fb-pixel Skip to main content

Glen Campbell, superstar entertainer of ’60s and ’70s, dies at 81

Musician Glen Campbell has died at 81.
Musician Glen Campbell has died at 81.

Glen Campbell, the sweet-voiced, guitar-picking son of a sharecropper who became a recording, television and movie star in the 1960s and ’70s, waged a publicized battle with alcohol and drugs and gave his last performances while in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, died Tuesday in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 81.

Tim Plumley, his publicist, said the cause was Alzheimer’s. Campbell had been living in a Nashville care facility.

He revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease in June 2011, saying it had been diagnosed six months earlier. He also announced that he was going ahead with a farewell tour later that year in support of his new album, “Ghost on the Canvas.” He and his wife, Kimberly Campbell, told People magazine that they wanted his fans to be aware of his condition if he appeared disoriented onstage.

Advertisement



What was envisioned as a five-week tour turned into 151 shows over 15 months. Campbell’s last performance was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and by the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville.

This year, Campbell released “Adiós,” his final studio album, a collection of mainly cover songs by Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, and others, recorded after his farewell tour.

That tour and the way he and his family dealt with the sometimes painful progress of his disease were chronicled in a 2014 documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” directed by actor James Keach. Former president Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansas native, appears in the film and praises Campbell for having the courage to become a public face of Alzheimer’s.

When he played at the Wilbur Theatre in 2012, a Globe reviewer wrote that there were “moments of forgetfulness’’ but he nonetheless delivered a “strong and stirring performance.’’

At the height of his career, Campbell was one of the biggest names in show business, his appeal based not just on his music but also on his easygoing manner and his apple-cheeked, all-American good looks. From 1969 to 1972, he had his own weekly television show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” He sold an estimated 45 million records and had numerous hits on both the pop and country charts. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Advertisement



Decades after Campbell recorded his biggest hits — including “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston” (all written by Jimmy Webb, his frequent collaborator for nearly 40 years) and “Southern Nights” (1977), written by Allen Toussaint, which went to No. 1 on both pop and country charts — a resurgence of interest in older country stars brought him back onto many radio stations.

Like Bobbie Gentry, with whom he recorded two Top 40 duets, and his friend Roger Miller, Campbell was a hybrid stylist, a crossover artist at home on both the country and pop charts.

“A change has come over country music lately,” he explained in 1968. “They’re not shuckin’ it right off the cob anymore. Roger Miller opened a lot of people’s eyes to the possibilities of country music, and it’s making more impact now because it’s earthy material, stories and things that happen to everyday people. I call it ‘people music.’ ”

Glen Travis Campbell was born on April 22, 1936, about 80 miles southwest of Little Rock, Ark., between Billstown and Delight, where his father sharecropped 120 acres of cotton. He was the seventh son in a family of eight boys and four girls. When he was 4, his father ordered him a three-quarter-size guitar for $5 from Sears, Roebuck. He was performing on local radio stations by the time he was 6.

Advertisement



He quit school at 14 and went to Albuquerque, where his father’s brother-in-law, Dick Bills, had a band and was appearing on both radio and television.

After playing guitar and singing in what he called “fightin’ and dancin’ clubs” in Albuquerque with Bills’s band, he moved to Los Angeles at 22 and in 1960 got a job playing with the Champs, a rock ‘n’ roll group best known for its 1958 hit “Tequila.”

But his skills eventually took him into the recording studios as a session musician, and for six years he provided accompaniment for a vast number of famous artists, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, and groups like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. Although Campbell never learned to read music, he was at ease not just on guitar but also on banjo, mandolin, and bass.

He wrote in his autobiography, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1994) — the book took its title from one of his biggest hits — that in 1963 alone, his playing and singing were heard on 586 recorded songs.

After playing on many Beach Boys sessions, he became a touring member of the band in late 1964, when its leader, Brian Wilson, decided to leave the road to concentrate on writing and recording. He remained a Beach Boy into the first few months of 1965.

Advertisement



After Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers saw Campbell on Joey Bishop’s late-night show in 1968, Campbell was signed as the host of the Smothers Brothers’ summer replacement show.

The success of that show led to his own series. “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” made its debut on CBS in January 1969 and soon became a hit.

In 1969, Campbell had his most famous movie role, the nonsinging part of a Texas Ranger who joins forces with John Wayne and Kim Darby to hunt down the killer of Darby’s father, in the original version of “True Grit.”

Though his recording and touring career was booming, he began drinking heavily and later started using cocaine. He would annoy his friends by quoting from the Bible while high. “The public had no idea how I was living,” he recalled.

He credited his fourth wife, the former Kimberly Woollen, with keeping him alive and straightening him out — although he would continue to have occasional relapses for many years.

His survivors include his wife and eight children: Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane, Ashley, Cal, Shannon, and Dillon.