September 5, 2019


The Story of Country Music's Great Songwriting Duo: Before they released "Wichita Lineman," the greatest unfinished song of all time, Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb lived surprisingly parallel lives. (Dylan Jones | Wichita Lineman)

Born in 1936, at a time of high poverty and low optimism, even from a young age Glen Travis Campbell had a sunny, upbeat disposition. The seventh son in a family of eight boys and four girls, he grew up on an electricity-free 120-acre sharecropper farm ninety miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. His family didn't just endure poverty, they wore it. "It was the land of opportunity," said Campbell, "if you had a car. We were just one step above the animals." While the world would eventually see his name glowing in electric letters taller than some of the houses he was raised in, life in Arkansas in the forties was tough. The Campbell family slept four to a bed, and Glen used to say that he never knew what it was like to sleep alone until he was married. Being a tenant farmer, his father worked every hour of daylight, in his bib overalls, felt hat, and long-sleeved shirt buttoned firmly at the neck.

For the young Glen Campbell, country music was a blessed release, listening to it first on a battery-operated console and then a proper electric radio, on which he would devour Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and the other stars beaming out from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. He didn't much like getting his hands dirty, and listening to music was much more fun than being out in the fields all day long, "looking a mule in the butt," as Campbell put it in a 1968 New York Times interview. While the music played, anything seemed possible.

"All I ever did since I can remember was eat, live and breathe singing and playing guitar. I worked at a service station for a week, almost took my hand off, changing a flat tire. Well, I quit that, because I wanted to play my guitar, and I couldn't do that with smashed fingers."

When he was four, his uncle Boo sent Campbell a $5 three-quarter-size Sears, Roebuck and Co. guitar, and his hands immediately took to the strings. He was also blessed with a sweet tenor voice, which he used to sing gospel hymns at church every Sunday, but it was his guitar dexterity that was really impressive. By age six, Campbell was performing on local radio, and by his teens he was playing in dive bars, showing off his guitar skills, as well as the small tough-guy cartoon dagger on his upper left arm (proudly scratched with a needle and filled with ink at the age of nine). In 1954, aged seventeen, he suddenly quit school and moved to Albuquerque, where he started playing guitar in his uncle's band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys, regularly being kicked off the stage of cowpoke bars by the local police, who could see that he was underage. Finally, in 1958, desperate to branch out on his own, he formed his own band, the Western Wranglers, sometimes playing fourteen sets a week.

"When I started playing, I listened to Django Reinhardt," said Campbell in 2011. "Django Reinhardt was the best guitar player that ever lived on this earth. He would play stuff that was just alien, man. I sat there and just laughed as I listened to his record. And they did all those songs from way back, like 'Sheik of Araby.' He'd do the lick and then he'd play his own lick over it. I wish he had lived long enough to have recorded some more of those songs, because they would have been wall burners, you know what I mean?"

'I'd have to pick cotton for a year to make what I'd make in a week in LA,' he said.
It was the move to LA that would really prove to be fortuitous, though. "I'd have to pick cotton for a year to make what I'd make in a week in LA," he said. He charmed his way into recording sessions, auditioned for record company executives outside their offices and gradually hustled his way into a living. He played on demos and records, and even started making them himself, singing, playing guitar -- anything that they wanted him to. On and on he did this, day in and day out, week in, month out. Happy to play with other people, his ambition had always been to make it on his own as a professional singer.

"I probably had it in the back of my head to be an artist, but I was making so much money doing studio work, I didn't want to go through that routine of going out doing gigs for $100 a night. You could make more than that doing a session. I was hanging around the greatest musicians in the world and that's how you learn how to play. I got to work with so many great people -- Nat King Cole, for me that was a thrill, and I'd much rather be doing that than going out and playing some joint."

Crest Records eventually signed him as a solo artist, and tried to promote him as an instrumentalist, scoring a minor hit in 1961 with an old-fashioned ballad called "Turn Around, Look at Me" that Campbell had actually written himself. He did a lot of jingle work, too, musically espousing the benefits of various household products, including hairsprays and room deodorizers, while earning enough to buy a nicely appointed four-bedroom home on Satsuma Street in North Hollywood and lease a brand-new gold Cadillac. The covers of his early records featured Campbell in various engaging poses, all of which were semaphoring the duality of his down-home appeal and his "Look out, world, here I come" ambitions.

Campbell would start to call his talent a trade, a skill he had learned through hard work, practice and an aptitude that he never took for granted. One of the reasons he became so popular at recording sessions was as much to do with his open personality as it was his virtuosity. "I think I practiced my trade enough, which is singing and playing, being a musician and a singer, to have people recognize that and call me," he told the journalist Gary James once. "You know, it's like if they call you to build a house and you don't know how to build a house, you're not going to get the job. I was ready when I was called to do something; I could do it musically. I didn't limit my talent by pursuing one particular kind of music. I didn't limit it by pursuing jazz or pursuing country or pursuing pop. Music was my world before they started putting a label on it. If somebody heard music that was different from another section of the country, they'd label it. That Detroit Sound, you record it in LA, it sounds the same way to me."

The small success of "Turn Around, Look at Me" helped Campbell get a record deal with Capitol Records in 1962. His first release for Capitol provided Campbell with another minor pop entry, but when subsequent singles failed to chart, Capitol strongly considered dropping him from the label. He threw himself into the Hollywood music scene, making home life even more challenging.

* * *

Like Campbell, Webb had been drawn to LA because it looked like the future, wanting a taste of what had been filtered through to the rest of the country via surfboards, hot rods, and the Beach Boys. There was a commonality here, one that Campbell and Webb would eventually share.

Webb was hungry and ambitious beyond his years. The songs he was writing at the time were more intricate than what his contemporaries were attempting. He was inspired by what he heard on the radio, but his own songs owed as much to Broadway as they did to the hit parade. There was an old-school quality to them, almost as though he were writing for Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. They weren't your classic pop songs, but they were classic.

He'd follow any lead, return every call. One day in 1965, an ex-Motown acquaintance called him and asked if he wanted an all-expenses-paid trip to Vegas. Apparently, the one-time Motown artist Tony Martin was looking for new material and wanted to hear what "the kid" had. He was appearing at the Riviera Hotel and wanted Webb to come and pitch to him directly.

'I was homesick at the time, and was going back to Phoenix a lot, tracing back my steps to home, so it really resonated.'
So Webb flew to Vegas and was escorted to Martin's green room. He sat in this little, badly lit anteroom in his tatty chinos and thick, black-framed glasses, quietly, nervously waiting for Martin to appear. Sometimes Webb took on a gangling aspect, like a bashful young boy not yet comfortable in public, and today he wasn't comfortable. After a while he noticed a figure sitting even more quietly in a semi-dark corner of the room. The man was Louis Armstrong, sitting playing with the valves on his trumpet. He looked at the young songwriter, noticed the pile of sheet music in his lap and said, "What you got there? Let me have a look at those."

Armstrong read the lyrics to Webb's original "Didn't We," nodded and said -- he had a reputation for being encouraging -- "You keep at it, boy. You're gonna be something."

It was a very quick encounter, which to Webb still feels like a dream, but it was a huge moment for him. "I stood there with a warm golden glow suffusing my whole body," Webb would later say.

Posted by at September 5, 2019 1:33 PM