Chart-topping country singer and "Rhinestone Cowboy"
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
Glen Campbell, the "Rhinestone Cowboy" country singer who charted 80 hit songs in a career that lasted more than half a century, died Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.
His daughter, singer Ashley Campbell, tweeted, "Heartbroken. I owe him everything I am, and everything I ever will be. He will be remembered so well and with so much love."
Campbell's best-known songs included "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," "Southern Nights," and "Rhinestone Cowboy." All were No. 1 hits on the country music charts with massive crossover success in the pop music world, but he didn't call himself a country singer. "I'm not a country singer per se, I'm a country boy who sings" was how Campbell liked to put it, with country-boy roots stretching back to his Arkansas upbringing and his first homespun guitar.
Born April 22, 1936, in rural Billstown, Arkansas, Campbell was one of 12 children and grew up poor, without electricity or running water in the house. His family didn't have much, but they shared a love of music, and Campbell began playing guitar when he was just 4. His story of his first guitar, told to the Daily Mail in a 2008 interview, had his father customizing a Sears model that needed a capo, a device used to shorten the strings. "My daddy made me one out of a corn on the cob and a rubber band," Campbell remembered. "All I ever wanted to do was play the guitar; singing was a sideline. And once I had that capo in place, I didn't look back."
Years would pass before the budding guitarist made it to a professional career, but when he did, he started out with a bang, playing anonymously on some of the country's most popular recordings. He was a session musician, one of the best, recording with a group called the Wrecking Crew that backed popular singers including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole. They were a cornerstone of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," and they can be heard, with Campbell, on seminal recordings including Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and the critically acclaimed Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds." Campbell also toured with the Beach Boys in 1964 and '65, then joined Ricky Nelson on tour in 1966.
The session years gave Campbell a glimpse of stardom, and he was inspired to record his own solo work. He achieved moderate success with a cover version of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" in 1965, though he famously asserted that he didn't agree with the song's anti-war sentiment.
Greater success arrived in 1967 when he released "Gentle on My Mind" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Both songs charted well, and each of the songs won Campbell two Grammy awards, making him one of the stars of that year's awards ceremony. It marked an impressive entry to the heights of the music world, and Campbell would only build on it in the years that followed.
In 1968, Campbell reached No. 1 on the country chart for the first time with his single "I Wanna Live." He would repeat the feat later that year with "Wichita Lineman," a song written expressly for him by Jimmy Webb, the songwriter who would compose a number of his hits. In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked "Wichita Lineman" on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
A career segue for Campbell came in 1969 with the classic Western film "True Grit." Campbell both performed the movie's theme song and co-starred in the movie alongside John Wayne. Campbell's performance wasn't exactly critically acclaimed—Roger Ebert's contemporary review said he "needs some acting practice," while The New York Times played nice and called his performance "pleasant"—but it helped the theme song to receive nominations for best song from the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
Campbell didn't end up putting his music career in the back seat for a chance at movie stardom, but he did appear occasionally in other big screen roles throughout the years. And he made a move to the small screen in 1969 with the debut of his television variety show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour." Showcasing music and comedy, the program began as a summer replacement for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and lived on through 1972.
Meanwhile, Campbell scored further hits including "Galveston" and "It's Only Make Believe," and after the cancellation of "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," he released his all-time top-selling single: "Rhinestone Cowboy." The award-winning hit became one of Campbell's signature songs, strongly associated with him throughout the rest of his career. It was his second-to-last No. 1 song, followed by 1977's "Southern Nights," though he continued to chart singles into the 1990s and beyond.
Campbell freely admitted to struggling with alcohol and drugs during the period of his greatest success, though he cleaned up in later years. He summed up his addictions in an interview with the Age: "Boy, I'll tell you, they were some strange times in the '60s and the '70s. And yeah, I had to try some of it. It was a habit." After kicking that habit, he told the Daily Mail, "Now I'm in a different place. … I've stopped drinking and cussing, and life is good."
Campbell was married four times, the first three ending in divorce. Between marriages three and four, he had a high-profile relationship with fellow country star Tanya Tucker, but while they were still tempestuously dating, he met Kim Woollen, who would become his wife and his longest-term relationship. They married in 1982 and remained together for the rest of Campbell's life.
Woollen was by Campbell's side in 2011, when he announced to shocked fans that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Though it wasn't quite the end of his career, it was the beginning of a coda that included a farewell tour, a last album, and a remarkable final song. "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" was heartbreakingly blunt about the reality of Campbell's Alzheimer's, including lyrics like its opening phrases: "I'm still here, but yet I'm gone / I don't play guitar or sing my songs." Its video alternates between footage from the best years of his life—performing in concert, playing with his babies—and images from his end-of-life struggle, including sessions with doctors and a supine Campbell entering a medical imaging machine. The song rose to No. 21 on the country chart.
A documentary was released along with Campbell's final single, titled "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me." More than a career retrospective, it included Campbell's difficult final years as well, exploring the period when Alzheimer's was encroaching on his career. Fans and critics both praised the movie, acknowledging that it was difficult to watch the decline of an icon, but also calling it "powerful" and "triumphant."
Earlier this year, Campbell released his final album titled "Adios." The album features cover songs by Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and other artists. Campbell made the album at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, before Alzheimer's had progressed too far for him to record.
Ashley Campbell told Rolling Stone Country, "Almost every time he sat down with a guitar, these were his go-to songs. "They were very much engrained in his memory — like, so far back that they were one of the last things he started losing."
Many musicians paid tribute to the legend on social media.
Dolly Parton: "Glen Campbell was one of the greatest voices of all time. I will always love you, Glen!"
Brian Wilson: "I'm very broken up to hear about my friend Glen Campbell. An incredible musician and an even better person. I'm at a loss. Love & Mercy."
Tim McGraw: "Songs, songs, songs… Man, in a world of good stuff, his was great, in a world of great stuff, his was special!"
Campbell is survived by his wife and his eight children, Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane, Dillon, Cal, Shannon, and Ashley.
We invite you to share condolences for Glen Campbell in our Guest Book.