THE ORIGINAL RHINESTONE COWBOY
Glen Campbell 1936-2017
Glen Campbell, who has died aged 81, was “one of the sweetest singers anyone could ever hope to hear”, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. As he demonstrated on smooth country classics such as Rhinestone Cowboy and By the Time I Get to Phoenix, he had the “pure flowing tone of a crooner”, but with “a whisky catch at the back of this throat that tugged at the heart of a melody and left listeners feeling every shift in the lyric”. For despite his apple-cheeked, all-American handsomeness, Campbell’s deceptively simple delivery hinted at his personal demons of substance addiction. “I need you more than want you”, he sang on the wonderful Wichita Lineman, suggesting a man only half in love; but then he continues, “And I want you for all time.” Has there ever been a more a romantic couplet?
Campbell was born in rural Arkansas in 1936, the seventh son of a sharecropper. His upbringing was characterised by hard work and privation. The family home didn’t have electricity, he would reminisce in later life, adding with a twinkle, “We had to watch TV by candlelight.” When he was four, his father bought him a guitar, which his Uncle Boo, who played in a country band, taught him to play. Ten years later, Glen quit school to join his uncle in Wyoming. He started playing in bars, and by 1962 had migrated to LA and earned himself a place in the Wrecking Crew, a renowned group of session musicians who played on songs by everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra. Campbell had to wait until 1967 for his own solo career to take off. When it did, it was in large part thanks to a lyricist named Jimmy Webb, who gifted him three of his most enduring hits: By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston and Wichita Lineman. Suddenly, Campbell was famous, riding high in the charts and in demand on chat shows. For three years he hosted his own TV show. He even parlayed his success into a film career, playing the sharp-shooting sidekick in True Grit (1969). Yet behind the wholesome public image a darker story played out, said The New York Times. Campbell began drinking heavily and using cocaine, and by his own admission, later had little recollection of anything that had happened during the 1970s. There were three broken marriages; a well-publicised, tempestuous one-year relationship with the singer Tanya Tucker, who was half his age; and news reports of bad behaviour while under the influence. According to one tabloid story, during an argument with an Indonesian man, the sozzled singer declared that he was going to call up his good friend Ronald Reagan and tell him to bomb Jakarta. His habit came to an end when Campbell woke up one morning in a Las Vegas hotel room and couldn’t remember who he was. “It was really, really strange,” he later recalled. “Nobody else was there but somebody was talking. It was as if God had sent an angel to rescue me. I didn’t want any whisky, any drugs, anything. That was the end of it.” In fact, cleaning up wasn’t so simple, said The Times. It was only after his fourth wife, Kimberly Woollen – an evangelical Christian 23 years his junior – issued him with an ultimatum that he went on the wagon. Even then, there were relapses. In 2003, Campbell spent ten days in prison after a drink-driving incident, during which he told the arresting officer he was, merely “over-served”. He then kneed the policeman in the thigh.
Campbell was the kind of “smooth establishment star that the convulsions of the 1960s supposedly made extinct”, said Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times. But his continued success, selling more than 45 million records over the course of his career, told a different story. Even after he announced, in 2011, that he was suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease that ultimately killed him, he continued to tour. His final album, Adiós, which was released earlier this year, revealed that he still possessed “supple vocals, immaculate musicianship and a genius for storytelling”.
Campbell: “a genius for storytelling”