Columnist remembers music giant Glen Campbell

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Nick Thomas, Tinseltown Talks columnist, interviewed the late Glen Campbell in December 2008. Thomas' story is reprinted here with permission, edited minimally for length.

The entertainment world lost a true music giant when Glen Campbell passed away last month. When I interviewed Glen in December 2008 for Deadwood Magazine, there was no sign of the Alzheimer's that would soon afflict him. He was still performing and had recently returned to the studio to record the album "Meet Glen Campbell," which would peak at no. 27 on the Billboard country charts.

For longtime fans, that new recording was an opportunity to rediscover the veteran singer who entertained America for decades with his Country-Pop fusion style. But as the title suggested, Campbell also wanted to introduce himself to new audiences.

"I've been meeting a lot of young people who thought I was just a country and western singer," Campbell said from his home in Malibu. The album covered a wide variety of songs - some fairly contemporary at the time, and others that went back several decades. "It was most important for me that this still sounded like a Glen Campbell album, and I think it does."

Tracks included cover versions of "Sing," the 2001 hit by the Scottish alternative rock group Travis, Tom Petty's "Angel Dream," Jackson Browne's "These Days" from the 1960s, and "Grow Old With Me," one of the last songs written by John Lennon who recorded it with his wife, Yoko Ono, in their home shortly before Lennon's death. It has since become a popular tribute song at weddings.

"Lennon never got to record it professionally in the studio," Campbell said. "Yoko let me use it on the album and you can really 'imagine' him singing it to her."

Well-known as a vocalist, Campbell was also an accomplished musician. In his early years, he was hotly sought as a reliable and skillful session guitarist. Listen again to Frank Sinatra's classic, "Strangers in the Night." That's Campbell on rhythm guitar performing all the guitar licks, which no doubt helped push the song to the top of the charts in 1966. "I played the melody along with him," said Campbell, proudly. "That was the topper of all time, I think, to get to play with Sinatra!"

At any Campbell concert, audiences always expected to hear a selection of his classics, such as "Southern Nights," "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy." But he said there was no mystery behind the success of these mega chart-topping career songs that he made his own. "You need a good piece of poetry up front and then a great melody to go with it. That was the genius of Jimmy Webb, who wrote many of my biggest hits. He's one of the best songwriters ever."

Webb's appreciation for Campbell was evident from past comments. "Some songwriters are just blessed in some way," Webb said in an interview in the late 1990s. "I was blessed by having people like Glen Campbell putting my work out there."

Glen Campbell was born just 100 miles from the birthplace of another Arkansas native and country music legend, the late Johnny Cash. The two first crossed paths when Campbell was in his early twenties.

Campbell and Cash both made the successful jump from country music to pop and performed together on each other's TV shows during the '60s and '70s. Campbell's variety show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," was watched by up to 50 million viewers each week during its four-season run from 1969-72.

While his album "Meet Glen Campbell" may have been a commercial far cry from his numerous chart-toppers of the past, it had special significance for Campbell. In addition to his daughter, Debby, who has been singing alongside her father for two decades, the record's list of backing vocalists featured more Campbells than a supermarket soup aisle - Dillon, Cal, Shannon and Ashley Campbell also joined their famous dad on the album.

In his final years, as Alzheimer's slowly stole his memory, Campbell probably forgot how much his music was loved by his fans. And for others unfamiliar with the man or his music, a quick download is all it takes today to "Meet Glen Campbell."

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 650 newspapers and magazines. Visit www.tinseltowntalks.com