Royce Campbell: Playing Pretty


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As a jazz guitarist, it's not easy to play pretty. You have to worship harmony, you have to love the sound of the instrument, and you have to want to seduce audiences. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, guitarists like Barry Galbraith, Jimmy Raney, Chuck Wayne, Mundell Lowe, Wes Montgomery and others understood the conversational quality and beckoning nature of the instrument. One guitarist around today who is carrying that torch is Royce Campbell.

Royce's name might not ring a bell, since he rarely performs publicly these days. I've enjoyed his music for years through his magnificent 1996 album, A Tribute to Henry Mancini. So it was a surprise a week or so ago when I received a lovely email from him complimenting me on a post. I've long wanted to tell him how much I enjoy his playing. Royce today spends much of his time recording and composing down in Virginia. But he's considering offers to play clubs again, and I hope he does. He's an absolute joy on the ears, and I can listen to his patient, lyrical playing for hours on end.

Royce and I spoke yesterday about his early life and playing with Marvin Gaye and Henry Mancini:
JazzWax: When were you born?
Royce Campbell: In North Vernon, Indiana, in 1952. I lived there for the first five years. Then my mom remarried a career Naval officer, and we moved around a lot when I was a kid. I've lived in three foreign countries—Barbados, Japan and Spain—and in many U.S. cities.

JW: When did you start playing guitar?
RC: At age 9 after seeing Chuck Berry on TV. I told my mom I wanted a guitar and she bought one for me. But I didn't get serious about music until age 16, when my uncle Carroll DeCamp exposed me to jazz. He had arranged for Stan Kenton and Eddie Daniels. He arranged my album with strings, Plays for Lovers. Having a world-class musician in the family actually made it easier when I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician. They were very supportive.

JW: Where did you go to music school?
RC: I didn't. I didn't have a formal music education. My uncle was my education. When I graduated from high school in Spain, he invited me to live with him for a few years in Indianapolis, and I welcomed the stability after moving around so much. He showed me things and was always there to answer questions. So I'm primarily self-taught.

JW: Can you read music?
RC: Yes. I had music lessons at a music store in Louisville, Kentucky, when my family lived there. When I lived with my uncle later, I began playing locally. Then I began to get noticed. Soon I was the first-call guitarist in Indianapolis.

JW: Is that how you landed a job with Marvin Gaye?
RC: Yes. I was called to join his concert orchestra in late 1973. At the time, his big hit was Let's Get It On. I was 21 years old and did three tours with him—at three or four days apiece. All of the charts were written out. I knew at the time it was kind of a big deal, especially when we started playing major arenas with screaming fans. They had bouncers at the edge of the stages who would throw women back into the audience when they tried to climb up there. I really got an education about the music business on those tours.

JW: How so?
RC: For one, we were paid poorly. Marvin's band hired young musicians so they didn't have to pay us much. We also traveled on buses without hotel stays, again for savings. Being on the road was very rough, even by the 1970s. The rhythm section was huge—there were eight pieces. Marvin didn't have many interactions with band members. He'd just come in toward the end of a sound check and then show up for the concert.

JW: What was your overall impression of Gaye?
RC: He seemed introverted for a star. He seemed almost like a reluctant celebrity. You don't really run into that anymore. Anyone who has a high profile today is completely committed to touring and fully understands their responsibilities to audiences and musicians. But back then, concerts were an afterthought, a replay of albums that crowds had already owned. Today, concerts mean everything. It's where the money is made. So a star's commitment to performing and stamina have to be there.

JW: What was your favorite Gaye song to play?
RC: Inner City Blues. I love the phrasing. The other thing about Marvin is that he never did the same song the same way twice. He changed them up every night. He could improvise.

JW: How did you wind up touring with Henry Mancini for 19 years? RC: The same way. An Indianapolis music contractor called me in 1975. It was a time when Henry was thinking about taking on a regular guitarist. Then I impressed him enough to stay on for all his live gigs going forward. The venues for those concerts were large auditoriums. Over the years he kept adding instruments to the point where we were eventually the size of a symphony orchestra.

JW: Do you think your years with Mancini influenced your tasteful, patient style?
RC: Thank you. Yes, absolutely. After all that time with Henry, playing his music, I came to understand what a master of melody and romance he was. I feel it rubbed off on me.

JW: What surprised you most about Mancini?
RC: Henry told me that he wished he could play jazz, which came as a surprise. He said, “I'd love a genie to give me the power to be a jazz pianist, to be able to improvise." Henry wrote beautifully and played beautifully. But he also wanted to improvise and was lightly frustrated that he couldn't do so with conviction. 

JW: As an insider, what's special about Mancini's music?
RC: Henry's style and how clear his ideas were. A lot of arrangers get carried away. They write cluttered arrangements or go too far. Henry learned early what not to do. He told me one of his first arranging jobs was for Benny Goodman. Eager to impress, he wrote a chart that was hard on the trumpets. The first trumpet took him aside and told him that he had to learn to write cleaner lines. That was a wake-up call for him.

JW: What did he learn?
RC: He learned that when it came to writing and composing, you have to take out all the fluff. He said, “You just want to leave the meat and potatoes."

JW: Anything else?
RC: Henry knew how to figure out the right balance between creating music that musicians would like to play and music that audiences wanted to hear. I strive for that, too. I can write and play stuff that's far out, things that certainly would impress musicians. I love free jazz. It's a lot of fun. But it's a stretch for audiences. Most listeners have a hard time getting it. 

JW: What's the hardest thing about playing pretty?
RC: Keeping it simple. That's hard. If you play notes that don't fit the melody or you play too fast, you start to lose your listeners. A guitar is different than most other instruments. It's highly audible and most often you're playing one note at a time. So listeners' ears catch every one of them. If you play notes that don't fit or you jam in too many notes, audiences stop listening to the instrument's storyline.

JW: What's most important?
RC: As a guitarist, you must know harmony inside and out to play melodically. You have to know how the notes you play relate to the melody. It's not about scales. It's about the harmony, about the notes the listener will find familiar and will welcome even more than the melody itself.

JazzWax clips: Royce Campbell's playing is gorgeous. Like Henry Mancini's music, Royce's lines caress your ears until you're won over to what he's playing.

Three of my favorite albums by Royce are A Tribute to Henry Mancini, Plays for Lovers and What Is This Thing Called. You'll find them iTunes or here, here and here.

The first album is one of the finest tribute albums to the late composer. On the second album, Royce is backed by a string section beautifully arranged by Carroll DeCamp. The third CD is a clever concept. Each song is based on the chord changes to standards but Royce has given them different melody lines and new titles. So we have I Fall in Love Too Hard, Have You Met Miss Smith and How About Me?

JazzWax clip: Here's Royce Campbell playing a blues with all chords...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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