Archive for an appreciation

marty balin, 1942-2018

Jefferson Airplane in 1967 on the cover of “Surrealistic Pillow.” Back row: Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin. Front row: Jorma Kaukonoen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden.

Any contemporary band is defined by its lead singer. That role might not always dictate the musical vision of the ensemble at hand, but the vocalist is the individual whose presence is most unavoidably visible. If a band happens to have more than one featured singer, the group personality either becomes more diverse or fractures entirely.

During it psychedelic heyday, between 1966 and 1970, the Jefferson Airplane utilized four lead singers – two were exclusively vocalists (Marty Balin and Grace Slick), two others, featured less frequently, doubled as guitarists (Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner). For many, it was Slick – a fashionable and authoritative presence on and off stage – that dominated the Airplane’s vocal crew. But Balin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, largely set the standard for the band’s flight pattern and offered, nearly a decade latter, an out-of-nowhere hit.

Balin was a singer versed in pop and poetry, a blend that propelled the Airplane’s 1966 debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” a record cut prior to Slick’s involvement and the full emergence of Kaukonen and Kantner as singing alternatives. But it was with the vanguard 1967 recording “Surrealistic Pillow” that Balin’s broader pop profile revealed itself, whether it was through the uneasy calm of “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me” or the unrelenting bravado of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and, especially, “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” a parable about television that bordered on funk. But the album also included two monster hits sung by the newly recruited Slick (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”) as well as a critically lauded guitar instrumental by Kaukonen (“Embryonic Journey”). That meant having to share the spotlight.

The Airplane’s front line would stay intact though the recording of its leanest, most immediate album (1969’s “Volunteers”) as well as the euphoric highs and disastrous lows of two noted music festivals (Woodstock and Altamont) that reflected the extremes of late ‘60s pop counterculture. He left the band in 1970. The Airplane itself folded in 1973

There is a bizarre footnote to the band’s saga. Reborn in 1974 as Jefferson Starship (without Kaukonen or founding Airplane bassist Jack Casady), the band earned a huge No. 1 hit with 1975’s Balin written and sung “Miracles,”  an ultra smooth pop-soul crooner that placed Jefferson Starship at the very heart of the pop mainstream the Jefferson Airplane spurned a decade earlier.

Balin played Lexington only once that I know off – a May 1978 concert at Rupp Arena with Jefferson Starship, but the wings were clearly coming off at that point. It played like more a pack of disparate, discontented artists than as a actual band. A year later, Balin and Slick were gone, Southern singer Mickey Thomas was picked up and a move deep into ‘80s pop began. This was the band that became simply Starship, which still tours today.

All this makes Balin sound like a mere board member of rock ‘n’ roll conglomerate, which is perhaps what he really was. But listen to his best recorded performances, from “Comin’ Back to Me” to “Miracles,” and you hear a singer taking on the world. It’s just that there were a lot of other equally eager hands in his ranks also reaching for it.

aretha franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.

Some friends and I had gathered at Josie’s for breakfast this morning. We discussed bad movies, politics and getting old – the usual rubbish. Then the five or six televisions in the eatery tuned to almost as many different news stations all switched to a breaking topic.

Aretha.

We knew the passing of Aretha Franklin was imminent, given reports of her failing health and subsequent hospice care. But that didn’t lessen the blow. If you saw a train coming at you, even in slow motion, would that lighten the fury and devastation of its ultimate impact?

Bearing the often touted but still rightly earned title of Queen of Soul, Franklin was the kind of artist whose influence upon modern music simply cannot be understated.

As a vocalist and soul music stylist, she was unparalleled. She could take a gospel staple like “Amazing Grace,” a watershed Carole King tune like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or a classic work by one of her contemporaries, like Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make them sound remarkably like-minded. The blend of stamina, soul, grace, joy and intensity within her vocals was so assuredly balanced that Franklin made any song she sang her own. But there was always emotive variety. Her performances could be as soothing as a whisper, as persuasive as a preacher or as unrelentingly forceful as a battering ram.

As a woman artist that came to prominence during the ‘60s, she was also a towering voice of independence. There were others, of course, who strayed from roads to stardom created solely on image. But Franklin was as strong as oak when it came to standing up for herself, her music and her career. “Respect” wasn’t just a song for her. It was a mantra forever ingrained into her entire artistic being. No wonder so many women continue to champion the song 50 years after it became a hit.

There was humor, too. It’s tough to forget her single, show-stealing scene in John Landis’ 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” That’s where Franklin played the owner of a soul food restaurant that led a diner dance hall routine centered around “Think” as a defiant ultimatum to her husband (played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who died in June). Of course, that followed her matter-of-factly pegging the film’s lead characters, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants.”

But Franklin’s departure runs deeper than that. She was one of the last connections this generation had to the vanguard soul music fashioned by Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels during the late 1960s – a stable of artists that included Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and many others. Their music, of course, has been thankfully immortalized on recordings. But there will simply never be another sound to equal that Atlantic era’s sense of natural, impassioned R&B.

My favorite Franklin song? That’s easy. It was the title tune to the first Aretha album I ever bought – “Spirit in the Dark.” Released in the fall of 1970, its sound was slightly looser and less produced, but was in no way less fervent. Composed by Franklin, the song is essentially a gospel work fashioned during a time when the youthful idealism of the late ‘60s had vanished, leaving a social fabric weather-beaten by Vietnam and racial strife. But like many great gospel works, it opens with a quiet glimmer of hope before eventually boiling over with tent-revival style jubilation.

“Tell me, my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?” Franklin sings as the song gathers steam. “Do you feel like dancing? Then get up and let’s start dancing.”

That might seem less empowering than the chorus of “Respect.” But for today, the day the Queen has left us, it is comforting advice. After all, when the spirit in the dark comes out into the light and invites you to dance, don’t ask. Just start moving.”

 

for rick baldwin

Rick Baldwin. Photo by Jonathan Lewis.

Bass players have a perhaps stereotypical reputation for being unobtrusive in a performance setting. They’re known for leaving the spotlight to the singers and soloists and relishing their chosen role of establishing and fortifying a groove.

That’s largely what Rick Baldwin adhered to throughout his career in Lexington music venues and quite often beyond. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the soulful bass presence for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars and subsequent bands led by All-Stars guitarist Nick Stump. More recently, he played with the folk quartet TDH4 with Reel World String Band mainstays Bev Futrell and Karen Jones.

Baldwin died today of a heart attack, but had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia. He was 63.

“Ricky was my roommate on the road for 20 years or more,” Stump said. “He was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew in my life. He was so gracious. In all of the time we played music together, we never had one cross word. I don’t think he had cross words with anyone in the band, and that’s a rarity in this business. I wanted to punch out every one of the other guys at one time or another. But with Ricky, I think the worst thing he ever did to me was give me pizza.”

A lifelong Lexingtonian, Baldwin had experienced a series of health issues during his life, including a two decade-plus battle with multiple sclerosis. Stump organized a benefit at The Dame in 2005 for Baldwin to offset mounting medical bills. At the time, the MS had attacked his optic nerves causing blindness.

“Ray Charles managed to make music his whole life,” Baldwin told me prior to the benefit. “Why should I be complaining?

“I know I’m not the only person in this boat. There are millions of people out there in horrible shape who feel like they’re alone in this world. When I get my vision back, I’ve got a lot of thank-you letters to write.”

Baldwin’s other medical issues included high blood pressure. Stump recalled instances – unintentionally humorous ones, in retrospect – where Baldwin’s passion for making music shot far higher than his blood pressure.

“I can remember one time where his blood pressure was out of control down in Johnson City (Tenn.). We knew a nurse there, so we called her. She said, ‘Well, give him a half-shot of whiskey every time his blood pressure shoots up. I sat there all night giving him whiskey.

“Ricky cared more about playing music and being with the band than he did about anything.”

charles neville, 1938-2018

Charles Neville.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Neville Brothers were monsters – four New Orleans siblings that could do it all. Soul, funk, pop, jazz, you name it. If it had a groove worth exploring, the Nevilles could make it their own. Brothers Charles was probably the most overlooked of the four, but his saxophone work was as integral to the Nevilles’ ensemble sound as Art’s funky keyboard lines, Aaron’s otherworldly vocals and Cyril’s soul crusader stage presence.

Charles Neville died at age 79 earlier today after battling pancreatic cancer.

The saxophonist lived several lives before the Neville Brothers’ commanding Crescent City music took firm hold of audiences outside of New Orleans during the 1980s. Some of those lives circled around addiction and incarceration at the dawn of the ‘60s but bloomed into the gradual establishment of a lasting music career as the decade progressed.

The Neville Brothers grew out of the famed Mardi Gras Indian troupe known as The Wild Tchoupitoulas. But it was with the siblings’ second album, 1981’s “Fiyo on the Bayou,” that their sound came to a boil. The album was both a career summary and career launch, touching on Art’s funk heritage with The Meters, Aaron’s vintage pop sentiments and the New Orleans street music Cyril turned into a vital new hybrid.

For many, though, 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced “Yellow Moon,” the Nevilles’ finest recorded hour, resonated most. Lanois was the producer-of-the-moment at the time, having piloted mega-platinum albums for U2 and Peter Gabriel. What he brought to the Nevilles was a subtle ambience that enhanced the already fervent spiritual cast of the siblings’ music. As a result, the Cyril-led “Sister Rosa” became a plain speaking social anthem and the Aaron-fueled take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” evolved into a jazz meditation. Curiously, it was the predominantly instrumental “Healing Chant,” dominated by Charles’ snake charming soprano sax playing, that earned the Nevilles the first of their three career Grammys.

Luckily, the Nevilles played Lexington and Louisville frequently through the years. Aaron was the celebrity, the audience focal point. But the group’s music was always a family affair, a textured groove that cooked into a wild gumbo that no band in or out of New Orleans could match. That recipe would never have that sounded that distinct had Brothers Charles not been adding his unassuming but profoundly flavorful touch. He made the Fiyo burn all the more brilliantly.

pat dinizio, 1955-2017

Pat DiNizio.

The Smithereens always relished being a band of splendid essentials, embracing a love of pop songcraft while remaining very much a rock unit.

That’s why their best known songs – “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You” and the signature hit “Behind the Wall of Sleep” – were built around that most pivotal of rock ‘n’ roll components, the mighty guitar hook. From there, the band drew upon pop blueprints from the 1960s (the Beatles, the Byrds and the Kinks were the most detectable influences) but there was also a mildly dark cast, a studied distance, within the singing of frontman Pat DiNizio. It was as though he was the stern but very loving guardian of a pop tradition encompassing styles and sounds that would bounce about in Smithereens songs.

You could spot one of their tunes in a heartbeat by the hooks, by the vocal solemnity and by the tight-as-a-drum rhythmic drive.

The Smithereens never claimed to be the most innovative band to hit the stage. The guys stuck to basics and knew the structure of an elemental pop-informed rock ‘n’ roll tune inside and out. They could also deliver the goods earnestly, without frills, in performance. The band’s cover of the 1966 Outsiders hit “Time Won’t Let Me” was always a favorite. It revealed everything that made their original compositions so much fun: great hooks, great melodic structure and an unwavering rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

The news arrived this morning that DiNizio had died at age 62. With many focused on results of the highly publicized special election for an open Senate seat in Alabama, his passing was easy to overlook. But then, so were the Smithereens. For over three decades, they were as unfashionable and they were reliable. Trends came and went, but the Smithereens, resistent to change, proudly rocked on.

“In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year,” DiNizio told me in an interview prior to the band’s 2014 performance at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. “That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we’re all on the same page.”

tom petty, 1950-2107

tom petty.

Yesterday afternoon I came across a Facebook post from a friend in deep and understandable distress concerning not only the horrible shooting deaths of nearly 60 people Sunday night in Las Vegas but the ongoing divide within our country that remains a backdrop of such tragedy. The posting came with a simple plea: “Please, someone, give me some good news.”

No sooner than I finished reading that than three successive emails arrived, all concerning Tom Petty. Found unconscious at his home. Not breathing. No brain activity. His death, at age 66, was confirmed this morning.

We won’t try to equate the passing of an American rock ‘n’ roll colossus with what happened in Las Vegas. This isn’t a contest, just a sad footnote to an indescribably sad day.

The most immediate reaction to Petty’s death is simply shock. He had completed what was widely regarded as his final major tour as recently as last week (a trek that took him to Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena in June). You simply don’t expect an artist with such seeming invincibility to simply exit so suddenly. But when do such departures ever really announce themselves?

The overriding sense of loss, though, comes from the fact that Petty was part of a very small circle of American rock stylists whose music came of age in the 1970s by embracing essentials – a sense of rock ‘n’ roll vitality that largely sidestepped trends, a songwriting ability that embodied an everyman stance without unduly flaunting it and, let’s face it, enough of a celebrity profile to win him the kind of commercial appeal to fortify an enduring audience. It’s a short a list. Bruce Springsteen is on it. Bob Seger, despite a career that began to catch fire in the late ‘60s, is on it. The company thins out pretty quickly after that.

Petty came to us at the unlikeliest of times. A Floridian who made his fortune after relocating to Southern California, he released three initial albums with his Heartbreakers band – “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976), “You’re Gonna Get It” (1978) and the breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979) – at a time when rock and pop were split between mainstream disco and upstart punk. Petty avoided the extremes of both by embracing a meat-and-potatoes rock design that sounded more Heartland than West Coast in terms of inspiration. The backbone of his enduring catalog – “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee” and others – hails from those first three albums.

Petty also accomplished something few artists outside of Springsteen and Seger could. He rode new waves of popularity in ensuing decades.

“Full Moon Fever” – technically a solo album, but with a Jeff Lynne-produced sound largely in league with the Heartbreakers’ music – yielded the defiant hit “I Won’t Back Down” as the 1980s closed to become as popular as anything Petty cut during the preceding decade. Then in 1994 came “Wildflowers,” another record with another famed producer (Rick Rubin) that stripped away the Lynne-enhanced pop-veneer for some of Petty’s most elemental and endearing songs.

There weren’t many hits after that, but there didn’t need to be. Petty never made a bad album. Even his last two Heartbreakers works, “Mojo” (2010) and “Hypnotic Eye” (2014) possessed great songs even if their more relaxed feel provided Petty an elder status he largely shrugged off in performance. But those records are great listens and serve as proof of Petty’s ability to age with grace and vigor.

I saw him perform probably a half dozen times, none of them recently. Nothing compared to my first Petty show, however – a February 1983 outing at Louisville Gardens with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack playing together as an opening act, all for $10.

Petty’s hit at the time was the synth-heavy “You Got Lucky.” But it was another then-new tune that defined the evening – a stubbornly assertive and anthemic non-hit called “One Story Town.” The reason was simple. It embraced fully the band that pervaded every corner of Petty’s music, right down to his singing – The Byrds.

Just thinking of that song puts a smile my face. Then again, that’s what great rock ‘n’ roll does – it makes your spirits soar, even at the saddest of times.

troy gentry, 1967-2007

montgomery gentry in 2014: eddie montgomery (left) and troy gentry.

You can rewind and review his career. You can reminisce about his formative years, the pre-celebrity era, spent in Lexington. You can even admire the combination of performance stamina and mainstream popularity that kept the band that bore his name popular for close to two decades. But when the parting is so sudden and tragic, the impact of the exit winds up being what – for the moment, at least – sticks with you.

That was the feeling that hit when I got a call late yesterday afternoon that started with the three words you don’t want to hear in lieu of hello.

“Have you heard…”

That’s when the news began to quickly spread about the New Jersey helicopter crash that took the life of Troy Gentry, the Lexington born half of Montgomery Gentry. Gentry had long ago relocated to Nashville, but for most any Lexington country music fan, he will always be a local hero. It was here that he played weekends at the Austin City Saloon with siblings John Michael and Eddie Montgomery. When John Michael’s career took off in the early 1990s, Gentry reteamed with Eddie and forged a duo act through steady gigging at the Tates Creek Centre nightspot known as The Grapevine. By 1998, Montgomery Gentry was formed, signed and on its way to stardom.

At the height of the duo’s commercial popularity, around the time its third and fourth albums – 2002’s “My Town” and 2004’s “You Do Your Thing” – were nearing platinum status, Montgomery Gentry became a regular at Rupp Arena. One could only imagine the sense of accomplishment that must have come from singing the hit title tune to “My Town” in the big house of their hometown first at a show opener for Kenny Chesney and then as headliner for several New Year’s Eve performances.

Blending Southern rock inspiration with ample country bravado, Montgomery Gentry relished its role as a leading Central Kentuckv voice for contemporary country music. While the hits began to get sparser in recent years and the returns to their hometown became less frequent, the two never lost their popularity as a national touring act or as a local success saga.

“Playing the clubs then, you had The Greg Austin Band, Doug Breeding, Larry Redmon,” Gentry said told me in a 2014 interview of his early club dates with the Montgomery brothers. “Lexington was booming with live music. On the weekends you weren’t working or in between breaks on nights that you were, you would try and zip over to one of the other clubs and check out some of the other music.

“Then John Michael was discovered. But what was really fascinating was the fact that Eddie and I kept playing together. We were fortunate enough that we had something unique and different that Nashville heard about. So it’s pretty cool that we all played together in one band, split up and still make a career out of doing what we love to do.”

walter becker, 1950-2017

steely dan: donald fagen (left) and walter becker.

The rule of thumb with most great alliances is that there is usually a member of equal, if not higher ranking than the other participants known as the silent partner. The others may serve as the face of the operation, but the silent partner is often the architect, the bank roller or the engine driver. Or all three.

In the great jazz-pop enterprise known as Steely Dan, Walter Becker was the silent partner. Donald Fagen may have been the face of this popular but immensely aloof band. He served as its vocalist, keyboardist and, when the operation went live (which it didn’t for much of its lifespan), frontman. Becker would remain purposely out of the spotlight on guitar or bass knowing his contribution to the music at hand was already complete.

Becker, whose death at age 67 was announced this morning without details or fanfare on his website, was largely viewed as a 50-50 associate with Fagen in the music Steely Dan conjured. Its songs were always credited to the two players, giving the assumption that everything – the askew hipster lyrics, the generous pop slant and an even more devout jazz sensibility that increased with every album the band made between 1972 and 1980 – was a product of mutual consent. We’ll never know to what degree who designed what in the mix. Steely Dan was always as much a band of mystery as it was a purveyor of jazz-pop expression. That it ceased to be a touring quintet in the mid ‘70s and rode out the rest of the decade as a revolving studio collective of which Becker and Fagen were the chieftains only added to the mystique. But it will forever be part of Steely Dan’s fortune that Becker’s role, as deceptively passive as it might have seemed, was touted as prominently as Fagen’s. It was the essence of a classic partnership, and in the pop world, the Steely Dan alliance was as championed as they came.

I freely admit many years passed where I simply couldn’t listen to the band’s records anymore. Steely Dan had become such an overexposed fixture on rock radio (and sometimes beyond) that listener burnout had set in. But earlier this summer, for whatever reason, I dug out the seven initial records Becker and Fagen cut as Steely Dan. Their music sounded beautifully new – and, in many instances, exquisitely weird – all over again. Of course, Becker, wasn’t an obvious presence on the songs themselves. He may have contributed bass or an occasional guitar solo (or, in the case of the title tune to 1980’s “Gaucho” album, both), but his input came in the composition and arrangement process, the assimilation of all those rich jazz references (the wildly dynamic tenor sax and drum battle between Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd on “Aja,” the more tender hearted alto sax solo from Phil Woods on “Doctor Wu” and the masterfully crafted guitar solos Larry Carlton contributed to “Kid Charlemagne” and my very favorite Steely Dan work, “Third World Man”) and the often darkly opaque narratives that would have killed off any lesser pop force.

In Steely Dan, Becker was in the cockpit right alongside Fagen, flying some of the most glorious genre-bending missions the pop world has ever experienced. Happy trails, gaucho.

john abercrombie, 1944-2017

john abercrombie. photo by john rogers.

I stumbled upon the music of John Abercrombie as a high school senior near at the end of 1975. With a newly discovered fondness for jazz that was limited largely to fusion, I checked out the guitarist’s then-current debut album “Timeless” because it listed former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer as part of the trio Abercrombie fronted for the record. The music inside was, to use a tired term, mindblowing. It was jarring, it was cool. It grooved, it meditated. It rocked, it reflected. I was hooked.

But what made the catalog Abercrombie accumulated over the next 42 years with the German-rooted ECM label so striking and appealing was its diversity. Next in line, were two trio albums with Gateway – “Gateway” (1976) and “Gateway 2” (1978) – that placed Abercrombie alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette (who also played on “Timeless”) and bassist Dave Holland. The three took on everything from free-style improvs to rugged ensemble swing. Also in 1978 came the sublime “Characters,” a solo but multi-dubbed guitar album that created inner dialogues the way Bill Evans did on his groundbreaking “Conversations with Myself” albums from the 1960s.

Next up were three quartet recordings in quick succession – “Arcade” (1978), “Abercrombie Quartet” (1979) and “M” (1980) – that reunited the guitarist with the great New York pianist Richie Beirach to create an ensemble sound rich in swing, atmosphere, compositional design and brilliant but exquisitely unforced improvisation. All three were reissued early in an essential box set titled “The First Quartet” (2015).

Bookending almost all of this were two duet recordings with longtime ECM guitar mate Ralph Towner – “Sargasso Sea” (1976) and “Five Years Later” (1981) – built around acoustic/electric ambience that, in many ways, defined the mystery, mood and spaciousness of ECM music from that era.

Think of that – nine remarkable albums released in a space of roughly six years that worked as a single, extended introduction to one of the most original guitar stylists of his day. And that doesn’t even count the fine ECM records by DeJohnette, Jan Garbarek, Collin Walcott, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Liebman that featured the guitarist as a sideman.

Abercrombie, who died last night at the age of 72, never looked back after that. The following three decades brought more great bands, more splendid recordings and more stylistic possibilities, like the lusciously hushed sound he created by dispensing with guitar picks and playing largely with his thumb. That reserved but regal update was displayed on his most recent (and presumably final) album, ironically titled “Up and Coming.” I’ve reached for that record many times for weekend morning listening ever since its release last winter.

Abercrombie played Lexington only twice. Curiously, those performances were on successive years. The first was a November 1981 concert with Towner at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall, the other an October 1982 Gateway show at the Singletary Center. The former remains one of my favorite entries in UK’s longrunning Spotlight Jazz Series. I missed the Gateway set, having been assigned to cover a Kenny Rogers concert that night at Rupp Arena. We all make sacrifices.

But my favorite performance memory of Abercrombie was a November 2007 show in Knoxville. With the entire city consumed by a University of Tennessee football game the following afternoon, Abercrombie played to a small but appreciative audience with a quartet that included violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron. The delicacy and drama summoned between guitar and violin on “Vingt Six” typlified the quiet but powerfully emotive music Abercrombie dispensed with sagely eloquence late in his career.

“He plays the guitar better than ever,” wrote the late musician and author Mike Zwerin while working as a critic for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune in 1999. “But technique, speed – (they’re) not really the point any more. He’s no longer concentrating on improving what he plays. He’s after what he has not yet played. It’s about attitude.”

glen campbell, 1936-2017

A March 1970 photo of singer Glen Campbell. (AP Photo/fls).

My first lasting memory of Glen Campbell was on television. There, on Sunday evenings during the turbulent summer of 1968 where ‘The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” usually aired, was a seasonal replacement variety series called “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” It was safer than the Smothers show, to be sure, and made very sure it capitalized on the country geniality Campbell wore proudly and naturally throughout his career.

Being 10 years old, I knew nothing of the accomplishments Campbell had already chalked up – his reputation as a master guitar picker, his agility as a song interpreter and especially the unexpected roles he had already been called upon to play (like replacing a ravaged Brian Wilson on tour with the Beach Boys). What I viewed on TV was an entertainer, pure and simple.

That’s likely what most of America saw, too – an artist merging country and pop in a way no one before or, in my estimation, after, ever did. Sure, Johnny Cash took to the airwaves with a more seriously music-driven and artistically savvy TV show a year later. But Campbell was a country artist the country could bank on at a time when social and political turmoil was even more inescapable than it is now.

After a few years passed and a sense of personal appreciation for popular music heightened, Campbell’s gifts began to reveal themselves. That meant, of course, dissecting three of his most familiar hits – “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” All three were masterfully crafted, from Jimmy Webb’s compositional detail to the exquisitely orchestrated arrangements that made the songs sound cinematic to the unforced emotive vocal drama Campbell brought to the music.

For my money, Campbell only came close to rekindling the elegance of those songs once. That was with his almost conversational 1977 version of Allen Toussaint’s sublime “Southern Nights.” Toussaint made the sound like a meditation. Campbell streamlined it in a way any keen minded country artist would. I still favor Toussaint’s treatment. But Campbell’s version was inescapably accessible, plus it but a put a few well-earned royalty checks in Toussaint’s mailbox. There’s another gold star in Campbell’s favor.

I parted way with his music after that, which was when Campbell’s celebrity status became tabloid fodder. And while I can appreciate the public fight he put up against the cruelties of Alzheimer’s in his final years, I questioned the choice of family and promoters in having him perform in such an unavoidably diminished and compromised condition.

I glanced back last night at a review I wrote of Campbell’s November 2012 concert at the Opera House, when his illness was noticeably advancing. This was the opening paragraph: “A patron beside me Tuesday night as we were leaving the Opera House summed up the Glen Campbell performance that had just ended with a remark that was more like a sigh of relief than an exaltation of praise – ‘Well, that wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.’”

That wasn’t the parting shot I suspect anyone wanted. Best instead to remember Campbell for the Good Time Hours, the era when the Wichita Lineman was still very much on the line.

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