Mary Campbell, Music Writer For The AP, Dies At 78

Mary Campbell, whose childhood affection for the big bands and opera she heard on her radio set the stage for four decades as a music writer for The Associated Press, died Friday. She was 78.

Campbell died in Bloomington, Ind., according to her sister, Ruth Miller.

Photo: Bob Wands, File/AP
In this June 1968 file photo, AP Newsfeatures editor Mary Campbell, poses in New York.

From symphony to rock ‘n’ roll, from Duke Ellington to Beverly Sills to the Dixie Chicks, Campbell covered the entertainment scene, earning respect from the artists she wrote about and devotion from the public who followed her profiles and reviews.

“Mary Campbell is a most admired reporter, not only because she writes so well but also because she knows an interesting story when she hears about it,” celebrated conductor-tenor Placido Domingo once said.

At a party for the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1990s, Mary Travers politely greeted the many luminaries in attendance but spent much of the evening huddled in a corner with Campbell, catching up with her old friend.

“It will be hard to think of The Associated Press without Mary Campbell on its staff,” said crooner Tony Bennett upon her retirement in 2000.

Many of her readers likely agreed.

In one of her final articles, she interviewed Joe Cocker and asked the veteran rocker, “Do you still make jerky movements onstage?”

“Yes,” replied Cocker, playing an imaginary piano and air guitar. “That was the frustration of not being able to play, really.”

Campbell couldn’t play a musical instrument, either, nor could she carry a tune. It didn’t matter to her. She loved her role as a member of the audience, reporting on music for other music lovers.

“I write for an ordinary person like me,” she told writer Tad Bartimus in an interview in 2000. “I’m not trying to be erudite. I’m trying to be enthusiastic and clear. I always feel like the person I’m writing for would be just as touched by the music or the play as I am if they were standing in my shoes.”

A tall, gentle and sad-eyed woman, Campbell more fit the image of a reference librarian than of a music reporter, but she was a pioneering rock journalist who was covering the Beatles and other bands before the rise of Rolling Stone and other magazines, before there even was a “rock” press. And her kindly demeanor was a welcome change for many rock stars, who came to trust her and even request her for interviews. Keith Richards and Lou Reed were among the musicians who expressed surprise, and sometimes dismay, when an AP journalist other than Campbell turned up.

Few witnessed as much rock history as Campbell. She was there when the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1965, reporting that their show was “better than the World Series, the All-Star Game and 50 grand slam homers rolled into one.” She interviewed Elton John before he even had a recording contract. She would recall talking to Janis Joplin around the time of Woodstock, and how the singer confided being torn between the rock ‘n’ roll life and her desire to raise a family.

One of her favorite stories was visiting the set of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, when George Harrison was a guest. The ex-Beatle, seated in his dressing room, was initially abrupt with Campbell, offering one-word responses to her questions. Then, a second guest joined the conversation: Paul Simon, who greeted Campbell so warmly that Harrison, too, opened up.

“Mary was completely and authentically herself, which charmed her colleagues and the many performers she interviewed over the years, from Tony Bennett to Mick Jagger to members of the New York Philharmonic,” said Kristin Gazlay, an AP vice president and managing editor. “If you met her, it’s impossible to ever forget her. She is greatly missed.”

She was born in Mount Sterling, Ill., in 1934. As a farm girl, she hid under the cover with her radio to catch the late-night big band broadcasts from Chicago.

On Saturday afternoons, she was transfixed by the Metropolitan Opera productions aired from the distant city of New York. And, even then the dogged researcher, she logged time at the local library, boning up on the next week’s performance.

“We lived outside the town limits, so they wouldn’t let me check the books out,” she remembered. “When I was about 8, I discovered that all the opera stories were in the encyclopedia, so I’d stop by on my way home after school and read them.”

Campbell attended the University of Illinois, earning a degree in journalism, and after joining the AP in Chicago in 1960, transferred to the AP’s New York headquarters the same year.

There, she became a fixture as a music and drama writer and critic. She could be found most any night in a theater or performance hall in her customary seat (10th row on the aisle) and days at her desk, whose legendary mountain of clutter underscored her immersion in her beat.

Her retirement became a whirl of farewell lunches from colleagues and artists. (The musicians of the New York Philharmonic gave her a silver bracelet.) Then she took her leave from the cultural capital of New York to return to her Midwest roots in Bloomington, Ind.

Others worried that she might miss the nightly diet of concerts and plays, and the daily routine of rubbing elbows with the cultural elite.

But Campbell wasn’t worried. She had the radio and CDs, TV and VCR.

“As long as I can listen to the music,” she said, “I’ll never be bored.”

She is survived by her sister, Ruth, of Bloomington, and a brother, Allen Campbell, of Mt. Sterling, Ill.