Country legend Glen Campbell, whose crossover hits “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” forged a lasting bridge between country and pop music, died Tuesday. He was 81.
In 2011, Campbell announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and mounted a well-publicized farewell tour. His official Twitter posted the news of his death. His daughter, Ashley Campbell, also shared a heartfelt message online.
Campbell was hardly the first country artist to break out of the rural regional radio ghetto — the Nashville Sound of Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves had produced several wide-appeal hits in the early ’60s — but his influence in expanding country music’s parameters and fanbase was substantial. His signature hits often combined orchestral arrangements and traditional pop hooks with countrified lyrical themes and vocal stylings, catalyzing both the “countrypolitan” and soft rock subgenres that would proliferate in the 1970s. (John Denver and Kenny Rogers both owe much of their careers to Campbell’s example.)
He sold more than 45 million records in his career and topped the country singles chart 12 times.
Crossover came naturally to the tall, solidly built Campbell, who enjoyed a pre-stardom career as a prolific session musician for rock, pop and country acts alike. He possessed a calmly authoritative tenor and impeccable guitar chops, but his genial, easygoing charm as a performer was thrown into sharp relief by his hotheaded offstage character, with his reputation marred by substance abuse and allegations of domestic violence. Later becoming a born-again Christian, Campbell continued to maintain a steady audience well into his seventh decade, opening his own theater in Branson, Mo.
Born into a sharecropping family in a tiny town in southwestern Arkansas, Campbell was the seventh of 12 children. Picking up guitar at an early age, he left home at age 14 to pursue music, eventually landing in Los Angeles, where he fathered his first child at age 17. Out west, Campbell soon found himself an in-demand session musician with the now-storied studio conglomerate dubbed the Wrecking Crew, recording guitar parts for such varied acts as Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley.
Campbell reached the height of his session player power in 1965, when he became a touring member of the Beach Boys — playing bass to compensate for the absent Brian Wilson — as well as contributing guitar parts to the group’s landmark “Pet Sounds” album. All the while, Campbell had been erratically pursuing a solo career, recording mostly unremarkable singles for Crest Records and later Capitol. Though he broke onto country radio a few times, he began to lose favor with Capitol label heads, who by the mid-’60s were pondering dropping him from the roster.
Fortunately they didn’t, as Campbell’s career experienced a sudden, dramatic upswing in 1967, when he recorded a rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” Though the 45 barely breached the top-40 singles chart, the titular LP was a runaway success, topping the country album chart and reaching No. 5 on the pop charts.
Follow-up single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was an even bigger hit, reaching No. 2 on the country chart and marking the beginning of Campbell’s collaborations with songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose compositions would provide Campbell with hits for years to come. Underscoring the universality of the burgeoning star’s appeal, Campbell won four Grammys for the two songs at the 1967 awards — two in country categories, the other two in pop categories.
This turned out to be the opening salvo in a remarkable streak of hits for the singer. Starting with “Gentle,” Campbell managed to rack up seven consecutive country album chart-toppers over a two year period, recording such iconic tracks as “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” and a string of duets with Bobbie Gentry. LP “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” won Campbell an album of the year Grammy in 1968.
Outside of music, he began hosting a weekly CBS variety show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” in 1969, and made a promising foray into acting that same year in Paramount’s “True Grit,” playing La Boeuf alongside John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. (Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, and his titular song contribution to the film was nominated for an original song Oscar.) A starring role in 1970’s “Norwood” followed. After his show was cancelled in 1972, Campbell remained visible with a plethora of one-off TV specials, though his film career never really took off.
His hitmaking pace cooled off in the early ’70s — even “Reunion,” a collaboration with Webb, failed to catch fire — but his career reignited in 1975 with the release of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” A Larry Weiss-penned ode to showbiz durability, the song would become Campbell’s signature, and it reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts that year, as did the LP of the same name. Singles “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” and “Southern Nights” followed to comparable success.
However, Campbell’s substance abuse escalated in the last half of the decade. Divorcing his second wife Billie Jean Nunley in 1976, Campbell married Sarah Barg later the same year. The couple divorced in 1980, and Campbell immediately began dating singer Tanya Tucker, 17 years his junior. The two notched a minor duet hit with “Dream Lover,” but their relationship, a frequent tabloid fixture, could be toxic. At its nadir, Tucker claimed Campbell once beat her viciously enough to knock out her two front teeth. (Campbell denied the incident, though he admitted that their relationship occasionally turned violent.)
The two broke up, and Campbell found domestic peace with his fourth and final wife, Kimberly Woollen, a former Rockette whom he married in 1982. He eventually worked his way toward sobriety — though he would later fall off the wagon in 2002 and serve a brief stint in prison for drunk driving — and newfound spirituality during the decade, returning to full force as a performer and releasing several inspirational records. He opened up the Glen Campbell Goodtime Theater in Branson in 1995 and toured steadily until Alzheimer’s forced him into retirement.
Campbell made the most of his later recording years. He returned to Capitol Records in 2008 for “Meet Glen Campbell,” and 2011’s “Ghost on the Canvas” returned Campbell to the top 10 of the country album chart for the first time since the 1970s. His final studio album, “Adios,” was released earlier this summer, from sessions Campbell recorded in 2012 and 2013.
In addition to his five Grammys and large collection of CMA and ACM awards, Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Filmmaker James Keach documented the progression of Campbell’s illness and its effect on the family’s lives and work in “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me,” released in 2014. The film blends unflinching medical details, poignant performance footage and a survey of its subject’s place in musical history.
Campbell is survived by wife Kimberley and eight children, three of whom played in his backing band during his final farewell tour.