Glen Campbell died yesterday in Nashville at the age of 81 of complications from the Alzheimer’s disease with which he had been struggling for the past six years. Obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post do a good job covering the full scope of his life and career.
The length and breadth of Campbell’s career are remarkable. He excelled as an instrumentalist on guitar sufficiently to make it as a session musician in the Wrecking Crew, from which he was recruited to tour in place of Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys. And oh, yeah, he could also sing. John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” was an overnight sensation for Campbell in 1967. The “rivers of [his] memory” were still flowing along with his facility on guitar in his live performance of the song in the video below.
Many of us really heard Campbell’s gift for the first time in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (number 2, 1967), the song Jimmy Webb had taken with him when he moved on from his work as a staff songwriter for Motown. Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” (number 3, 1968, video below) to order for Campbell as a follow-up to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” They launched what became Campbell’s fruitful working relationship with Webb.
Webb’s partnership with Campbell remained productive in the ’70s and ’80s as they continued to work together (work documented on the bountiful Raven compilation Reunited with Jimmy Webb: 1974-1988), although without the chart success of their earlier hits. Among the peaks of their later work is Webb’s haunting “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” a song also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Nanci Griffith, Renee Fleming and many others. Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is a man’s lament over a fickle woman.
I don’t think any performance of this song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (video above, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Campbell briefly introduced the song: “Here’s one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs. It’s called ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.’ As you can tell, I’m partial to Jimmy Webb.”
Webb and Campbell performed “Where’s the Playground, Susie?” together in the video below. Campbell also introduced this song in concert as “one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs.” He had a few of them.
Campbell sought to introduce himself to a new generation with the Meet Glenn Campbell disc in 2008. It is chock full of beautiful performances such as Glen’s version of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” (video below). Note the evocation of “Galveston” in the arrangement.
Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. He went public with the diagnosis and embarked on the farewell tour featured in the documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me. The 2011 disc Ghost On the Canvas was to be his final recording, but he revisited a few of the highlights of his career during the recording of Ghost On the Canvas. His producers added a spare backing to the tracks and released See You There in 2013. Five of the album’s 12 songs are written by Webb, including the lesser known “Postcard From Paris.”
It’s hard to get a handle on Campbell’s career. See You There was something like Campbell’s sixty-fifth album. Webb’s work is nevertheless at the heart of See You There and an enduring motif in Campbell’s recorded legacy.
Webb teamed up with Campbell to revisit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (video below) on Webb’s Just Across the River disc, shortly before Campbell’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In the liner notes Webb wrote that he had been a fan of Campbell since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He avowed his esteem for Campbell as “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.”
“I used to literally pray that God would let me grow up and be a songwriter and be lucky enough to have Glen Campbell record one of my songs,” Webb wrote. “I rest my case for the existence of God.” RIP.