I’d be willing to give you some free lessons.
Large chicken snakes and twelve-year-old boys are never a good mix. But then, neither are a father’s fury and a well-worn leather strap. Unfortunately, these two unpleasant circumstances found themselves on a collision course one very hot Arkansas summer afternoon in 1949.
While desperately trying to avoid yet another stultifying day of picking cotton boles for his father—when he had instead been promised that he could go to a movie—young Glen Campbell hatched a plan to hide under the front porch of his family’s dilapidated Arkansas country shack.
“Glen Travis Campbell, where are you?” he heard his father bellow.
Filled with thoughts about the terrible beating he would receive if caught, Glen stayed as quiet as a mouse after he deftly slid through broken latticework on the side of the porch. As he silently lay on his belly watching his father’s scuffed boots come within inches of his face, he wriggled even farther into the dank, welcoming darkness, ending up in a corner area littered with old cans, empty bottles, and at least one discarded shoe. Thinking that he’d finally made it to a safe haven where no one could find him, he let out a small sigh of relief.
Soon, however, Glen sensed that maybe he wasn’t quite so alone after all. As he turned to his left, the faint shafts of sunlight filtering through the porch’s warped wooden floorboards caught the image of what he thought at first to be a coil of rope, until the coil suddenly moved. Staring him in the face was a chicken snake, its tongue flicking in and out. The same kind of snake he’d seen devour dozens of rats, mice, and other barnyard critters over the years. Maybe the kind of snake that eats little boys, too, he thought. Trying to scramble as fast as he could to the outside world, Glen raised his head again and again, each time smashing it into the floorboards above. The sounds cracked out into the hot summer air.
Hearing all the racket and fearing that a wild animal was under the porch, his mother came running out the front door. His sisters screamed in hysteria. Glen’s father squinted underneath the house, wondering what was going on.
As Campbell fought the fight of his life to extricate himself from the imaginary clutches of a startled snake that was, in all likelihood, heading in the opposite direction just as quickly, his head appeared turtle-like from underneath the porch. While his eyes slowly adjusted to the bright sunlight, he noticed that his father curiously appeared to be standing on only one foot. Even in all the chaos, Glen wondered why that would be. The answer came quickly, as his father’s other boot-encased foot came down firmly on Glen’s neck, pinning him in place.
“Boy, what were you doing under the house?”
Deciding that his punishment would be less severe if he told the truth, Glen managed to sputter, through tears and a mouthful of dirt, “I was hiding from doing my chores.”
With that, his enraged father yanked Glen out of the dirt, bent him over, and pulled out a length of leather used to attach horses to a wagon. He then proceeded to administer a vicious whipping that seemed to go on forever. Even Glen’s mother and sisters had to turn away.
At that moment, with each snap of the strap, Glen Campbell became more determined to break away someday, to become his own man. There had to be a better life than being whipped like a mad animal. There just had to be.
* * *
As five-year-old Carol Smith sat alone in her father’s vintage Ford Model A sedan outside the Elks Club in Everett, Washington, she suddenly felt the hair on her tiny arms stand straight up.
Through the open windows of the aging, long-out-of-production car, Smith could clearly hear the sounds of her father’s Dixieland band playing inside the large building. Even for a child quite accustomed to listening to plenty of music around the house—courtesy of two professional musician parents—this particular instance somehow rose to another level. This time it moved her. Just listen to that music, she thought, the sheer power of it all. The experience proved to be a defining moment, creating a feeling deep within the little girl that she would never forget.
At its peak, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in Everett boasted more than five thousand card-carrying members, a full one-sixth of the approximately thirty thousand people then living in this mid-sized mill town just north of Seattle. And for the better part of the twentieth century, the Spanish mission–style club located at 2731 Rucker Avenue in the downtown area was the place to be. There, at the indisputable hub of civic life, members experienced a sense of belonging, fellowship, and, especially, entertainment.
Big-name stars of the day like Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie Tucker, and George Gobel routinely played shows at the lodge. Local dances, too, were very popular, sometimes stretching into the early-morning hours. And virtually any area musical ensemble worth watching graced the Elks Club’s stage at one time or another, including the group Carol Smith’s dad played in.
Clyde Smith never did make a lot of money. He had spent the better part of his professional career playing trombone in a World War I military band, various Dixieland bands, and assorted theater orchestras. His wife, Dot, a ragtime and classical pianist, had worked during the Twenties providing piano accompaniment in silent movie houses. Even with two incomes, however, money had always been tight. Betting your livelihood on the instability of being a live musician often meant going without; that was the unfortunate part of the bargain. Decent-paying gigs could be few and far between. Squeaking by became a way of life. And then, during the heart of the Great Depression, along came their only child, Carol, in 1935.
As 1941 drew to a close, Clyde and Dot finally decided they had endured enough of the seemingly endless overcast skies and low pay of the Puget Sound region. At over forty years of age, Clyde Smith was too old to fight, but there had to be some good jobs in the Southern California shipyards with the nation at war, now that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
They pointed their car due south with their six-year-old daughter and what few possessions they had and headed down U.S. Highway 99 for sunny climes and hoped-for opportunities. Maybe Los Angeles could even use another good musician or two. Any way they looked at it, a little change would be good for the Smith family.
But for Carol Smith, a shy little girl with a pronounced stutter and a blossoming love for all things music, the twelve-hundred-mile trip would prove to be the move of a lifetime.
* * *
At first, no one smelled the smoke.
It was a typically hot and sticky July afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, the kind of oppressively muggy weather some of the locals liked to call the devil’s dew. Barely a month before, Allied forces had finally landed on the beaches of Normandy, giving rise to hope that World War II might actually end one day soon.
A seemingly endless stream of happy, sweltering townspeople excitedly walked along leafy Kensington Street toward the northern edge of the city, many with great anticipation clearly evident on their faces. For the circus—yes, the circus!—had just come to town and the first performance of the seventy-third annual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spectacular was about to begin at precisely 3:00 P.M. With wartime rationing still in full effect and live entertainment options in short supply, the yearly visit by “The Greatest Show on Earth” was simply not to be missed.
Close to eight thousand circus goers, including a large number of children on summer vacation, descended upon the bustling bluff-top lot, passing by assorted animal cages, portable dressing rooms, and rail cars as they made their way toward the ticket booth and, most important, the fabled big top beyond. Stilt walkers, lion tamers, and bearded ladies, too, meandered about the grass-covered Barbour Street grounds, patiently waiting for their time in the spotlight.
Entering the arena one by one, the lengthy line of buzzing patrons slowly climbed up row after steep row of temporary wooden bleachers in order to find their seats, all strategically arrayed around the interior perimeter of the massive oval portable tent.
From every walk of life they came, sitting elbow-to-elbow, filling the arena to beyond fire code capacity. A little dark-haired Italian girl of about ten sat in the front row, methodically licking her ice-cream cone. An elderly gent in red suspenders and a black bowler hat, rhythmically tamping the tobacco in his meerschaum pipe, said to no one in particular, “I hear this is their best show yet.”
Some had great views; others sat in the so-called peanut gallery near the top. But no one cared—it was the circus and that was all that mattered.
While the twenty-man Ringling Bros. band launched into its first notes of fanfare, a procession of colorfully attired clowns, packed improbably into miniature cars, began to slowly wend its way inside the cavernous canvas-covered structure, closely followed by a variety of elephants, giraffes, acrobats, and, of course, the ringmaster himself. An army of snack vendors, too, in red-and-white-striped jackets, began to fan out, offering peanuts, popcorn, and cotton candy to anyone within earshot. The big show had begun.
Unfortunately, as transfixed as they were by the sights and sounds of the world’s biggest three-ring circus—particularly by the Flying Wallendas, who were in mid-act on the high wire—only a scattered few in the rapt audience initially noticed a small flicker of flames and puff of smoke beginning to rise from an area over by the back service-entry flap.
Bandleader Merle Evans, always keenly observant, was among the first who did notice. Raising his baton, he instinctively instructed his musicians to quickly switch into playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the traditional song to alert circus personnel to possible danger. Hearing the cue, the acts suddenly stopped performing and swiftly leaped into action, some rushing to throw water at the small fire, others trying to calm a growing number of concerned and bewildered audience members.
A fifteen-year-old boy named Harold Belsky noticed the flames, too. He had arrived just in time for the start of the show and had positioned himself, as always, immediately adjacent to the bandstand in order to closely watch every movement the drummer made. As a fledgling percussionist, Hal (as his family called him) hoped to learn as much as possible from every musical act that passed through town, the circus included.
With Belsky coming from a poor background in the Hartford ghetto, watching the pros play in person—major Big Band stick men like Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Buddy Rich—had become one of the only affordable methods of instruction he could manage. Even more than that, they were his heroes, the coolest of the cool, the original hepcats. Hal loved to dream of taking their places onstage, sitting behind a big, gleaming kit with his name stenciled on the front, driving the band with every hit of his snare and every thump of his bass drum. And he sure wasn’t going anywhere on this day because of a little bit of smoke. Forget that. The circus had good musicians and he wanted to see them. This was his education. Besides, from where he sat, the fire looked relatively minor anyway. Like many others, he assumed it would be extinguished within a matter of minutes, and he paid it little further heed. Hal Belsky, the young drummer-to-be, put his feet up, settled back, and patiently waited for the show to resume.
* * *
Growing up poor during the late Forties in tiny Billstown, Arkansas, presented far more challenges, of course, for a youngster like Glen Campbell than just the occasional run-in with a wayward snake. Food was scarce and money even scarcer. Large families of twelve like the Campbells were the norm—free labor to help cultivate what few crops they had. For the children, eking out a meager life on a dirt farm meant a whole lot of family chores and very little emphasis on schooling. Most folks in Pike County were lucky to have had an eighth-grade education. Fewer still graduated from high school. When it came down to eating versus reading, the stomach usually had the stronger vote.
As for when he did get to school, Glen showed little natural interest in sitting behind a wooden desk. Always energetic and outgoing, he much preferred to spend his nonworking time, when he had any, roughhousing with friends, sneaking into the Saturday afternoon picture show, and playing music. Especially playing music.
From the time almost anyone could remember, Glen showed a preternatural aptitude for anything to do with a musical instrument. By the age of ten he’d ably learned to pluck notes and strum chords—all by ear, no less—on a cheap five-dollar acoustic guitar that his father had purchased for him from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Hum a song for him once and he’d likely play it right back to you, often with an improvised flourish of his own tacked on for good measure. He also had a lovely tenor voice with perfect pitch and he delighted in singing gospel hymns at church every Sunday. Playing and singing came easily to him and he particularly enjoyed the attention it could bring.
By the age of thirteen, with Glen struggling mightily to keep from failing the seventh grade, an answer to his prayers appeared. His uncle Eugene “Boo” Campbell, an accomplished, if somewhat itinerant, professional guitar player, came to ask the family a question: could Glen go on the road with him, make a little money to send home, and have an adventure?
“I’ve got some club dates lined up between here and Wyoming and I need a second guitar player. The boy would make a good one.”
Glen was ecstatic. Compared to the life he’d experienced to that point, the prospect of becoming a real live guitarist alongside his beloved uncle Boo was nothing short of manna from heaven. Thank you, Jesus! No more beatings. No more endless chores. No more senseless schoolwork. And, especially, no more long nights spent lying on his stomach while pressing his fist into his gut, trying to quell the gnawing pangs of hunger.
And so, with hugs all around and a wave to his family, Glen Campbell hit the road to begin the journey of a lifetime. It would be a long journey, longer than most people think, but a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work would serve to take him further than even he could ever imagine possible.
* * *
Unfortunately for Carol Smith and her parents, things did not work out exactly as planned after the big move to Southern California. With shipyard work proving to be sporadic at best, a lack of money remained a major issue around the house, causing continued hardship, frustration, and arguments. Within a few years, her parents could simply take no more. They decided to divorce, leaving Carol alone with her mother and without any income. For a period of time, Clyde Smith contributed some cash here and there, but the once-and-again trombonist gradually drifted out of their lives. He finally skipped the state altogether just after the end of the war, leaving Carol and her mother to fend for themselves. With nowhere else to turn, the two ended up living in a housing project near the waterfront in a town called Wilmington, by the Port of Los Angeles, accepting welfare in order to survive.
Among those who grow up in extremely limited circumstances, the shame of being poor often sends them in one of two directions. Some give in to the depression and pain, losing their will and their way. With others, the early struggle and stigma help fuel a burning desire to rise above the poverty, to achieve something in life. Carol Smith, from a young age, fell squarely into the latter category.
Knowing that her mother needed all the money she could get, the now-thirteen-year-old Carol wanted to contribute in any way possible. She loved her mother and knew what a burden it was for her to simply put enough food on the table each day. But Carol never complained, even when she had but one pair of shoes to her name. Not even when she had to start working after school at the age of nine to help make ends meet. Her resiliency and inner resolve helped carry her through, giving evidence of a level of maturity far beyond her years. All she really needed was a good break to come her way.
One day, when a door-to-door steel guitar salesman came knocking, Carol’s mother decided on the spur of the moment that it was time to finally indulge her daughter, whether they could afford it or not. The little blond-haired girl with the blue eyes and the inquisitive mind had gone without long enough. Her mom pulled out an old piggy bank in which she had painstakingly been saving coins for more years than she could remember and handed the man the required ten dollars. In return, Carol received her very own guitar and a few accompanying lessons.
Thrilled with the gift, even if it was a rather cheaply built instrument, Carol threw herself into practicing with her characteristic industriousness. And she became pretty good.
Shortly after the momentous occasion with the man at the front door, good fortune smiled upon Carol once again. Her girlfriend Jean Blue asked Carol to tag along with her one afternoon to a regular guitar lesson that had been scheduled with a teacher in nearby Long Beach.
“Come on, Carol. It’ll be fun.”
Seeing no reason not to go, Carol grabbed her little steel guitar and set out with her friend. Maybe it would be fun.
After appropriate introductions, the guitar teacher—an esteemed instructor and graduate of the Eastman School of Music named Horace Hatchett—simply could not take his eyes off of Carol’s steel guitar. He seemed equal parts appalled and intrigued. After all, it wasn’t every day that a thirteen-year-old girl showed up toting that kind of instrument. Steel guitars are inherently difficult to play, requiring the precise use of a small glass or metal tube placed on one of the fretting fingers, which then slides up and down the strings. Hardly the best choice for someone just starting out. But there was Carol, ever the trouper, innocently trying to master a musical contraption meant for far more experienced players.
After Jean’s lesson, as the two girls prepared to leave Hatchett’s small nondescript home on Corona Avenue, something made the longtime teacher stop and take a long look at Carol. Perhaps he recognized a bit of himself somewhere within her youthful earnestness. Or maybe it was her unusual level of talent and desire, which had become evident after he had asked her to play a little bit for him. Whatever the reason, the kid had promise; that much was clear. And Hatch (as his friends called him) had been around long enough to know.
He decided to make her an offer.
“Carol, you’re a good player. I’d be willing to give you some free lessons if you’ll help me with my teaching.”
It was all Carol Smith needed to hear. Suddenly the overwhelming feeling of being poor, of being different, seemed to melt away. A real guitar teacher was offering to become her mentor. Maybe this would lead to being a professional musician, like her parents, and perhaps even making some money to help her mom out with the household expenses.
Carol accepted on the spot. Only later did she learn that Horace Hatchett had played with Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and Nat King Cole. Someone was smiling down on Carol Smith.
* * *
Unfortunately for Hal Belsky—and for everyone else in attendance—the show did not resume that day at the circus.
Despite the best efforts of dozens of Ringling Bros. performers and roustabouts, no amount of water seemed to quell the rapidly moving flames as they charged up the side of the big top. As the fire reached the ceiling inside, the giant structure suddenly began to rumble and shudder, acting as a colossal chimney, sucking fresh oxygen in through the side entrances and blowing superheated air out the top. And with the tragic mixture of gasoline and paraffin that had been used as a waterproofing agent, the tent’s canvas proved to be the perfect fuel source to ignite a world-class conflagration.
Within moments, the entire roof of the arena exploded into a raging inferno. The big top immediately erupted in chaos, as melting wax rained down like napalm, scorching everything and everyone it touched. Thick white smoke billowed everywhere and the overpowering stench of sulfur hung heavily in the air. Ringmaster Fred Bradna pleaded with the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power had failed and his voice could no longer be heard over the loudspeakers.
People began running wildly for their lives in every direction, some with their hair and clothes on fire. Many were trampled; others ended up in giant piles near the exits, with those unfortunate enough to be on the bottom protected from the flames but slowly and cruelly suffocating to death.
Hal Belsky dove under the bottom of the tent’s apron and rolled to safety in the grass on the outside, as did the bandleader and his musicians.
“You okay?” one of them asked breathlessly. Hal just nodded, too stunned to speak.
Others were not so lucky. Those who didn’t immediately perish inside from the smoke, flames, and violent stampedes were found stumbling and crawling outside around the grounds with broken bones, incinerated lungs, and charred flesh hanging from their bodies.
After making sure their comrades were all accounted for, most of the band members scattered, trying to help the stricken. Fellow circus performers began setting up makeshift triage areas, laying bodies out in rows. They did what they could.
As several ambulances mercifully began to arrive, one of the drivers leaped out and shouted, “Hey, kid, give me a hand here!” Hal didn’t have to be asked twice. He immediately grabbed the end of a gurney and helped place a horribly burned older woman into the back of a waiting vehicle. He spent the rest of that day and night riding with the critically injured as they were ferried to local hospitals, making one return trip after another, trying his best to comfort the stricken.
Witnessing all the horrible pain and suffering that day made an indelible mark on Hal Belsky’s young mind. Life was precious and for the living. He would redouble his resolve to forge a career as a professional musician, no matter what it might take, no matter where it might take him.
* * *
One came from the South, one from the West, and one from the Northeast. They shared little in common other than an innate drive, a work ethic shaped by grinding poverty, and, for now, untapped musical talent. Yet somehow, Glen Campbell, Carol Smith, and Hal Belsky—a country boy, a girl from the projects, and a street-smart city kid—all found it within themselves to relentlessly hold on to their dreams as they went out into the world.
It would be these very qualities that would one day catapult this unlikely trio, along with a couple dozen other equally single-minded freelance musicians, into revolutionizing the music of an era—rock-and-roll music. They would become part of an aggregation known as the Wrecking Crew.
Copyright © 2012 by Kent Hartman