The sudden death of pop diva Whitney Houston on the eve of the Grammys meant that no one got to say a proper goodbye to her before she left us, but fans and the music industry gave a living salute to a new Lifetime Achievement Award winner last night. Glen Campbell’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis means his performing days are over as he makes what is probably a long, excruciating walk toward the sunset. He had one more album left in him, though, and last year’s Ghost on the Canvas was a nearly-perfect coda to an outstanding career as a country/pop singer and guitarist. As Campbell sang his signature tune “Rhinestone Cowboy” for likely the last time on stage during the ceremonies, I thought of another song he’s famous for.
Campbell had a short-lived variety show on TV during the late sixties, and one of my earliest memories was watching that music-oriented show. I must have really enjoyed that program, because for Christmas, 1969, my parents gave me a Glen Campbell album, Wichita Lineman, which featured the hit song of the same name, a song he got to promote on his TV show. This is one of those songs that I liked in elementary school but it’s only into middle age that I came to realize what a classic song it really is. The re-awakening got started thanks another long-time major artist with whom I go way back with, James Taylor, when he included the song in his Covers album from 2008. The original version, with its heavily orchestrated arrangement and a shimmering organ, is one of those songs that might have appeared on Muzak stations a time or two but is saved from the mind-numbing blandness by a stunningly beautiful composition courtesy of Jimmy Webb. Webb was never a favorite songwriter of mine—around this time he gave us “McArthur Park” with actor Richard Harris singing—but “Wichita” has a timeless melody that had the kind of depth you can find in more ample supply back then than you can find now. Campbell’s vocal, true to form, is smooth but not so smooth that he can’t assume the narrator’s character, one of a man working in desolate part of the country up on a telephone pole. An everyday kind of guy worrying about the weather and pining for his girl.
As I was watching Campbell singing that other hit on stage, very much enjoying the special moment and getting the whole audience to sing along to the chorus, the camera showed Sir Paul McCartney as one of the most enthusiastic participants in the sing-along. Which again brought me back to that Christmas: another record I got that day was a Beatles single.