Facing Alzheimer's, the artist shares star-studded memories
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
On "Strong," a track from Glen Campbell's superb latest - and final - album, he plaintively sings to his wife: "This is not the road I wanted for us, but now that it's here, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. All I want to be for you is strong."
Like many other cuts on the stirring "Ghost on the Canvas," released Aug. 30, the song directly addresses Campbell's battle with Alzheimer's disease, as well as his abiding faith and gratitude during this troubling time. "You gotta believe. There's no ifs, ands, and all that other stuff," says Campbell. "I believe that I was created by the Lord God, and I've tried to live my life that way. I've failed from here to there, but, you know, I get up and start again."
Despite the devastating diagnosis, which he and his wife of 29 years, Kim Woollen, announced last year, Campbell is relentlessly upbeat during a recent interview in the living room of his spacious Malibu home. Tanned and relaxed after a round of golf earlier in the day, he is just as likely to burst into a Daffy Duck impersonation as he is to answer a question. Mention a song and he starts to sing it, rather than talk about it. Even when he forgets a question just asked, he remains jovial and undaunted.
Recorded over two years, Campbell and producer Julian Raymond wrote several songs together for "Ghost," plus a number of artists, including Paul Westerberg, Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard and Jakob Dylan, provided tracks for the set. The multiple-Grammy winner vetted each contributed tune. "If the lyrics don't speak to him, he's not interested in the song," Raymond says. "If he's in, then the changes start happening. It's fun, but you've got to be ready to work because he's fast. I don't think we were ever in the studio on any vocal we did for more than an hour."
Many of the songs contain lilting guitar riffs, soaring string lines or unforgettable melodies that recall such iconic past Campbell hits as "Wichita Lineman" or "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." That's no coincidence. "This [album] was almost like an autobiography in a way, the way the songs connect to each other," Raymond says. "It has to do with what he's been through in his life all the way up to the current-day stuff."
Campbell's guitar playing on the album remains remarkably clear and sharp, especially on the swaying "In My Arms," during which he performs a lightning-quick solo. "He did that solo on the third take," Raymond says. Even more surprising, Campbell recorded the solo on a guitar he'd never played before. "I pulled a guitar off the wall for sonic reasons," Raymond says. "He just picked it up and whipped it out like he'd been playing it his whole life."
Campbell attributes his still evident dexterity and muscle memory to his early years as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, an elite league of studio musicians from the ''60s, and playing on records for everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Monkees. "You had to learn those songs, the progressions, what they were singing," he says of his session years. "It made it so easy to play any kind of song."
However fuzzy his short-term memory may now be, the former Arkansas farm boy generally recalls those early years in Los Angeles with clarity. But when needed, Woollen, who serves as his unofficial historian of sorts, prompts him, even when the recording mentioned took place long before they met.
He so closely studied Sinatra when he played rhythm guitar on "Strangers in the Night," that Ol' Blue Eyes joked that he thought Campbell was trying to pick him up. "I was just admiring his singing," he says, adding that he learned to be prepared from Sinatra. "He would get up and sing it and go," Campbell says. "He didn't have to sit in the studio and hem and haw around. ... 'Strangers in the Night,' oh, boy, I was in high cotton then."
Campbell also played on Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," and the pair used to pal around in Sin City. "He was a very, very, very nice man. I miss Elvis, I really do. ... People didn't realize what an incredible singer he was," he says. Prompted by Woollen, Campbell goes into a spot-on imitation of The King singing "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear," and then rips open his shirt and pumps one of his well-developed pecs.
When asked how old he is after that impressive display, he replies, "48 today! What am I?" Woollen softly reminds him that he's 75. "Wow," says Campbell. "It doesn't seem like it."
Campbell says his favorite song he ever played on is the Righteous Bros.' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," produced by Phil Spector. He and Spector didn't talk much. "He was shy," says Campbell, before naughtily adding, "He was actually shy because I think he was probably so high he could poot in a Martin [birdhouse]. ... I tell you, he was a hell of a producer."
Most famously, Campbell played guitar on the Beach Boys' 1966 classic album, "Pet Sounds." He recalls being in the studio for days while Brian Wilson struggled to get the tone just right on "Good Vibrations." "Brian was determined to get it the way he wanted to. I'm glad. We were in the studio a long time. I got paid every day, so [I was like] 'Let's give it another week, man!' You can go put that album on and it's fascinating what you'll find."
Prior to recording "Pet Sounds," Campbell toured with the Beach Boys, filling in for Wilson. "I was ready for anything after that, I can tell you."
Playing live remains a great joy for him, and Cambell's The Goodbye Tour continues into June. His band contains four of his children, including eldest daughter Debby, from an earlier marriage, and 23-year old Ashley, both of whom gently keep him on track when he loses his way while telling a story or when he strays too far from the teleprompter he now needs to remember the lyrics.
Asked if he feels sad about touring for the last time, he says, "Well, if I had to, I would, but I'll probably sing here and there, especially with the kids."
Campbell appreciates that, just like life, a concert moves in only one direction: ahead.
"I love playing live because you can't go back and mess it up twice," he says. "It only moves forward, if you don't get it right the first time."
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.
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