music, singing

Paying the Bills

We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.


Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old.  Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.

By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.

This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.

People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.

The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.


Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.


Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.


Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.

Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.



Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.