Glen Campbell, in memoriam
The inimitable singer Glen Campbell passed away yesterday after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was diagnosed in late 2010, but with the tireless care of his wife Kim, he continued to perform and even filmed a fifteen-month farewell tour that followed the pernicious advance of the disease. As with many sufferers of Alzheimer's, his knowledge and facility with music lasted longer than his memories of people, places, or things. Even after the lyrics to the songs he had sung thousands of times were lost to him, he could still play them. He could still read the lyrics on a teleprompter. The man was perhaps the finest guitarist of his time, a fact unknown to his millions of fans who loved his voice and songs.
Before Campbell became a star in his own right, he had sung and played guitar on the records of countless other groups and soloists the 1960s and '70s: The Beach Boys, Sagittarius, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc. It is a long list of greats. What many people do not know is that he did not read music but had an auditory eidetic memory. He would and could hear a song once and know every word, note, and chord. In studio sessions, when every other musician was reading the music for the first time, he was listening. After one pass, he would know the song and what he was to do with it. His vocal range went from a Russian bass C to a Pavarotti D in a natural voice, no falsetto. He was a very rare talent.
His first real hit was "Gentle on My Mind" in 1967. He began performing around Los Angeles with a four-man country band. After that came a long string of hits, many of them written by Jimmy Webb. Many of them remain standards to this day. Beginning in 1969, he toured the country and later the world, now with full orchestras. From 1969 to 1972, he starred in his own television variety program, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Guests on the show ranged from Ray Charles to Tony Bennett. He first performed at Carnegie Hall in March 1973. (Buck Owens was the first country singer to perform there in 1966.) He co-starred with John Wayne in the film True Grit, for which Wayne won an Academy Award. He worked several times a year in Las Vegas to sellout crowds and continued to perform concerts up until the Alzheimer's forced him to stop.
There was of course a dark side to his meteoric rise. For a long time, Glen was "the only singer to have the 'Good Housekeeping seal of approval,'" a standard line in his concerts, and one he deserved. He smoked but rarely drank, but he did succumb to the drug culture that took hold of so many celebrities in the 1970s. At the time, the infatuation with cocaine and amphetamines was accompanied by the silly notion that those drugs were not addictive. But they were. Several of the celebrities who introduced Campbell to that scene died long ago at early ages. Glen prevailed, but perhaps he eventually paid the price.
Much of today's music is without melody or coherent lyrics. Young people seem not to know the meaning of the word "melody." Campbell's songs were all melodious. His voice and his brilliance on the guitar were unparalleled. Roy Clark, a gifted guitarist in his own right, once said when a fan said, "You're the best guitarist...," Clark replied, "No, that would be Glen Campbell." They worked together often; Clark knew what he was talking about. For those who worked with him and for him, working with lesser musicians would always be something of a chore by comparison.
Glen will be missed, but his music will live on and may yet be discovered by the youth of a new generation, who find they like memorable melodies and songs that are stories. Rest in Peace, Glen Campbell.