Glen Campbell, the iconic singer, guitarist, and songwriter best known for hits including, “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” has died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.
Over a 50-year career, Campbell released more than 70 albums, hosted his own variety show, and acted on film and television, winning five Grammys, numerous Country Music Awards, a Golden Globe, and several Academy Award nominations. He is a member of both the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and holds career achievement awards from both the Academy Of Country Music and the Grammys.
Campbell was born in 1936, in Billstown, Arkansas, the seventh of 12 children. His parents were sharecroppers, and all of their children grew up picking cotton. But musical talent ran in the family, and Glen’s father bought him his first guitar at age 4. While still a child, Campbell was paid to perform on local radio, and at age 16 he quit school to join his uncle, Dick Bills, in a band called the Sandia Mountain Boys, playing throughout the Southwest. The following year, he married Diane Kirk, but they divorced four years later.
After briefly fronting his own band, Glen Campbell And The Western Wranglers, he moved to Los Angeles to work for the American Music Company as a songwriter. At age 24, he wrote and recorded, “Turn Around, Look At Me,” and the song was successful enough that Capitol Records came calling, giving him work as a session guitarist. While working for Capitol, Campbell joined the Wrecking Crew, a loosely organized group of L.A. session musicians who played on countless hit records, often anonymously.
As part of the Wrecking Crew, Campbell backed up a parade of luminaries that included Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, and Phil Spector, and toured with the Beach Boys as their bassist after Brian Wilson left the group. Campbell’s indelible guitar work can be heard on classics like “Strangers In the Night,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “California Dreamin’,” and “I’m A Believer,” as well as most of The Beach Boys’ landmark Pet Sounds. While Campbell rarely received credit and his contributions were unknown to the listening public, he is sometimes considered the best session guitarist who ever played.
During that time, Campbell was also writing and recording his own music. In 1966, his song “Gentle On My Mind” was a hit both on the country and pop charts, and he followed it up later that year with a bigger hit, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” written by Jimmy Webb. The two songs won four Grammys between them, and the Country Music Association named Campbell Entertainer Of The Year. In 1968, he scored crossover hits with two more Webb compositions, “Galveston,” and “Wichita Lineman.” In a short period of time, Campbell went from being an unheralded background player to a household name.
His popularity on the charts led to success on the small screen as well. Tommy and Dick Smothers saw Campbell on The Joey Bishop Show and asked him to co-host The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, a short-lived follow-up to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. His natural charm alongside the brothers convinced CBS to give him his own show, The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, which ran from 1969-1972. The reputation Campbell had built as a sideman allowed him to bring in a parade of luminaries from both the country and rock music worlds as guests, and the show was at one point the no. 1 show on television. Even the Beatles made an appearance, although it was a pre-taped film clip.
CBS wasn’t the only entity taken with Glen Campbell. After the producers of True Grit considered and then rejected Elvis Presley for a role in their picture, the film’s star, John Wayne, suggested Campbell, despite the singer only having two brief film appearances, both playing musicians. He landed the role in True Grit, and ended up playing La Boeuf, a rival marshal to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, and despite his lack of experience won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, and earned an Academy Award nomination for the film’s title song.
Throughout the ‘70s, Campbell was a fixture on talk and variety shows, while continuing to tour and record at a steady pace. The hit songs kept coming as well, as both 1975’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and 1977’s “Southern Nights” reached no. 1. But Campbell’s personal life was in turmoil. In 1976, he divorced his second wife, Billie Jean Nunley and married Sarah Barg, only to split with her weeks after the birth of their son. Campbell was also abusing alcohol and cocaine, although by the 1980s, he had cleaned up his act. After a relationship with fellow country singer Tanya Tucker (with whom he won a Grammy for a duet called “Dream Lover,”) that was followed closely by the tabloids, Campbell married Kim Woollen, with whom he remained for the rest of his life. He quit using drugs and alcohol, and became a devout Christian. He continued to record at a pace of more than an album a year throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. While doctors advised him to retire from public life, Campbell instead recorded a farewell album, See You There, and set out on one last tour. (Unreleased tracks from the See You There sessions were also released as part of 2017’s Adios.) Though the farewell tour was originally planned to last just five weeks in 2014, Campbell ended up playing 151 shows over the course of a year and a half, with the help of his three youngest children, who served as his backup band. While the singer often had to rely on lyrics sheets to remember songs he had been singing for decades, his guitar playing was undiminished. Director James Keach captured the tour in his documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and Campbell was nominated for another Academy Award for co-writing the film’s theme, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” a heartbreaking meditation on the singer’s love for his family, and his worry that by the time he passed away, he wouldn’t remember them.
Campbell is survived by his eight children, and his wife Kim.
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