And then the darkness fell

Today is the anniversary of Glen Campbell’s birth. Campbell established himself as a brilliant session guitarist with the Wrecking Crew and then proceeded to record some 65 solo albums in the course of a long career that greatly contributed to the beauty of the world. It’s hard to get a handle on his vast body of work, but perhaps most notable was his partnership with songwriter Jimmy Webb. Below is the original hit version of Webb’s “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” (1967).

Webb also wrote a follow-up for Campbell. Even if you weren’t listening to the radio in 1968, you probably know “Wichita Lineman.” That’s Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye on the lead-in politely inviting your attention to this knockout song. That’s Mr. Campbell himself on lead guitar. Glen said that he and producer Al DeLory filled in the place of a third verse with a guitar solo that he played on a DanElectro six-string bass guitar or baritone guitar belonging to Kaye. According to American Songwriter, this was Campbell’s favorite of all his songs.

Their partnership remained fruitful in the ’70s and ’80s (work documented on the bountiful Raven compilation Glen Campbell 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 Is a Harsh Mistress,” also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Nanci Griffith and others.

I don’t think any performance of this moving song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (video above, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is preeminently a man’s lament over a fickle lover. Webb’s old flame Susan Ronstadt inspired much of his most intriguing work, and my guess is that she was the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metaphor in the song’s title. She must have been the inspiration for the song in the video below as well.

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. 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.”

Webb annotated one of his discs featuring updated versions of his songs with several of his favorite performers, including Campbell. When it came to Campbell, he wrote that he had been a fan since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He said that he considered Campbell “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.” He added: “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.” He didn’t leave it there. He concluded: “I rest my case for the existence of God.” I wanted to recall Webb’s striking testimony in the context of Campbell’s birthday today.

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