Country Music Legend Glen Campbell Dies at 81

Singer-guitarist and actor Glen Campbell, who was known for hits including "Rhinestone Cowboy," "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," died today after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
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Glen Campbell and his daughter Ashley Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Glen Campbell and his daughter Ashley in the background perform onstage as part of 'The Goodbye Tour' at Club Nokia on October 6, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. 

From his humble rural beginnings to his meteoric rise to fame to the long battle with Alzheimer’s that today resulted in his death in Nashville, Tennessee, the details of Glen Campbell’s life at times read like the lyrics to one of his melancholy country ballads. But with more than 70 albums to his name, some 50 million records sold and a dazzling 73 Top 40 hits in his decades-long career, Campbell’s achievements transcend the trail of heartache and loss that winds through it, ultimately telling a tale of redemption, and of one of the brightest musical lights of the era.

Born on April 22, 1936, in the tiny rural settlement in Arkansas, Glen Campbell was the seventh of 12 children born to sharecropper parents. He spent his early youth working with his father on the family farm, but after buying his first guitar from a Sears Roebuck catalog for a few dollars, young Glen quickly displayed a talent that was destined to one day take him far from home. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 and began performing professionally with one of his uncles’ in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, he became involved with a girl named Diane Kirk, whom he married in 1956 after she became pregnant. Two years after the birth of their daughter, Debby, the couple divorced, but Campbell continued to perform in clubs around the southwest and further develop his already impressive skills.

In 1959 Campbell married again, this time to a woman named Billie Nunley, and the following year they moved to Los Angeles so Campbell could purse his music career. In 1961 Campbell’s first single, “Turn Around Look at Me,” reached No. 62 on the pop charts and Billie gave birth to their daughter, Kelli, the first of three children they would have together. Recognizing Campbell’s potential, in 1962 Capitol Records signed him to a recording contract. For the next few years, however, it would not be on his own records that Campbell would make his greatest mark. With his prodigious guitar playing, Campbell quickly established himself as one of the finest session guitarists in the industry and became part of the legendary group of studio musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew.” Among his many guitar credits from this period, playing on Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas!, most of Phil Spector’s recordings, Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album are but a few. His career as a journeyman would reach new heights when in 1964 and 1965 he also toured as a member of the Beach Boys, who at that time were at the peak of their popularity.

Yet despite his star-studded résumé, by 1966 Campbell had still not produced any significant hits of his own and Capitol Records nearly dropped him from the label. Fate, however, had other plans for Campbell. After releasing the song “Gentle On My Mind,” which achieved modest chart success in the summer of 1967, Campbell came across a song written by a 19-year-old named Jimmy Webb. Titled “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the song would become the centerpiece of Campbell’s next album and would prove to be one of his most successful and memorable hits. Released in December 1967, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” reached No. 26 on the pop charts and No. 2 on the country charts, and the following year Campbell became the first artist in history to win Grammys in both the pop and country categories (with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle on My Mind,” respectively). With the dam broken, Campbell’s success rose to new heights. In 1968 his single “Wichita Lineman” (another song by Jimmy Webb) topped both the country and pop charts and the By the Time I Get to Phoenix album won the Grammy for album of the year. Then, in January of 1969, CBS aired the first episode of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The variety show featured Campbell as host and included an eclectic range of guests, such as Lucille Ball, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Cash, among many others. The show was enormously successful and is credited with bringing country music to a wider and younger audience. The year 1969 also saw the single “Galveston” top the pop and country charts and Campbell appearing opposite John Wayne in the western True Grit, for which Campbell wrote the Academy Award–nominated title track, which he performed at that year’s Oscars. 

Glen Campell

Glen Campbell hosts the NBC television show 'The Midnight Special' in 1975.

But by the early 1970s, Campbell’s star was fading. Sales of his records began to decline, and in 1972 CBS canceled his TV show. Campbell continued to tour and record during this time, but he also developed an alcohol problem. After a brief reversal of fortunes in 1975, when his singles “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Country Boy” both reached No. 1 on the charts, Campbell’s life continued on a slow downward spiral. Amidst a haze of alcohol abuse and cocaine addiction, he would be divorced by Billie, marry and then quickly divorce Sarah Barg (the ex-wife of one of his friends) and begin a brief but tumultuous affair with country singer Tanya Tucker. But after nearly overdosing on cocaine in a Las Vegas hotel in 1980, Campbell’s life was suddenly transformed. In early 1981 he met a woman named Kim Woollen on a blind date and was immediately smitten. Campbell also found God that year, and in December 1981 Campbell and Kim were baptized in Arkansas. They married in 1982, and soon after the birth of their first of three children, Campbell at last managed to conquer his substance abuse problem. 

In 1994 Campbell’s autobiography, Rhinestone Cowboy, was published and made the best seller list, and a decade later Campbell briefly returned to the headlines when, after relapse of addiction, he was arrested for drunk driving and assaulting a police officer. But although he would also continue to record and tour, Campbell would mostly remain out of the spotlight, choosing instead to spend time with his family or out on the golf course. That all changed in 2011, when he publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The remainder of Campbell’s life became a series of long good-byes that included a 2011 tour that was cut short by his worsening health and the albums See You There and Ghost on the Canvas, which featured collaborations with Jakob Dylan and Paul Westerberg, among others. By 2013 Campbell had been completely overrun by his disease. He and Kim sold their home in Malibu and moved outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where by that time, Campbell needed constant care. Amidst a sometimes public feud between Kim and his daughter Kelly, in April 2014, Campbell was moved into an Alzheimer's facility where he had 24-hour access to medical care. He would remain there, receiving visits from family members and socializing with other patients at the facility, but rarely if ever singing or playing the songs that he could no longer remember. 

In October 2014, the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me premiered at the National Film Festival. It tells the story of Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and features footage from his farewell tour. Campbell is survived by his wife, Kim, and his eight children.