen Campbell. And I can still play and sing and entertain you.’
And couldn’t he just. On Monday, when news of his death, aged 81, in a care home Nashville was announced, how many millions of us found ourselves sadly and silently humming the tune of Rhinestone Cowboy as we found ourselves glancing back at moments of our lives that had passed away, too.
That’s what music does for us, and Glen Campbell, with his sunny, corn-fed looks, and lilting, prairy voice, was the perfect interpreter of the ordinary life put to music. Perhaps that was why one of his hits was Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife. His congregation were everyday people.
He often sang about America, about a working man stretching cables across the sky in Wichita Lineman, and about another guy’s broken hearted journey from city to city as he leaves the women he loves in the song By The Time I Get To Phoenix. The pictures he put in our minds may have been of the American west, but emotions are the same the whole world over, and Glen Campbell could convey feelings like few others.
He once said he liked to sing ‘me’ songs. ‘You just try to say it right in the proper place,’ he explained, ‘and if you get the music and voice in tune you’ll be alright. It’s always worked for me.’
He made it sound easy, and it may have been when he found success in the Sixties, but few had an apprenticeship quite like his. Because he wasn’t just a personable guy with a good voice. In fact his voice wasn’t even his first passport to success. It was his musicianship. He was a brilliant guitarist.
Born the seventh child of twelve to a poor Arkansas sharecropper (a tenant who farms the land in return for a share of the crops produced) in the rural heart of America he spent his childhood helping his father in the fields before buying his first Gene Autry cowboy guitar from a catalogue for seven dollars.
The only radio station where he lived mainly played country music, so every time he heard a new song he taught himself to play it. In a more sophisticated walk of life he might have been considered something of a prodigy, but they didn’t talk of prodigies where he grew up. All the same, by the time he was fifteen he was playing professionally with his Uncle Boo’s band and then on a radio station in Albuquerque.
He knew he was good and, after having his own little local group, in 1959, aged 23, he set off for Los Angeles where he soon found work as an in-demand guitarist with a loosely knit group of session musicians who called themselves the Wrecking Crew and who would go from studio to studio backing the top singers of the day.
As popular as some rock and roll bands might have been on the TV or in the clubs, they often didn’t play on their own records. Musicians like Glen Campbell were there to do that.
None of us knew it, but probably the first time we heard Glen Campbell on record was when he played on Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas, after which he appeared on many Phil Spector hits, including the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and the Monkees’ I’m A Believer.
Then there was the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man and Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, when, unnerved to be in the presence of the great man, he couldn’t stop staring at him.
He would laugh when he recounted the incident. ‘Frank asked the producer, “Who’s that fag guitarist over there?” I told him I’d slap him if he said that again.’
What Sinatra probably didn’t know was that, perhaps alone in that particular company of musicians, there was no point in Campbell staring at the music sheet he’d been handed instead of him. He couldn’t read music. He played entirely by ear.
While always hoping to find fame for himself, he stood in for Brian Wilson on guitar and sang falsetto on tour with the Beach Boys when Wilson was unwell. He was even on their Pet Sounds album in 1966.
Then a year later his big break as a singer came when he recorded a song called Gentle On My Mind. It was perfect for him, in that in a series of images it breathed itinerant American life. Not that massive a hit at the time, it has since become a classic.
But it was his relationship with a young songwriter called Jimmy Webb later that year that was to cement his singing style when he recorded By the Time I Get To Phoenix, to be followed soon after by Wichita Lineman.
Webb hadn’t finished writing the lyrics to that when it was recorded, so Campbell simply plugged in his guitar and musically improvised the last verse. What impressed Webb even more, though, was the singer’s octave leap at the end of every verse when Campbell sings ‘still on the…line!’.
‘He made me sound good,’ Webb said recently. ‘He hit notes that, honestly, he shouldn’t have been able to hit. A lot of other singers would have said, “Hey, listen. Take this home and work on it. Because I can’t sing it.”’
But Glen Campbell could. He could act, too, a little (though not lot), and being a good looking, fair haired young man he was soon appearing alongside John Wayne in True Grit, for which, of course, he sang the title song.
By now he had his own TV show, aptly named for a man with such a seemingly happy disposition The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, and was enjoying the folksie charm of playing the part of the cowboy with his crocodile skin boots and hat in real life, too. And then along came Rhinestone Cowboy.
Already turned down by some of the biggest singers of the time, including Elvis Presley, Campbell elevated it into an anthem for Middle America, with the lyrics and his voice catching the mood of the trials and tribulations of, once again, the ordinary man.
But Campbell was not very ordinary anymore. Things were now going wrong in his personal life. Divorced from his first wife whom held married when held been 17, and missing his two children, he was following the well-trodden path of many country singers, stuffing his nose with cocaine and drinking too much.
He hadn’t had those problems when he’d been doing the sessions, he would say later. He’d had no time for playing around then. Only when fame came did he lose his footing in the world.
Drugs and drink would continue to blight his personal life, and two more marriages followed, before in 1981 he met Kimberly ‘Kim’ Woolen on a blind date, marrying her a year later. She had a difficult time at first with his boozing and the dope, but then on the floor in a Las Vegas suite, he ‘found God’, as he put it, and turned his life round. Apart from one slip in 2003, when he was jailed for ten days after a traffic accident as a result of drugs, he stayed clean for the rest of his life.
He and Kim became born again Christians and together had three children, all of whom became musicians and part of his backing band until he was too ill to perform.
Then in 2011 he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The symptoms had, he said, been there for some years, but had been becoming increasingly evident.
His response was to go on one last grand tour while he was still able, and in 2012 to make his final goodbye to his fans at the Grammy Awards.
For a man with three ex-wives s and a total of eight children it was sad, but not particularly surprising, that not all his family were happy when in 2016 he was committed to a care home in Nashville when his wife Kim felt that he needed constant care.
But, despite a career that sold over fifty million albums and won numerous awards, there was never going to be a happy ending to this story of a man who brought so much pleasure to so many millions; a man who, towards the end was brave enough to face up to his disease in the most public way.