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A Box Set Preserves Glen Campbell’s Legacy

After growing up poor with 11 brothers and sisters in Arkansas and learning to play a four-dollar Sears guitar, Glen Campbell headed for the West Coast and rapidly turned himself into a musical Zelig. He worked with the Champs (albeit not on their big 1958 hit, “Tequila”) and a lot with Ricky Nelson. He contributed frequently to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. (That’s Campbell’s guitar, for example, on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.”) He played on lots of Beach Boys hits, including “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations,” and the classic Pet Sounds LP and actually joined the group briefly after Brian Wilson’s breakdown. In 1963 alone, he played or sang on more than 500 records.

He also contributed to numerous television commercials; recorded demos for Elvis Presley; and was in the house band for TV’s Shindig, the mid-’60s series that showcased many of the era’s leading rockers.

Those credits alone would add up to an impressive resume, but Campbell made his biggest mark when he moved to centerstage. He scored no fewer than 20 pop hits in a 10-year period that began in 1967. In 1969, he actually outsold the Beatles.

Glen Campbell backed up numerous artists but shone brightest when he was center stage.

All of his hits and a whole lot more from Campbell’s repertoire are included on the four-CD, 78-track The Legacy [1961–2017]. The box is an updated edition of a now out-of-print one that appeared in 2003; the earlier release’s fourth disc contained concert material that has been replaced here with studio performances from Campbell’s final decade. (A better alternative might have been to retain the live tracks and put the newer recordings on a fifth CD.) The liner notes in the accompanying booklet have also been expanded to cover the years before the singer’s 2017 death from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Campbell was never afraid to cross boundaries and, like his career as a backup musician, his solo stuff is all over the place. He recorded ballads, rockers, country music, gospel, and folk; near the end, he even tackled material from rock acts like the Replacements, Foo Fighters, and Green Day. Like most chance takers, he had his share of flops, some of which resulted from his apparent attraction to schmaltz. You will find some schlock on The Legacy—“I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Superstar)” and “I Wanna Live,” for example—but the successes outnumber the misses here. 

One reason is Campbell’s vocals, which are more impressive than they may initially appear to be. He doesn’t have anywhere near the range of, say, Roy Orbison, and unlike, for example, Rod Stewart, he lacks an instantly identifiable voice. But he conveys enough warmth and intimacy to draw you into his performances.

He also knows a great song when he hears one: This box taps a dizzying array of top writers, including Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Jackson Browne, Curtis Mayfield, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Fred Neil, and Brian Wilson, to name a few. But the composer credit you’ll see most often is Jimmy Webb, who supplied some of Campbell’s biggest and best hits, among them “Galveston” and the classics “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

Such numbers are arguably the biggest draw in this chronologically arranged box, but The Legacy offers lots of other pleasures as well. There are a bunch of notable duets, for example, including a seductive medley of Bacharach and David’s “I Say a Little Prayer” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” with Anne Murray; and four tracks from the album that Campbell made with Bobbie Gentry. (That whole LP is included in Gentry’s own recently released box.)

Also memorable are many of the tracks on the last disc, which—like I’ll Be Me, the moving 2014 film about Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s—demonstrate the depth of his involvement with his music. Just listen to the last number, Webb’s “Adios,” which Campbell recorded only months before he died. Even as his mind was fading, he sure hung onto the ability to drive a lyric home.

BRIEFLY NOTED

TThe HawtThorns, Morning Sun. Everything comes together on this terrific debut from husband-and-wife duo KP and Johnny Hawthorn, which boasts ringing guitars, fresh-sounding lyrics, consistently strong melodies with powerful hooks, and great harmonies. Johnny’s guitar work is particularly engaging on upbeat numbers like “The 405”; and K.P.—a former member of Calico who used to be known as Kirsten Profit—delivers engaging, nuanced vocals that are loaded with personality. On tracks like “Rebel Road” and the title cut, her breathy singing seems redolent of Carrie Rodriguez; other times, such as on “Shaking,” the shimmering and irresistible lead-off cut, I’m reminded of the Kennedys. Especially for a debut album, this is impressive stuff indeed.

Rod Picott, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil. It’s amazing what you can do with just a strong voice, a guitar, a bit of harmonica, and a compelling batch of songs. Rod Picott recorded this album alone at home—no backup group, no overdubs, and apparently not a whole lot of retakes. He penned nine of the tracks by himself, the other three with cowriters; all of them are succinct, personal, and poetic. “Bailing,” for example, recalls the many nights that Picott, his father, and his brother spent bailing water from their flooded basement because they were too poor to pay for a better solution. “A 38 Special & a Hermes Purse,” meanwhile, was inspired by a health scare that the singer recently experienced. In “A Guilty Man,” he ponders why he was single at age 54 and alone during said health scare.

Mrs. Henry, The Last Waltz. Last year at California’s Belly Up club, the rock band Mrs. Henry recreated nearly all of the Band’s famous 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz. This 31-track, two-CD recording of the event, which presents the music in the same order as it was performed more than four decades ago, embraces such numbers as the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Shape I’m In,” Dr. John’s “Such a Night,” Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Neil Young’s “Helpless,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Van Morrison’s “Caravan.”

The vocals and musicianship are uniformly excellent, and for anyone who loves this music it must have been a kick to be in the audience. It’s a little harder to make an argument for this material on disc: the arrangements are pretty faithful to those in the original concert, which is readily available on CD. So, you might ask, who needs this when you can have the versions by the Band, Dylan, et al? It’s a good question, but this record does sound great.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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