Glen Campbell, the groundbreaking country singer and guitarist known for hits like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” died Tuesday in Nashville after a long, public battle with Alzheimer’s disease, according to his family. He was 81.
“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,” the family wrote in a statement on Campbell’s website.
Born in Billstown, Arkansas, in 1936, Campbell began his career as a session musician, joining the famed Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles. In the early ’60s, Campbell played on everything from Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” to the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” In 1964, he even joined the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson.
Shortly after that, the songs he began recording for himself gained more attention, landing his first hit with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written by Bayville’s Jimmy Webb.
In 1968, thanks to a string of hits, Campbell sold more singles than The Beatles that year. He won 1969’s Album of the Year Grammy for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
Campbell also branched out to TV and movies. In the summer of 1968, he hosted the summer-replacement series for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (the archly titled “Summer Brothers Smothers Show”) and did so well he landed his own show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which aired from 1969 to 1972. His performance of the title song from “True Grit,” a 1969 movie in which he played a Texas Ranger alongside Oscar winner John Wayne, received an Academy Award nomination.
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Campbell’s success in the ’60s was tied to his warm, likable voice and warm, likable personality, a calming presence during a time of cultural upheaval in America. His brand of country music was well-suited to cross over to the mainstream pop world, but it was so well-crafted that it drew all sorts of admirers.
“They felt packaged for a middle-of-the-road, older crowd,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone. “At first, you go, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ But it was such pure, good stuff that you had to put off your prejudices and learn to love it. It taught me not to have those prejudices.”
In the early ’70s, Campbell struggled against prejudices that his work was uncool. However, he returned to the top of the charts in the mid-’70s without changing his style, thanks to the shimmering “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.”
“Six-time Grammy winner Glen Campbell was, and always will be, an American treasure,” said Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “As an artist, his remarkable voice, top-level guitar work, and dazzling showmanship shot him to superstardom in the 1960s, and he became one of the most successful pop/country crossover artists of all time… We have lost an icon who will be greatly missed, but Glen’s musical gifts will live on forever.”
Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 and went public with the issue on his final tour, which is captured in the documentary “I’ll Be Me.” He released his final album “Adios” on June 9.
Because of his connection to Campbell, Webb, who wrote four songs on “Adios,” continues to raise funds for Campbell’s I’ll Be Me Foundation, which supports families of Alzheimer’s patients. “Seeing what has happened to Glen, it is just impossibly difficult to describe,” said Webb, before a benefit concert for the foundation at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. “It was heartbreaking for me. I can only imagine how terrible it is for the family.”
Campbell is survived by his wife, Kim; their three children, Cal, Shannon and Ashley; his children from previous marriages, Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane, and Dillon; sisters Barbara, Sandra, and Jane; and brothers John Wallace “Shorty” and Gerald.
Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (1967)
“Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” (1968)
“Gentle on My Mind” (1968)
“Wichita Lineman” (1968)
“Try a Little Kindness” (1969)
“It’s Only Make Believe” (1970)
“Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975, No. 1 for two weeks)
“Southern Nights” (1977, No. 1 for one week)
Source: The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits