With additional reporting by Wendy Geller
With more than 50 years in show business and more than 45 million records sold, Glen Campbell, who according to Rolling Stone died Tuesday morning in Nashville at the age of 81, was a country music artist who made the crossing into mainstream pop look easy. He hosted the CBS variety show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in the early 1970s and was known for such countrypolitan hits as “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
Glen Travis Campbell was born the seventh son of 12 children in Billstown, near Delight in Pike County, Arkansas. His father was a sharecropper and his uncle Boo taught him the guitar. In 1954, he joined his uncle’s band Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys in Albuquerque, N.M., and by 1958, he’d formed his own band, the Western Wranglers.
By 1960, a skilled guitarist, Campbell moved to Los Angeles to do session work. He soon became part of a studio group known as “The Wrecking Crew,” who played on many of the popular records of the day, including those by Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jan & Dean, the Byrds, and the Monkees. From December 1964 through early March 1965, he filled in for Brian Wilson as a touring member of the Beach Boys. He later played guitar on the group’s landmark album, Pet Sounds, and took over bass guitar and falsetto harmonies on later tours.
His own career got off to a number of modest or false starts, though in 1964 TV appearances on Star Route, Shindig!, and Hollywood Jamboree raised his profile substantially and a 1965 hit of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” reached No. 45, despite Campbell’s lack of interest in the antiwar movement.
Campbell, at risk of losing his record contract, teamed up with producer Al DeLory in 1966 and together worked on “Burning Bridges,” which became a top 20 country hit in early 1967. This led to the even bigger hit “Gentle on My Mind,” a song written by John Hartford. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Hey Little One,” “I Wanna Live,” “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “True Grit,” the latter by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black, continued Campbell’s streak to the end of the 1960s, when he hosted The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on television.
The series was canceled in 1972, but Campbell continued to appear in TV specials, made-for-TV movies, and talk shows, and he had a few more hits with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.),” “Southern Nights,” and “Sunflower.”
Though his hits were confined to the county charts in the 1980s, Campbell remained a popular presence throughout the years, with new generations of musicians discovering his fine work with songwriter Jimmy Webb in particular.
In June 2011, Campbell announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and would mount a final “Goodbye Tour” in support of his album Ghost on the Canvas, which featured songs by contemporary songwriters Paul Westerberg, Teddy Thompson, and Jakob Dylan. Campbell performed “Rhinestone Cowboy” at the 2012 Grammy Awards on Feb. 12, 2012, and completed his tour in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012.
Per his instructions, Campbell’s 62nd studio album See You There, recorded around the time of Ghost on the Canvas, was issued the following year in 2013, featuring a group of musicians who reimagined songs from his catalog, including the famous hits and two versions of “Waiting on the Comin’ of My Lord.”
In 2014, the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, executive-produced by Campbell’s friend and producer Julian Raymond, was released; it won a Grammy and was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar for the theme “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”
Earlier this year, Campbell released Adiós, his final studio album. He is survived by his wife, Kim Campbell, and his eight children.