As I slowly wind down from the excitement of seeing the legendary Glen Campbell perform his fabulous hits last night at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, I think back to those days when his “Goodtime Hour” was the hot show on prime time TV, and the time he made a surprise visit to a tiny village not far from my hometown. Hey, when you’re growing up in a semi-rural county, the visit of a big celebrity creates quite a stir.
In 1971 Glen was at the height of his popularity, having already released more than a dozen albums, won four Grammy Awards, played guitar on hundreds of hit records by other artists, and appeared in the movie “True Grit,” by special request of its star John Wayne. Each week he’d open his “Goodtime Hour” with a puppy dog smile and a perky “Hi, I’m Glen Campbell” (just the opposite of fellow prime time TV show host Johnny Cash, who solemnly said “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”).
By way of fan mail, Glen’s manager Ace Ochs learned of a small coal mining community named Glen Campbell, in northeast Indiana County, PA. The borough was named in 1889 for Cornelius Campbell, the first superintendent of the Glenwood Coal Company. What a great opportunity for a PR stunt! It just so happened that the country-pop performer was scheduled to appear at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh for a weekend concert. So, with the help of TV Guide magazine (which everybody subscribed to, back in the days before on-screen guides), Ochs hatched a scheme for the star and his wife Billie (spouse number 2 of 4) to take an 85-mile journey from Pittsburgh to the rural village on August 5, a few days before the Civic Arena show, for a surprise visit.
Okay, it wasn’t a total surprise. Mayor Albert “Ab” Lamkie knew about it ahead of time. No doubt the town had to tidy up. A large portion of the 400 residents turned out to greet the star (outfitted in that decade-defining garment, the leisure suit), shake his hand, obtain his autograph and join him in chowing down on picnic food. A CBS photographer was on the scene to record Glen’s every move — posing with the members of the volunteer fire department in front of the fire hall, chatting with folks in front of the Glen Campbell Baptist Church, and pretending to read a map near the town’s road sign. The October 30 issue of TV Guide ran a two-page spread on Glen’s day in rural PA. Soon after the visit, a popular Pittsburgh radio personality, Jack Bogut of KDKA 1020 AM, traveled to the town and interviewed people who had met the star. Film clips of Bogut’s interviews were shown on Glen’s “Goodtime Hour,” bringing the tiny hamlet even more publicity.
Glen is an American treasure. Even before gaining enormous fame as a solo artist, he was one of the most sought-after session guitarists in America, playing hundreds of studio gigs with the likes of Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, The Monkees, Merle Haggard, Frank Sinatra, Phil Spector, and Elvis. He was even a temporary Beach Boy in 1964, filling in for a mentally ailing Brian Wilson.
Now Glen is in the midst of his Farewell Tour. Alzheimer’s disease has affected his short term memory, but it hasn’t altered his fabulous voice or his phenomenal guitar picking one iota. I was thrilled to finally see him play live – with three of his children backing him up on stage. His “Dueling Banjo/Guitar” number with daughter Ashley was a moving highlight.
Yes, today the Rhinestone Cowboy is every bit as well-regarded as he was the day he visited my small Indiana County back in 1971. The only difference is, now he’s a bona fide legend.
Here’s Glen, performing “Wichita Lineman” on the “Smother’s Brother’s Comedy Hour”
Here, Glen “duels” with daughter Ashley:
© Dana Spiardi, May 21, 2012
(The images of Glen and his wife were originally published in the Indiana Gazette)