Who Was Glen Campbell?
Glen Campbell began his musical career as a songwriter and sideman to some of the biggest stars of the 1960s. He achieved success on both the country and pop charts late in the decade through tracks like "Gentle on My Mind," and the 1970s he cemented his status as a crossover star with the No. 1 hits "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights." Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. Following a public battle with Alzheimer's disease, the country music legend died on August 8, 2017, at the age of 81.
Glen Travis Campbell was born on April 22, 1936, on a family farm between Billstown and Delight, Arkansas. The son of Wesley, a sharecropper, and Carrie Dell, Campbell was one of 12 children. The family faced financial hard times — all the Campbell children pitched in to help pick cotton — but they were extremely musical, and Glen displayed early promise in that area. At the age of 4, his father bought him a $5 Sears and Roebuck guitar; within a few years, Campbell was appearing as a paid act and performing guest spots on local radio stations.
At age 14, Campbell dropped out of school to embark on a music career. He soon joined his uncle Dick Bills as part of the Sandia Mountain Boys, a band that enjoyed some success out of New Mexico. In 1958, Campbell put together his own group, the Western Wranglers.
Shortly thereafter, Campbell relocated to Los Angeles. He took a job at the American Music Company, a small publishing house that employed a staff of songwriters. In 1961, at the age of 24, Campbell recorded the single "Turn Around, Look at Me." Its modest success caught the attention of Capitol Records, which signed the young artist to its roster.
With Capitol, Campbell became known as a skilled session guitarist and finger-picker. He worked alongside such chart-topping artists as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, the Righteous Brothers, and the Monkees, and joined prominent producers Phil Spector and Jimmy Bowen for their recordings. Additionally, following Brian Wilson's retreat from the public eye, Campbell was invited to tour with the Beach Boys in 1964.
"Gentle on My Mind" & Other Early Hits
By 1967, Campbell was finally earning acclaim for his own work. "Gentle on My Mind" found its way onto both the country and pop charts, and his next single, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," also cracked the Top 40. Early the following year, he took home Grammy Awards for his performances on both tracks.
Campbell maintained his strong showing on the charts with "Wichita Lineman," an effort that propelled him to the dual honor of Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1968. The 1969 release of another major hit, "Galveston," continued to narrow the gap between country and pop music.
TV, Film & More Crossover Success
In 1968, Campbell made a guest appearance on The Joey Bishop Show. The Smothers Brothers comedy duo caught the performance and were so taken with Campbell, they presented him with the opportunity to co-host The Summer Smothers Brothers Show. Campbell's ease, humor and musical skill charmed audiences and impressed CBS executives, who offered Campbell his own primetime variety show.
Debuting in 1969, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was a combination of musical acts, comedy segments and glamorous guest stars. The show, which was produced under The Smothers Brothers production label, became a No. 1 hit in the United States and the U.K., making Campbell an international star. Additionally, the singer found success on the big screen, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for his performance opposite John Wayne in 1969's True Grit.
Campbell's film career stalled shortly after his splash in True Grit, and his variety series was cancelled in 1972. However, he triumphantly reaffirmed his standing as a crossover music star with "Rhinestone Cowboy," which topped the U.S. country and pop charts in 1975. Two years later, he repeated the feat with the release of "Southern Nights."
Substance Abuse and Recovery
Beginning in the late 1970s, while dating singer Tanya Tucker, Campbell's abuse of cocaine and alcohol began to take a toll on his career. The couple's explosive relationship and flagging record sales made Campbell a mainstay in the gossip pages. However, after a few years of touring in the 1980s, Campbell left Los Angeles, successfully overcame his drug habit and became a born-again Christian.
In 1994, Campbell published a tell-all autobiography fittingly titled Rhinestone Cowboy. In 2005, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He continued to appear at theaters in Branson, Missouri, and in 2008 he released an album of cover songs titled Meet Glen Campbell.
Alzheimer's Diagnosis & Final Works
In 2011, Campbell announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The country legend decided to record more material and hit the road one more time before his condition worsened. Campbell began to experience memory problems, as he related to People magazine: "I'm going to be right in the middle of a sentence, man—and it just goes."
Campbell released Ghost on the Canvas to warm reviews and enjoyed great support from fans during his farewell tour. In February 2012, he was honored at the Grammys with the Lifetime Achievement Award. He also participated in a special tribute to his music with Blake Shelton and the Band Perry, inspiring the audience to rise to their feet and sing along as he performed his signature tune "Rhinestone Cowboy." The event was a fitting salute to one of country's most influential stars.
In April 2013, Campbell announced plans to retire from touring, citing the progression of his Alzheimer's disease. Around the same time, Campbell embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he advocated for Alzheimer's research.
His next album, See You There, which included a reimagining of hits like "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," became available in August 2013. The following year brought the release of the documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, with one of its songs, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," earning an Oscar nomination and a Grammy win for Best Country Song.
Fans were treated to one more album from the country legend. Recorded after his farewell tour and released in June 2017, Adiós included contributions from fellow luminaries like Willie Nelson and three of Campbell's children, daughter Ashley and sons Shannon and Cal.
Campbell died on August 8, 2017, at the age of 81. His family issued a statement announcing his death: “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease."
Country music star Keith Urban was among those who paid tribute following the news of Campbell's death. "Universal music, universal stories, universal spirit. No wonder he was a global superstar," said Urban in a statement. "I love Glen for so many reasons—but above all, for his humanity. My thoughts and prayers are with Kim and all of his extended family today. May peace be with you all. Go rest high on that mountain, Glen."
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