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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”

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