Editor’s note: In 2012, Glen Campbell embarked on his final tour, which included a stop at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet on Jan. 26-27. In advance of those shows, this interview was originally published Jan. 23, 2012 in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Maybe it was his playfully deep-voiced, deliberately slow “hello” followed by a brief detour into the opening strains of “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” that gave me the perfect opening to tell Glen Campbell that I’ve been a huge fan of his music for decades. The legendary singer didn’t miss a beat: “It’s nice to meet people with taste,” he said with a hearty laugh.
The conversation took place earlier this month, during a phone call to Nashville, Tenn., where the singer was performing. There was unabashed joy in his voice, despite the devastating curveball that life threw him last June, when the singer, 75, revealed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
His fans were devastated, but Campbell simply — and perhaps fortunately — can’t recall the illness that plagues him. He’s too busy having a great time on what’s billed as his “Goodbye Tour,” and celebrating his (for all purposes) final album, “Ghost on the Canvas,” released in August.
Kim, his wife of 30 years, travels everywhere with him. He turns the conversation to her in a few instances, for clarity, when he can’t quite recall what he struggles to relate. She has been his rock throughout this very public process that put another celebrity face on the disease that robs people of their memories, their lives.
Campbell is in Joliet Thursday and Friday for shows at the Rialto Square Theatre. The eight-time Grammy winner will receive the industry’s lifetime achievement award on the Feb. 11 awards show telecast.
Here is some of what Campbell had to say about his life and his music.
Q. How are you feeling these days?
A. Wonderful. I really am. My wife goes out with me on the road and she takes care of me. There’s a thing in the Bible that goes, “If a man findeth a good wife, he findeth a good thing.” [Laughing] So I call my wife my thing.
Q. How have you come to terms with the Alzheimer’s diagnosis? How do you feel it has affected your life?
A. I don’t know why that’s been talked about. I haven’t seen any kind of a change. [Laughs] I don’t know if they were pulling my leg.
[To his wife] What did the doctor say, honey?
[Kim answers from a distance] It’s called Alzheimer’s, honey. It’s a memory issue.
[Glen talks into the phone] Oh, it’s a memory issue. [Laughs] I’ve been trying to forget all that junk all these years, put some new stuff in. But it’s not affecting my life these days.
Q. Why was it important for you to go out on the road?
A. My kids. My kids [sons Shannon and Cal, and daughter Ashley] are in my band. My daughter plays flute, banjo, piano.
[Kim interjects from a distance] Honey, I play the flute. Ashley plays piano and banjo.
[Glen begins again] Oh my wife plays flute. [Laughing] I keep mixing ya’ll up! My two boys play bass and guitars. [Cal plays drums, Kim reminds him.] Oh yes, he plays drums. I have to corral him because he likes to beat on them real hard. He used to do this since he was a kid. Kim would set up pots and pans for him before he could even walk and he’d go in there and beat the heck outta them.
Q. How cool is it to go out on stage and see your family there every night?
A. It’s flat wonderful to have my kids there. They turned out to be good musicians, with good timing. [Laughs] I go out there grinnin’ like a dog eatin’ peach seeds.
Q. Why did you want do “Ghost on the Canvas”?
A. You know how agents are. It came up and we did it. If something else comes up…
Q. Are you saying you might put out another album?
A. If I found something I really liked. I remembered many times when someone would come and say, “Oh, this is a really great song for you and blah, blah, blah,” and I tried that a few times and it just didn’t work at all. I play what I want to hear. And so far it’s worked out pretty good.
Q. You’ve always surrounded yourself with incredible musicians from way back. I was thinking specifically of your studio session years in Los Angeles with the Wrecking Crew, with guys like James Burton, Tommy Tedesco and Leon Russell. What was that time in your life like?
A. That was some fun times. It was like gettin’ up in heaven cuz they all played so good.
Q. What attracts you to a song?
A. A good lyric naturally — and words, too, [Laughing] the country boy once said. It just comes out. You gotta have a really good feel if a song is gonna be good ‘cause you’re going on what are people gonna say of you. With Jimmy Webb it was pretty easy to do.
Q. The two of you was like lightning striking.
A. What a blessing that was. Jimmy wrote just all these great, beautiful songs.
Q. Is there one song he wrote that you recorded that means the most to you?
A. [To Kim] OK, honey, what’s the best Jimmy Webb song for you that I play?
[Kim in the distance] “Wichita Lineman.”
[Glen speaks into the phone] “Wichita Lineman” — still on the line.
Q. Jimmy Webb said in a recent interview on songfacts.com: “Glen was very, very good at commercializing my songs. He could come up with great intros and great solos, great breaks, and he wrote perfect strings because he wrote very little. It was a minimalist approach and I just left Glen out there with a song and the guitar.”
A. Hmmm. He said that? That’s incredible.
Q. Did you have a minimalist approach to his songs?
A. Oh yeah. Because his songs were just so good. Songs that would make you stand up and listen. He’s an amazing songwriter. I mean, if you can sit there and write “MacArthur Park,” which is about three days long, I told him, you’re really good.
Q. Do you still write music?
A. No. You gotta love your work and you gotta live with it. I liked to write or get songs that mean something. “I want,” “I love,” I like,” “I need” songs, that kind of stuff. About dreaming.
Q. How important has faith been in your life? (Campbell was raised Baptist but he and Kim have been practicing Messianic Jews for 20 years.)
A. Oh gosh, we went to church on Sundays, and it was the Church of Christ and they don’t have music. So I’d go down the street to the black Baptist church with my guitar and sing and play. [Laughing] I said if they’ll let me play my guitar and sing I’ll go down to the Baptist church instead. So that’s what I did. I must have been 8 or 9. All I knew then were hymns, ‘cause there wasn’t much music outside of church.
Q. You got to play with some of the greats in the business. Who was your favorite guitar player?
A. [1930s jazz guitarist] Django Reinardt from the Hot Club de France [quintet]. Stephane Grappelli was the violinist. They played violin and guitar and it was the most mad, mixed-up stuff you every heard in your life. They were just awesome. They would do “Sheik of Araby” with just guitar and fiddle and just blow your face off.
Q. You worked with producer Julian Raymond on “Ghost,” and he also produced “Meet Glen Campbell,” a few years back, which featured your versions of songs from The Foo Fighters, Green Day, U2 and John Lennon, among others. Why did you want to do an album of those particular covers?
A. I wanted to change them a little bit and see what they sounded like. A lot of times [the music] sounds so sterile, has no life in it. But if the words are good, if the song draws me to what I want to sing, I’ll sing it. I want to sing something that has a really good chord progression, and then you gotta have a really good lyric.
Q. You’re receiving a lifetime achievement Grammy next month. How does that make you feel?
A. Isn’t that something! [Laughing] That must mean I’ve lived this long. I started doing all this literally before I could stand up. I would be beating on something, and then I started to play on the mandolin ‘cause it was small. I just wanted to play any instrument. And when dad bought me a guitar for 3 or 4 dollars, that was it. The guitar turned me on to a capo, you know, for the frets. That was awesome. Learning to play with that got me more sessions than anything because I knew how to play guitar with it. I got to play with the best musicians in the world. The time was just perfect.
Q. Did you know your early songs [“Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”] would these iconic hits?
A. No, I didn’t. I just relied on Jimmy [Webb] ‘cause he had written all these great songs like “Up, Up and Away.” He would write something and I would just manipulate it in the little way that I wanted to sing it. I might hear it a different way than he did. We never really disagreed on much. I would hear it the way I want to record it. If I heard a song I liked but there were a few things in it like, “Hmmm, I can’t sing it that way,” I would change it up. From doing studio session work I really knew how to have a very good rhythm pattern.
Q. What do you want to be remembered for the most?
A. [Laughing] Living. I’ll be very pleased with whatever my legacy is. Good songs are what I like. Making music that people can relate to.