The passing of country legend Glen Campbell earlier this year elicited warm tributes and outpourings of love and memories from those he impacted.
Below, enjoy an archival interview with him, as conducted by Rock Cellar’s Ken Sharp a few years back, as our own tribute to the iconic Campbell.
Music fans first met Glen Campbell 50 years ago. Years spent playing clubs in Arkansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico helped him hone his staggering six-string chops. Moving to Los Angeles in 1960, Campbell quickly established himself an in-demand studio guitarist, laying down his best licks on sessions for the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Phil Spector and The Beach Boys. In the mid ‘60s, he would also serve as an auxiliary Beach Boy on the road, subbing on bass for the band’s road-weary resident genius, Brian Wilson.
1967’s stylish ballad “Gentle On My Mind” gave Campbell his first taste of major success. Not long after, his career revved into overdrive, yielding a flurry of hit singles including the # 1 chart toppers, “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the Allen Toussaint-penned “Southern Nights,” his own TV show (The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour) and entry into Hollywood with roles in such films as True Grit, and Any Which Way You Can.
Always a consummate interpreter of others’ material, in late 1967 Campbell heard a song by a hot young songwriter that would forever alter the course of his career. The song was “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and it was penned by a preternaturally talented songwriter named Jimmy Webb.
In the Oklahoma-born songsmith, Campbell had discovered his artistic match. It was a perfect creative union. A brace of exquisitely crafted and evocative Webb originals like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “Where’s The Playground, Susie”, topped off by Campbell’s elegant voice and brilliant production and orchestration courtesy of Al de Lory, helped create musical history.
Years later, the wide-screen impressionistic colors of “Wichita Lineman,” in particular, would be singled out for praise by the music press, with Mojo magazine ranking it # 49 in their list of top 100 songs of all time.
Enjoying a late career creative resurgence, Campbell spent the past 10 years or so bravely battling Alzheimer’s disease, which tragically took his life in August 2017. Near the end of his performing career, before Alzheimer’s entered its advanced stages, Rock Cellar sat down with the remarkably youthful-looking icon inside the confines of Capitol Records’ legendary Studio B, — where years ago Campbell earned his session player stripes as a member of “The Wrecking Crew” — and spent an hour looking back on his life in music.
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Rock Cellar: You come from a large family.
Glen Campbell: Yeah, 12 kids–eight boys and four girls. Everyone in the family played music. There was a pretty good age span. Dad bought us an acoustic guitar out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog for about $5. That guitar got passed around throughout the family. The action on that was real high. Daddy made me a capo to use. I finally took over the guitar because nobody was as interested in playing it as I was.
I remember the first song I learned that I really liked was called “Sleeping at The Foot of the Bed” by Little Jimmy Dickens. (Sings) “Did you ever sleep at the foot of the bed when the weather was a whizzin’ cold…” Yeah, that was cool. It had two guitar players on it out of Nashville playing harmonies. That’s the first time I heard harmonies on a song and I thought, “Yeah, I can play harmonies too.” I picked it up pretty quick.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Glen Campbell: I had picked enough cotton and gathered enough corn and run around barefoot on the gravel in Arkansas that I knew I didn’t want to do any farming so eventually I headed West to pursue a music career. I first spent a few years in Albuquerque. I was about 16 when I wound up there. I started out playing with my uncle in Dick Bill and the Sandiah Mountain Boys in Albuquerque.
We had a radio show called “Noon Day Roundup” on KOB five days a week in Albuquerque, a 50,000 watt radio station. Working at the radio station was like being a minor league baseball player being groomed for the big leagues. Those were fun days. I had a job and I could go play golf. (laughs) We’d go off and play shows on weekends. I played lead and rhythm in that band. Those were fun times.
I did that for about three or four years. We played out of town quite a bit, in a 200 or 300 mile radius of Albuquerque. I also played later with my own band, The Western Wranglers at a joint there called The Hitchin’ Post. I was playing guitar and singing lead vocals. That was the first time I’d come out front. We were playing all the songs of the time, whatever was on the charts or the radio. We did a big tour back then with Jimmy (Seals) and (Dash) Croft.
When did you realize you had a good singing voice?
Glen Campbell: I don’t remember not singing. I just knew that I could sing and I loved it. All I wanted to do was sing. Then when I started playing guitar I wanted to do both. That’s exactly what I wanted to do in my life.
What brought you out to L.A.?
Glen Campbell: I moved there in ’61. Jerry Naylor was a disc jockey at the radio station in Albuquerque Jerry said to me, “I’m goin’ to Hollywood and that’s where you need to go.” He’d be out there and knew what was happening. It was hard me to leave Albuquerque ‘cause in many ways you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. It was a big risk for me to move to Hollywood, but the music drew me there. Jimmy Bowen, who had a hit with “I’m Sticking With You”, and I did demos for the publishing company, American Music, which was run by Gene Autry. We’d cut demos of songs by some of their writers, doing the music and singing it too. I did a song called “Turn Around, Look At Me” and they decided to release it as a single and I said, “Great!” That was my first minor hit record.
How did you get involved doing sessions?
Glen Campbell: Through the demos I did for American Music producers would ask, “Who’s that playing guitar?” and they said, “That’s Glen Campbell” so that’s how I started doing sessions. I learned a lot doing sessions and became a much better musician in the process. You’d do a session with Jan & Dean and then you’d do a session with pop artists like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra. Boy, was it fun and it also kept you on your toes. The players were all so good.
We were a tight-knit group.
What do you think makes a good song?
Glen Campbell: Timing. (laughs) Ask me again.
What do you think makes a good song?
Glen Campbell: Timing. (laughs)
You’re an extremely gifted and accomplished guitar player, who were the players that shaped your style?
Glen Campbell: Oh gosh, Django Reinhardt was one guitar player who really had a big influence on me. I had his stuff on wire, believe it or not, back in the ‘50s. Stephan Grappelli was another one. Those two guitar players were the best I’ve ever heard.
In 1967, you had your breakthrough as an artist. Discuss what led a well-paid and in-demand session guitarist to chuck it all and decide to pursue a solo career.
Glen Campbell: It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to pursue a career as an artist but to be honest, I was enjoying the session work so much. To get up each day and know I was gonna play with best musicians in the world was great. It’s like a ball player getting up and playing with the best baseball players in the world. That’s how I felt.
I’m one of 12 kids so I like to be around a group of people. I enjoyed that camaraderie. Before I was doing sessions I was in The Champs and also played with Jimmy Seals and Dash Croft.
“Gentle On My Mind” by John Hartford was your first taste of real solo success.
Glen Campbell: I was doing my TV show and used it for my theme. I heard John’s version on an album. John did a version of the song which had a very slow tempo (sings) “It’s knowing that your door’s always open and your path is free to walk. That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch …” I love that title, that’s a great saying. To know you’re gentle on somebody’s mind is fabulous.
A story and a song has a tempo. If it’s off-kilter it’s not gonna work. I could sense intuitively that “Gentle On My Mind” needed to be stepped up. I believed in the song and I pushed the tempo. When I heard back the naked track with just my voice and guitar I thought, “Geez, that’s it, it doesn’t need anything else on it to embellish it. I’m gonna leave it alone”. I was singing these incredible words and adding a lot of instrumentation on it would have not worked in terms of the song’s innate simplicity. Maybe that’s the element that gives it a timeless quality.
“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” was the first song you recorded by Jimmy Webb.
Glen Campbell: I was sitting at a session and hanging on the wall was a Johnny Rivers album cover that said “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” I got curious and wondered what it sounded like. I was intrigued by it. I heard Johnny Rivers’ version of it and loved the song and felt that I could put my own stamp on it. Johnny did it a lot different than I did. I wanted to make a beautiful ballad out of it. I think the reason why Johnny Rivers and Pat Boone didn’t have a hit with that song is the way they enunciated each syllable in the word ‘probably’. I sang it ‘probly’.
I heard you became very emotional when you first heard “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
Glen Campbell: Yeah, it made me cry when I heard it. I was homesick. I’d been away from Arkansas for quite a few years. When I heard it I thought it was an incredible song and the lyrics really moved me. I went back to Arkansas to spend time with my folks and went fishing after that because of that song. There is a real homesick feeling in that song, “by the time I make New York, by the time I make Philadelphia.” Everybody can relate to that.
There’s an impressionistic quality about the Jimmy Webb-penned “Wichita Lineman”. It was a song of firsts for you — your first gold record, first country hit, nominated for a Grammy and voted Song of The Year by the Academy of Country Music. What makes that song magic?
Glen Campbell: (Recites lyrics) “I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road…” It was a very personal song. It has that longing for home in it too. There’s thousands of songs written about that feeling. I always connect first with the story in a song and Jimmy’s a great storyteller. I could really connect with his songs.
One day Jimmy told me he was driving through the Oklahoma panhandle and it was flat as can be. Far off in the distance he saw a lineman working on the telephone lines up on a pole and he took a mental snapshot of that. Years later he pulled that out of his memory and wrote that song. His melodies were incredible. Everything he writes seems like it was interchangeable. You could move it around in different way. He’d always come up with unexpected chord changes that were extremely memorable. I’m in awe of him.
What a great song! When Jimmy gave it to us he said it was unfinished, but it sounded finished to me. (laughs) Jimmy felt there was a big hole in the middle of the song and I filled it with a guitar solo. I borrowed Carol Kaye’s Danolectro. It had a really good low ballsy sound. I heard in my head that it needed something and I put down the melody line using the Danolectro.
In 1975, you experienced your biggest success with “Rhinestone Cowboy”. Where did that song come from?
Glen Campbell: I was driving in Hollywood and I was listening to an album cut station and I heard the song, which was done by Larry Weiss who also wrote it. I pulled over to the side of the road, I had to find out who did this song. (sings) “Like a rhinestone cowboy…” That just blew me away. But he did it slow. (Sings lyrics slowly) “I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long…” I said, “Boy, this is the perfect song for me because I like to say the words and get out of the way.” I was able to put my own stamp on it, sing it at a quicker tempo and it was a huge hit.
I’ve been very lucky in my career. For my whole life I felt like I was at the right place at the right time. It seemed like fate was always leading me to the right door. I’d say, “Thank you Lord.” In the early ‘60’s I went out to L.A. with Jerry Naylor, a friend of mine, just to see what was going on. I went to a few sessions and said, “I want to be a session player.” As an artist my first session was the song “Turn Around, Look At Me.” As a session player my first session was for Ricky Nelson. He was something else. Very underrated. He was the real deal. His dad, Ozzie, got mad at the bass player Joe Osborn and fired him. (laughs) I did a tour with Ricky in Japan, playing bass and singing harmonies. That was fun.
I was in the studio doing sessions while I was releasing some singles on my own. I learned pretty quick that I could make more money doing than that than going out on the road. I tried it. I went out with Seals & Croft. But I realized I could make more money sitting at home doing sessions than I could out on the road. My first big hit record I had was the Conway Twitty song “It’s Only Make Believe.” That was one of those songs that I threw in at the end of a session and recorded and lo and behold it became a hit. (laughs)
What makes a song right for Glen Campbell?
Glen Campbell: Well, I can sing any song but the ones I like to do are songs where I like the story and the melody. I need to connect with the emotion and what a song has to say. I prefer not to sing a song unless I really believe in it.