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Interview:
Despite Alzheimer's Glen Campbell plans to go out singing
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

Glen Campbell has, as he sings in "Rhinestone Cowboy," "been walkin' these streets so long, singin' the same old song."

Some time in the future he won't be able to do that anymore -- but nobody knows when.

It's no secret the five-time Grammy Award winner, a legend as both a solo artist and a behind-the-scenes session musician, is suffering from Alzheimer's disease; he announced it himself, in June of 2011. His latest album, "Ghost on the Canvas," is his last. He's in the midst of a Goodbye Tour that his manager says will go on for as long as Campbell is able to play.

His performances, including one during January at the 35th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, can be a little rough, with forgotten lyrics and guitar licks, and some visible momentary disorientation. In Ann Arbor he even acknowledged, with a self-deprecating smile, that "I forget a lot nowadays."

But Campbell's resilient spirit, and the gently rendered aid of a band that features three of his children and longtime musical director T.J. Kuenster -- ultimately win the nights. And it's clear that Campbell plans to go down swinging.

Or at least singing.

"I feel great," Campbell, 76, contends. "The Alzheimer's hasn't had that much impact on my ability to perform. I've used a teleprompter for years, so that's nothing knew. I don't notice much difference."

Julian Raymond, who produced "Ghost on the Canvas" and its predecessor, the 2008 covers set "Meet Glen Campbell," says that Campbell "has good days and bad days. Sometimes he's shaky, but he's still singing great, playing great. Overall he's a trouper. He still wants to play. He still wants to work. He needs to do that stuff, and he enjoys it.

"I'm so glad the family let people know about (the Alzheimer's). Otherwise you'd have people thinking something was wrong with him, maybe taking drugs or drinking. And that's not the case at all."

Raymond says the Alzheimer's was becoming evident during the "Meet Glen Campbell" sessions. "We didn't know what was happening," he recalls. "He was fantastic during the sessions, but there were some issues regarding forgetfulness, having trouble remember here and there. But it seemed minor.

"I mean, some of it I attributed to working with a guy who was (then) 72. I know people younger than that who can't remember what they did yesterday, or people's names. So I didn't think that much about it."

Campbell was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the beginning of 2011, and he and his fourth wife, Kim, made the news public in an interview with People magazine six months later. When "Ghost on the Canvas" came out in August, it signaled the start of an open-ended celebration of Campbell's 50-year career.

"Let's face it; the Alzheimer's, as terrible as it is, it became a hook from a marketing point of view," explains Stan Schneider, Campbell's manager of 50 years. "Glen can still go out and perform. He's not just mailing it in. His voice is still as beautiful as it always was, and his guitar playing is still Glen Campbell.

"We have a rare opportunity -- Why not go out and say goodbye to the country? As long as people are enjoying it and not coming out of pity, it's still a great show. If he ever goes out and does not deliver what the people enjoy, then we'll just say, 'Let's not do this anymore.' "

The situation has certainly led to more attention and greater appreciation for the Arkansas-born Campbell, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Grammys in Los Angeles. Schneider laughs when he notes that, "I've been a part of it for so many years, I always assume almost everybody knows Glen Campbell. But I realize they don't -- young people especially. So you have to sell it again, every time."

Fortunately, there's quite a bit to sell -- to the tune of more than 45 million albums sold and more than six dozen Country chart hits. Campbell -- one of 12 children born to a sharecropper in Arkansas -- also logged stints playing guitar for Gene Autrey, the Beach Boys (including the landmark "Good Vibrations") and Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew, earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role in 1969's "True Grit" and hosted a variety show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," on CBS. Three of his recordings -- "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Gentle on My Mind" -- are in the Grammy Hall of Fame, while Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Campbell says he liked "the variety" of his career best -- not to mention the stories he got out of his experiences. "I'll never forget the date for (Sinatra's) 'Strangers in the Night," he says. "We did three takes on that, and Frank said, 'That's good enough for me, Jimmy...' But I'd come out of a Jan & Dean session and go into a Nat King Cole session. I think we did every song that came out of L.A. for awhile, me and the rest of" the Wrecking Crew.

Campbell recalls the famously temperamental -- and currently incarcerated -- Spector as "a genius. I really commend him on getting a sound and a feel like that, especially with the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers. He was just a good producer. He knew the sound he wanted." And Spector also apparently knew better than to flash too much ego -- or his pistol -- in front of his guitarist.

"I'd kick his butt if he did," Campbell says with a laugh.

He also has praise for the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who Campbell replaced on tour for a time after Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown in 1964. "He would just come up with one song after another, and they just got better and better," says Campbell, adding that 1966's "Pet Sounds" "is probably as good an album as I've ever heard."

Something that stuck with Campbell throughout his session years, he says, is the personalities of the people he worked with. "It seems to me like the better a person is musically, the better they are as people," he remembers. "They're all very easygoing, the most polite people. They know they're good, and they don't flaunt it. They're just thankful for God giving them this talent. The ones that weren't so hot were weeded out within two or three months."

Campbell had also signed a deal with Capitol Records in 1962, but despite some singles and a couple of instrumental albums he claims he "never thought of" becoming a solo artist during that time. "I was enjoying being a session player and getting to play with the best musicians in the world," explains Campbell, whose resume also included Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, the Monkees, Bread and many others. "I really enjoyed that, and I didn't want to give it up.

"And besides that, I never made that kind of money before in my life. You don't make that kind of money picking cotton, y'know? So I wasn't in a hurry to go out and try to be a star or anything like that."

His path changed when he met producer Al DeLory. A recording of John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind" hit the Billboard charts and netted Campbell his first Grammy, for Best Country & Western Solo Vocal Performance, Male. It was the beginning of his career prime; besides dominating the country charts, singles such as "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" crossed over into the pop Top 10. "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" launched as a 1968 summer replacement for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS and then was picked up on its own from 1968-72. Besides his "True Grit" success, he also appeared in films such as "Norwood," "Any Which Way You Can" and "Uphill All the Way" and during 1982-83 he hosted "The Glen Campbell Music Show" on NBC.

Although he had acknowledged struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, Campbell's career leveled over more than anything else. "We were flying pretty high for a long time," he notes. "It's hard to keep that going." So there was a certain irony in 2008 when he released an album titled "Meet Glen Campbell," which marked his return to Capitol after a 28-year absence.

"That (title) was Julian's idea," Campbell says. "I told him, 'I don't care what you call it. Just spell the name right.' " But the album, with its covers of songs by Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, U2, Green Day, John Lennon, Jackson Brown, Travis and others, renewed Campbell's profile at a time most of his contemporaries were dialing down.

"I never thought of it 'til I reached this age," Campbell said at the time. "I told my wife, 'Hey, I think it's time I sat back and went and played golf when I wanted to.' But she said, 'You can't quit now. You enjoy it too much.' "

Raymond is confident there would have been another album even if Campbell remained healthy. "It was definitely harder to make ('Ghost on the Canvas') than 'Meet Glen Campbell,' " says the producer, who co-wrote several songs with Campbell for the set and recruited Jakob Dylan, Teddy Thompson, Paul Westerberg and Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard to also contribute material to it.

"It still went very quickly, but it was a little more of a struggle on certain days. He would have trouble remembering melodies. If he got tired or a little worn down, you could see when he walked in the room he was definitely not all there. And he got a little frustrated -- 'Why can't I remember this?! It's such an easy melody!'

"But for the most part, even though he would have bad days or bad hours, he still did a great job. We would work 'til we got it and not push too hard."

With "Ghost on the Canvas" out, Campbell's handlers are keeping things loose and open-ended. "I've got offers right now going into August, September, October," manager Schneider says. "We're not going to do a Final final show; it would be disingenuous to do that. The end date is when he can't do it anymore."

A boxed set compilation is being planned, according to Raymond, and will include additional material recorded for "Ghost in the Canvas" that didn't make it onto the album. A live album and DVD of the Goodbye Tour is being considered, while James Keach, who produced the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line," is working on a Campbell documentary.

And Campbell himself is happily playing away, enjoying the time he has left and not bemoaning his fate.

"I"ve accomplished everything I wanted to do," he says. "I've been blessed. When I think back to where I came from, I have been able to do some amazing things in my life. And music will always be part of my life. I plan to just keep playing."

Glen Campbell performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, May 9 and 11, at Andiamo Celebrity Showroom, 7096 E. Fourteen Mile Road, Warren. Tickets are $25-$69. Call 586-268-3200 or visit www.andiamoshowroom.com.

Web Site: www.andiamoshowroom.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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