Originally published in the February 25, 1997 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
It’s a long way from playing for ice-cream cones to recording with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. And it’s a long way from there to becoming a star.
Just ask Glen Campbell, who went from sharecropping to sharing studios with America’s idols to becoming a performer who charted 75 times on Billboard‘s country charts — 27 times in the Top 10. In his 40 years in show business, Glen Campbell has sold more than 40 million records.
“I grew up in Billstown, Ark., coming out of the Great Depression as one of 12 children,” recalls Glen in his easy Southern drawl. “My dad was a sharecropper and we were poorer than church mice.”
Razor & Tie Records has just celebrated this particular church mouse’s rich musical career by releasing The Glen Campbell Collection — 40 of Glen’s biggest hits, including “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Southern Nights” and “Gentle on My Mind.”
Glen’s dad bought him his first guitar for $5. “He ordered it out of the Sears catalog when I was about 7 or 8,” Glen tells COUNTRY WEEKLY. “Grandpa Campbell played guitar, Daddy played, and my older brothers played three or four chords — but I was the one who took it up, because I realized you could make easy money without having to do manual labor.”
That’s when Glen started hanging out in the ice-cream parlor. “Kids would come in droves, the owner would give me a couple of cones, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is all right! I wonder if I can do this other places?’ “
By age 15, he was playing barn dances. “A year later, I went to work for my Uncle Dick,” he says. “Leaving high school wasn’t a tough decision — I wanted to play and sing and they weren’t teaching me that. I had mom and dad’s blessing, and I was making $80 to $100 a week with Uncle Dick’s band.
“He had to be my legal guardian, because of my age. We’d roll into town and the first thing the sheriff would say was ‘Where’s you’re daddy, boy?’ I’d say ‘Right there. Uncle Dick’s my daddy.’
“We played everything ‑‑ Glenn Miller, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sinatra, polkas, you name it. That really helped when I got out to California and into studio work.”
Glen arrived in Los Angeles in his early 20s.
“I didn’t realize how good a guitarist I was until I got into studio work,” says Glen, sounding tickled. “I couldn’t read a note, but I learned enough to read chord charts.”
Soon, Glen joined The Champs, who’d recorded the hit “Tequila” and included Dash Crofts of future Seals & Crofts fame.
A year later, when Glen left to become a staff music writer for American Music, he cracked the charts his first time out with “Turn Around Look at Me.” Capitol Records signed him and released his first album, Big Bluegrass Special, under the name The Green River Boys Featuring Glen Campbell.
One song from the album, Merle Travis’ “Kentucky Means Paradise,” reached No. 20, but it wasn’t Glen’s turn in the spotlight yet. Back in the studios, he worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Frank Sinatra.
“Sinatra could feel me staring at him,” Glen admits. “Afterward, I asked the producer if Frank was happy with the session. He said, ‘Oh, he liked it fine — he just wanted to know who the starry‑eyed guitar player was who kept looking at him.’ “
Then came work with Elvis Presley, on the Viva Las Vegas film track.
“All the attention was on Elvis — until Ann‑Margret walked in,” Glen recalls. “She was probably the best-looking gal in Hollywood, and naturally, the attention went straight to her. I teased him about it.”
Glen also has good memories of working with Merle Haggard.
“I recorded many songs with Merle, including ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and ‘Hickory Hollow’s Tramp,’ ” he says. “It was incredible to work with him and to hear those songs now. I think he was at his best then.”
Glen began to emerge from the background in 1964, when he got the chance to fill in for The Beach Boys’ ailing Brian Wilson.
“Mike Love and Carl Wilson called and asked if I could play bass and sing Brian’s part in Dallas with them. It was a madhouse. It almost didn’t matter what we were playing, because all you could hear was screaming and hollering. It was a wild experience.”
He stayed for 18 months, but turned down a permanent job. “I wanted equal pay. They didn’t go for it, and I don’t blame them. If they’d done that, I’d have been a Beach Boy.”
Glen’s break came in 1967, after he ran through the lyrics to “Gentle on My Mind” to show the musicians what he wanted. The rough take, meant just for practice, became the final record.
“We tried some more cuts, but I went back to that one. It was out within two weeks. I wanted to put strings in it, but the producer wanted it out raw. I had a little cold, so I was singing it through my nose. It sounds high and tinny, but it felt good.”
The winning streak accelerated after he collaborated with Jimmy Webb on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the first of their many hits together. “When I heard it, I cried,” Glen admits. “Phoenix was on the way home to Arkansas, and I was so homesick.”
He had a similar reaction when he heard “Wichita Lineman.”
“I went up to Jimmy’s house, and he played it for me on his organ. It made my hair stand up, it was so magnificently written. I told Jimmy, ‘The only way we can get that sound is to bring this organ down to the studio.’ So they called a hauling company and brought it to Studio A at Capitol.”
Soon, Glen’s career expanded to include his own prime‑time TV variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
“We had great guests,” Glen says with obvious pride. “Lucille Ball, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, Merle, Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray, Lily Tomlin, Three Dog Night, Tom Jones, Jim Nabors, Jerry Reed, Buck Owens, Mel Tillis.” In 1969, the show’s success led Glen into a starring role in John Wayne’s True Grit.
“There was nobody bigger and better than John Wayne,” Glen emphasizes. “He was my hero growing up, and he was just like he was on the movie screen. I couldn’t separate the two.”
The year 1969 also brought Glen another No. 1 hit, “Galveston.” “The words knocked me out because of the timing,” Glen says of the song, which includes lines about “cannons flashing” and cleaning a gun. “The Vietnam War was an explosive thing then, politically and over the air waves.”
Glen’s next monster hit came six years later, with “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
“I heard it on the radio, and the line, ‘There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon . . . ‘ hit me. I got the record, dubbed it onto a tape and took it on tour. We drove around Australia playing that song. What got me was its message: don’t compromise with the devil, which I had done by doing songs I didn’t want to do, gigs I didn’t want to do, knowing they were wrong.”
Glen scored again in 1977 with “Southern Nights,” which hit No. 1 on both country and pop charts.
” ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ and ‘Gentle on My Mind’ came together effortlessly,” Glen recollects. ” ‘Southern Nights’ was work. At one point there were horns and female background vocals on it. But I took the horns out and remastered it myself — I knew what I wanted in that song.”
Because Glen was becoming a household name, everyone wanted to record with him.
“Capitol wanted me to do a duet with Bobbie Gentry,” Glen says. “We were both hot at the time and we picked songs we liked, ‘Let It Be Me’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream.’ Working with Bobbie was great. She was very much a professional and has become a dear friend. In 1971, I teamed up with Anne Murray. She was fabulous; what a good singer! I heard ‘Snowbird’ and told my manager we had to do something with her, so we did ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ “
In a duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ernie sang and Glen played guitar. “It was just Ernie, me and a guitar; that was the whole album. Ernie was such a sweet guy. I hadn’t worked with him before, but I was a big fan of his when he had his own TV show.”
In the ’80s, Glen recorded duets with Rita Coolidge, Tanya Tucker, Mel Tillis, Lacy J. Dalton, Steve Wariner and Emmylou Harris.
Having worked with so much talent, Glen has an eye for it.
He helped give Alan Jackson his big break when Alan’s wife Denise happened to meet Glen at an airport. He gave her the business card of his Nashville publishing company, which led to Alan landing a record deal. The card found a permanent place in Alan’s wallet.
Other young country singers and writers have come to Glen since.
“They’ve come along because of what happened with Alan, and they know we’re straight shooters,” says Glen. “I believe if they wrote the songs, they should get their just due.”
One was Bryan White: “We signed Bryan to a writing deal, helped him get a record deal — the same way we did with Alan,” Glen says.
Despite working with virtually every top country artist, Glen never felt the need to move to Nashville — and only recorded there once. “I never lived in Nashville,” says Glen. “In 1963 I went there and recorded a couple of things on my Christmas album, which I released in 1969. That was the only time I’ve recorded there.”
Branson, Mo., became Campbell’s home away from his home in Phoenix, Ariz. He has spent seven years performing in Branson, the last two at his own Glen Campbell Goodtime Theatre.
He won’t be back this year, however. It is time, he thinks, to reap the rewards of his labors and his faith — and to play more golf.
“I’m 60 years old. I don’t want to work that hard now. I was on a treadmill, and time with my family is more important.” Family — his wife, Kim, and their three children — has become the center of Glen’s life. It’s a life, as anyone familiar with his 1984 Rhinestone Cowboy: An Autobiography knows, that has been beset with problems of substance abuse followed by a religious reawakening.
“If you’re going to write about your life, write it like it was,” Glen says. “I can’t live with lies and deception. I was an alcoholic, man. I did drugs. But I’ve been forgiven for that. When you know that God Almighty has forgiven you, it matters little what people think.
“Kim and I were baptized Dec. 22, 1981. That was the start of Jesus Christ coming into my life, and I was totally delivered from the drug scene. Kim knew I was worth saving. I think the Lord sent her to get me straightened out.”
In 1986, Glen recorded the first of five Christian albums, which have netted him two Dove Awards.
He is grateful for all his awards, which include Grammys for “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the album Wichita Lineman and a slew of Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association honors, including the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award in 1968.
Now, after four decades in the American mainstream, Glen credits his success to those long-ago days on the road with Uncle Dick. “Along the way, I learned to treat other people the way I’d like to be treated. That’s lasted.”