Glen Campbell has enjoyed one of the more storied careers in pop music, beginning with his stint as guitarist in history’s greatest session band, The Wrecking Crew, to a run on the charts that has lasted more than five decades, culminating with last year’s “Ghost on the Canvas.”
He played guitar on The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” and his own catalog includes classics such as “Galveston,” “Southern Nights” and the timeless “Wichita Lineman.”
Campbell has added another, unexpected aspect to his legacy with last year’s announcement of his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and subsequent farewell tour. Campbell, 76, has become the face of the disease, a form of dementia which attacks cognitive abilities.
Rather than quietly fade into retirement, Campbell recorded “Ghost on the Canvas” and staged “The Goodbye Tour,” which comes to the Louisville Palace Friday .
“People with Alzheimer’s and their family members have been very supportive of my tour and what I’m doing,” he said in an interview conducted via email. “I feel that we are giving people some hope that they can still live their lives and make contributions.”
Touring has been good for Campbell, too. He’s on the road with his family, with three of his children as band members, and any miscues due to memory issues are either laughed off or quickly corrected.
“Planning and performing has never been difficult for me,” he said. “For several years, I’ve used a teleprompter. Sometimes I forget (a song’s) key and the kids are real helpful with letting me know. Otherwise, everything is about the same. The biggest health benefit I have had from the tour is that I have my family with me. I am so happy to have them by my side at all times.”
An early start
Campbell was born in rural Arkansas and began playing guitar as a child. He was a professional by the time he was 16, and at age 22 moved to Los Angeles to become a session musician — a gun for hire. Campbell was briefly a member of The Champs, whose song “Tequila” was a huge hit, and fell in with The Wrecking Crew, considered by many to be the finest collection of session musicians outside of Motown’s The Funk Brothers.
The band also featured Leon Russell, Dr. John, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye and a host of others. They were the musicians that producer Phil Spector used when creating his famous Wall of Sound, and also recorded with the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel, the Monkees, Carpenters, Nat “King” Cole and Bing Crosby.
“I think that working with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson were highlights of my time as a session musician,” he said. “With Phil we cut the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ and ‘Unchained Melody,’ which have to be considered two of the greatest recordings of the rock and roll era. We recorded ... ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes.
“Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was wonderful. He was a genius who knew exactly what he wanted. I was on many Beach Boys sessions.”
Campbell also joined the Beach Boys as a touring member in the mid-1960s, filling in for Wilson, before launching a solo career that struck gold in 1967 with the release of “Gentle on My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” albums that began a string of seven consecutive No. 1 albums on the country charts.
Campbell’s singles crossed over to the pop market, as well, and his biggest hit in the 1960s was the indelible “Wichita Lineman,” an autumnal ballad of isolation and longing written by Jimmy Webb. Its spare, emotional lyrics are rivaled only by Campbell’s equally spare guitar solo, which proves the adage that less often is more.
“Jimmy Webb wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ which was such a huge hit for me,” he said. “My producer Al DeLory and I asked Jimmy to write another geography song. That song became ‘Wichita Lineman.’ However, we were in such a hurry to get the song that Jimmy never finished it. I solved that problem by putting a guitar lick in the middle.”
Campbell consistently had Top 40 hits until the late 1980s, after which he settled into a long run at his Goodtime Theater in Branson, Mo. Campbell again hit the charts after a 20-year absence with 2008’s “Meet Glen Campbell,” which was designed to introduce him to a younger audience, and last year’s “Ghost on the Canvas,” which Campbell has said would be his last studio album.
Ever the pro
Despite the obvious hurdles presented by Alzheimer’s, he remains what he has been since the 1960s: a professional musician, doing his job.
“I wanted to do an entire tour because I’m promoting my current album ... and you really have to get out in front of people to get the proper exposure for a new album,” he said. “Plus I feel good. I have my family with me and I am doing something I love, which is playing music.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.