Glen Campbell was one of the most successful and influential country-pop stars of all time. The legendary singer and gifted musician, who passed away today at age 81, will be remembered as much for his charm and larger-than-life persona — the Rhinestone Cowboy, the archetypical square-jawed country boy from Arkansas making it big under the bright lights — as for his remarkably prolific recording legacy.
“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,” the singer’s family said in a statement on Tuesday.
Campbell carved out a recent legacy for bravely helping to put a face to Alzheimer’s disease. Diagnosed with the terminal illness in 2011, he and his family were vocal and public about the debilitating effects the disease was having on his memory and cognition as his condition worsened.
But it was through his music that Campbell truly made his mark. He was one of the first artists to help country music cross over to the top of the pop charts, becoming a household name in the process. Never a pure traditionalist, Campbell combined pop, rock, and even folk influences in mega-hits such as “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Southern Nights” in the 1960s and ’70s.
Along the way, fans fell for Campbell’s down-home sincerity, engaging personality and quick wit. Those qualities, coupled with his boyish good looks, also made him a popular TV star and occasional film performer.
In 1969, Campbell costarred with John Wayne in the classic western “True Grit” and sang the Oscar-nominated song of the same name. During a slow period in his music career, Campbell turned to television, hosting “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” a variety show, from 1969 to 1972.
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The show was famously parodied in the 2007 film “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which — while ostensibly satirizing the film “Walk the Line” and Johnny Cash — also used Campbell’s career as a touchstone throughout. One of those touchstones related to substance abuse. A 2005 inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Campbell inspired fans by overcoming issues with alcohol and cocaine use to become an elder statesman of country music.
Campbell got clean in 1981, although a later relapse resulted in a 2003 charge for drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He never drank again after that incident, he said.
In a 2008 interview with the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Campbell was open about the demons he’d battled over the years. In addition to the substance struggles, Campbell had had rancorous relationships over the course of four marriages. He always relied on his faith to pull him through. “I got down on my knees and prayed,” he told the Mail. “And, eventually, I got rid of those demons … Now I’m in a different place. I’ve stopped drinking and cussing, and life is good.”
Three years after that interview, Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” is a heartbreaking yet beautiful account of Campbell’s fight to persevere and perform on tour (backed by several of his talented children) as the disease gradually took its toll.
As depicted in the film, Campbell needed a teleprompter on tour to display lyrics to songs he’d performed thousands of times before. However, he remained incredibly proficient on guitar even as the disease robbed him of everything else.
The film was nominated for an Oscar, and it led to the creation of the final song Campbell recorded, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” The devastating ballad was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Grammy in 2015.
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At the peak of his career, Campbell ruled both the country and pop charts. While he wrote many songs over the years, his canny selection of material from other writers powered his most popular releases. Campbell’s 1975 hit “Rhinestone Cowboy,” written and originally recorded by Larry Weiss, simultaneously became the number-one song on the Billboard country music chart and pop chart — the first time that had happened in 14 years.
His 1977 recording of “Southern Nights,” written and originally recorded by R&B legend Allen Toussaint, incredibly topped three charts at the same time: pop, country, and adult contemporary.
Quickly in demand. Born in 1936 in Billstown, a tiny town in rural Arkansas, Campbell took to the guitar as a child and started playing professionally at the age of 18. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and quickly became an in-demand session guitarist. He soon joined forces with The Wrecking Crew, a renowned group of brilliant session players.
Campbell played on many well-known recordings, including the Beach Boys’ landmark album “Pet Sounds.” He also toured with the band (replacing Brian Wilson) for several months and was invited to become a full-time member — an offer he declined.
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Instead, he began recording on his own, scoring some minor hits in the mid-’60s. Campbell’s first major hit was a recording of John Hartford’s folk tune “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967. But his early stardom also owed much to his partnership with Jimmy Webb, who wrote the Campbell hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and “Wichita Lineman.”
Over the course of his career, Campbell released more than 60 albums. On his 60th, 2008’s “Meet Glenn Campbell,” he performed countrified versions of songs by pop and rock artists such as Green Day, Foo Fighters, U2, and The Replacements.
His influence on country, pop and rock performers is spotlighted in the “I’ll Be Me” documentary, which includes interviews with artists ranging from Keith Urban and Blake Shelton to Bruce Springsteen, U2’s The Edge, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith.
One of the most affecting aspects of the “I’ll Be Me” documentary is the good humor and thoughtfulness Campbell continued to show to his family and friends even as Alzheimer’s steadily robbed him of memory and reasoning. While the cameras occasionally showed Campbell’s frustrations bubbling to the surface, as is symptomatic of the disease, they also revealed his deep love for his family, friends, and fans.
The irony is that while Alzheimer’s cruelly steals one’s memories — specifically inspiring the theme of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” — Campbell’s legacy is not one we will soon forget.