Ahead of a special concert in Dunfermline, American song writing legend Jimmy Webb pays tribute to his old friend Glen Campbell and tells The Courier’s Michael Alexander why he is concerned that music has ‘drifted away’ from the activism of the 1960’s.
He has written some of the finest tracks in the great American Songbook including “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman”.
His songs have also been performed by music royalty including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, and REM.
But the singer with whom Grammy Award winning Jimmy Webb has had the most enduring professional and personal relationship is the one and only Glen Campbell.
Now as Jimmy embarks upon a seven date UK and Ireland tour with his live ‘The Glen Campbell Years’ multi-media show – including a night at the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline on Wednesday September 14 – Jimmy speaks of his sadness that his old friend is now in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and explains why he thinks the “time is right” to pay tribute.
“The show is called the Glen Campbell Years and it includes a lot of personal video and recordings that I’ve made down through the years working together in concert with Glen,” explains Jimmy, 70, in an interview from New York.
“There’s lots of anecdotal stuff. The emphasis is on good humour and looking at the bright side of this incredible artist’s life – his sort of semi-secret but profound influence over pop music in the 1960s and the thousands of records that he played on.
“Now that Glen is no longer able to perform, in conjunction with the Campbell family, I’ve put this show together that I think will highlight the fact that Glen is one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
“To get a feeling for the man on the inside and his take on life. And Glen always loved Scotland. And I believe the Scots always loved him.”
It was 1961 when, as a young teen in Oklahoma, Jimmy heard Glen Campbell’s “Turn Around Look At Me” on the radio and prayed that someday he would hear that voice sing his compositions.
Just four years later, halfway across the country in Hollywood, Campbell heard Johnny Rivers’ recording of Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and covered it, making it a hit, with Campbell going on to win a Grammy for best male vocalist for his version of the track.
The musical duo had a couple of hits on the US charts before they even met, during the recording of an advertising jingle.
It was the start of a beautiful friendship and they became “musically inseparable”.
Jimmy, who described his old friend as “freakishly talented”, tries to visit Glen every time he goes to Nashville.
It’s heart breaking, he says, that the music legend no longer sings, no longer picks up the guitar.
As anyone who has experienced Alzheimer’s in the family will appreciate, it’s also an incredibly difficult time for Campbell’s relatives.
But Jimmy, who recently turned 70, is sure this is the right time for him to pay tribute to his old friend – and he would never have done it without the Campbell family’s blessing.
He adds: “It takes a while for the reality to sink in. There hasn’t been a funeral, there hasn’t been any leave taking.
But the reality is he’s no longer there. He’s not picking up the phone and saying ‘hello there Jimmy Webb’.
He was always picking up the guitar. He was always singing. So to be in the Campbell household is a lot quieter.
“There’s definitely a sense of loss even though he’s very much alive. It’s so surreal in a way that it’s hard to deal with sometimes. I think everyone ends up making their own private goodbyes and saying their own prayers for someone who really isn’t there anymore.”
Jimmy has performed in Scotland many times before, but this will be his first appearance in Fife. He is full of praise for Scottish audiences.
“My memories of Scotland are always great,”he adds. “Always superb. Wonderful personal relationships, great audiences, great shows. Very very receptive and inspiring audiences.
“I find audiences very knowledgeable. I remember one time when I was playing London and there were five lads from Glasgow who drove all the way from Scotland to London to see my show. They told me they stopped at every pub on the way. I’m not sure about that!” he laughs.
“They were slightly out of shape – but they were great, sang along and knew all the songs. There are fans out there who are absolutely fanatics.
“There are others out there who don’t know me so well. Those are the people I’d like to get to know.”
Jimmy has just finished an orchestral piece which will be premiered in Kentucky and Long Island soon. And in many ways this goes back to his roots.
“I’ve always been a classical music aficionado, “he says.
“I’ve had some time and the inspiration to push in that direction. I’m kind of going that way. But the primary, most important thing that I need to do is create a new solo album and I have a lot of the songs unfinished.
“I’m certainly ready to do it. I believe I have a label who would be interested in doing it. I’m certainly excited to go back in with my friend Freddie Mullen who has done my best records including Ten Easy Pieces – really my first hit album.
“And I’m ready to go back in and do what I think God put me here to do – to write songs that are evocative of the times we live in. Certainly, things have gotten a lot more complicated here as I enter my 70s, the world is phenomenally complicated and kind of disorganised place.
“I think it’s our obligation to comment on those things. I think music has drifted away from the activism of the 60s. I don’t think that’s right. I think music is meant to convey a political message and capture the spirit of its time.”