Glen Campbell dies at age 81
Storied life culminated with a courageous fight against Alzheimer’s
The Grammy-winning singer and guitarist has died after a battle with Alzheimer’s.
There are last acts. And then there was Glen Campbell’s.
As he entered his 70s, the multiple-Grammy winner’s career seemed impossible to top. Campbell had sold tens of millions of records and several hits had matured into classics. He enjoyed iconic status among country musicians and had even accomplished that cliched fall from grace that seems all but requisite in these cases: a tabloid-chronicled descent into booze and scandal from which he emerged with renewed faith — and a string of gospel albums.
But there was no script for what came next. After Campbell announced at age 75 that he had Alzheimer’s, he opted for a rare public airing of his mental decline, a decision so affecting that
former President Clinton suggested it might outstrip Campbell’s contributions to music.
Campbell died Tuesday in Nashville, according to a representative for the family.
His death was also announced in a post on his official website and social media accounts. “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 statement said.
Campbell advocated for Alzheimer’s patients and boldly displayed his fading memory in public, groping for lyrics in front of knowing, supportive crowds. A brutally frank film, 2014’s “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” documented his private struggles — his confusion, his flashes of anger.
And as his condition worsened, his fans were supplied with a steady series of updates, each a kind of primer detailing the stages of Alzheimer’s and explaining symptoms with graphic clarity.
“He was so open about what he was going through,” Julian Raymond, a Campbell collaborator, said in 2014. “He was upset about it on one hand, but had a great sense of humor about it too.”
He recalled Campbell joking: “I don’t wanna remember that stuff anyway.”
The son of a sharecropper, Campbell was a virtuoso guitarist possessed of a crystalline tenor voice and boy-next-door good looks. He burst into stardom in the late 1960s, and over the next five decades sold more than 45 million records and became known for a signature string of ’60s and ’70s country music hits that included “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
He also had his own TV show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which featured its host alongside superstars such as Ray Charles, Cher and Neil Diamond.
Born April 22, 1936, in Billstown, a tiny community near the town of Delight, Ark., Glen Travis Campbell was the seventh son of a seventh son, John Wesley. Wesley and his wife, Carrie Dell Campbell, would have several more children after Glen.
By all accounts, Campbell’s early life was one of severe poverty that included picking cotton in the fields alongside his brothers. The seeds of his career were planted at the age of 4 when he received a guitar that had been ordered from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order catalog.
By age 6, he was skilled enough to appear on local radio stations, and by 10th grade he would quit high school to pursue a music career full time. By the time he was 20, he had joined his uncle’s band — the Albuquerque-based Sandia Mountain Boys — where he would hone his skills for a pair of years before striking out on his own to form Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers in 1958.
Campbell came west while still in his 20s. He made his home in the Los Angeles area, where he would remain the rest of his working life. He flourished as part of the Wrecking Crew, the fabled though mostly unknown-tothe-public collective of studio and session musicians who played behind some of the biggest names in the music business.
In this early stage of his career, Campbell was a sought-after instrumentalist, and his brisk, confident guitar work was featured on records by Elvis Presley and the Monkees, among others, as well as “Pet Sounds,” the classic album by the Beach Boys, with whom he would briefly tour as a substitute for Brian Wilson.
Campbell’s career started to move center stage — or at least further to the front of it — with a few modest hits beginning with “Turn Around, Look at Me,” a 1961 single he recorded for Crest Records; “Kentucky Means Paradise,” a 1962 tune recorded with the Green River Boys; and “Swingin’ 12 String Guitar” as part of the Folkswingers in 1963.
His big breakthrough, though, came in 1967 when his recording of the John Hartford tune “Gentle on My Mind” hit the No. 1 spot on the country charts and the Billboard Top 40 and earned Campbell a Grammy.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” brought a second Grammy and debuted Campbell’s fruitful pairing with songwriter Jimmy Webb — one of those madein-heaven singer-songwriter matches that helped make legends of both men. Webb also wrote “Galveston” and the iconic “Wichita Lineman.”
Campbell’s first two hits earned him the Country Music Assn.’s 1967 Entertainer of the Year award. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” earned him three more Grammys, including album of the year in 1968.
Not long after, the rising star with the wide smile, dimpled chin and sideburns would add television show host to his resume. In 1968, he was a summer replacement co-host of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and the next year came “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” his CBS prime-time variety show that aired until 1972.
Along the way he appeared on the big screen, too — most notably alongside John Wayne in the original 1969 version of “True Grit” (Campbell played La Boeuf, the role reprised by Matt Damon in the film’s 2010 remake), and as a Vietnam veteran returning stateside in “Norwood” (1970).
The 1970s found Campbell’s music reaching a wider audience, as evidenced by songs such as “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, country and adult contemporary charts in 1975, followed two years later by his second and final No. 1 hit, “Southern Nights,” written by revered New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint.
The ’80s were a country song gone awry for Campbell, a decade defined less by his creative output than by his battles with drugs and alcohol and his tempestuous, on-again, off-again affair with singer Tanya Tucker, who was half his age.
By the mid-1990s he’d taken up residence at the Glen Campbell Goodtime Theatre in Branson, Mo., where he performed regularly. His output from these years skewed heavily toward Christmas albums, gospel records and best-of compilations.
In 2005 Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Three of his songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Wichita Lineman” (in 2000), “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (2004) and “Gentle on My Mind” (2008). Campbell received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
He began a late-career renaissance in 2008 through his collaboration with producer and songwriter Raymond, who persuaded Campbell to record a diverse batch of songs by younger, hipper artists, including Green Day, Tom Petty, the Replacements and U2.
Campbell released “Ghost on the Canvas” in 2011, following that with a final stretch of concerts. The Goodbye Tour, which pushed into 2012, was the subject of the James Keach documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” released in 2014 — the same year Campbell moved into an Alzheimer’s treatment facility after listing his Malibu home.
With the help of his children and admiring friends such as Willie Nelson, he released a final album in the spring of 2017, titled — simply — “Adios.”
The tour and film elicited an emotional outpouring. Rejecting the shame that sometimes attends Alzheimer’s, Campbell turned into an advocate for the disease and was staunchly public about his aff liction; audiences cheered him as he faltered on stage, stumbling through lyrics but soldiering resolutely on.
But even as Campbell’s disease progressed, he retained a deep musical fluency. He would forget the words to songs, his documentarian later said, but not the music. He could still hit the notes.
The film portrayed him baffled at doctor appointments and lashing out toward his family. The Times’ Randy Lewis called the film striking for its refusal to flinch before the grim realities of Alzheimer’s.
Also featured in the film was the song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell had written and recorded with Raymond.
Like the Goodbye Tour, the song is unique in the country canon. Stark, specific and unsentimental, its few simple lines convey profound loss, both for Alzheimer’s sufferers and those who love them. It opens with, “I’m still here / But yet I’m gone.”
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” received an Academy Award nomination for original song and earned Campbell the sixth and final Grammy of his career.
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; 10 grandchildren and many great- and greatgreat-grandchildren; sisters Barbara, Sandra, and Jane; and brothers John Wallace “Shorty” and Gerald.
HIS CLOSING ACT Glen Campbell is pictured at his Malibu home in 2011, shortly after he announced he had Alzheimer’s disease. The rare public airing of his mental decline won the admiration of former President Clinton, among others.
RISING STAR Glen Campbell in 1967, the year of his breakthrough hit, “Gentle on My Mind,” one of his three songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He also appeared on recordings by Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys.