Glen Campbell, 'Rhinestone Cowboy' singer, dead at 81

He was 81 years old.

Glen Travis Campbell brought country music to new audiences. He found success as a session musician before embarking on a solo career that included smashes “Gentle On My Mind,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” and that landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Campbell's death was confirmed Tuesday by his official Twitter feed.

Campbell, 81, was born in Delight, Arkansas, the seventh son of a seventh son in a farming family.

"I spent the early parts of my life looking at the north end of a southbound mule and it didn't take long to figure out that a guitar was a lot lighter than a plow handle," he said in a late 1970s press bio.

Each member of Campbell's family played guitar, and he received a $5 Sears & Roebuck guitar when he was 4 years old. By 6, he was a prodigy, internalizing music that ranged from simple country to sophisticated jazz. As a teenager, he dropped out of school in the 10th grade, left Arkansas and played in a New Mexico-based band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. He also married first wife Diane Kirk, though that marriage lasted fewer than three years.

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While playing an Albuquerque club called the Hitching Post, Campbell met Billie Nunley, who soon became his second wife. The newlyweds left for California in 1960, riding to Los Angeles in a 1957 Chevrolet with $300 and a small trailer full of meager belongings. Mr. Campbell found work playing in rock groups including The Champs, a band that included Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, who would later become the hit-making duo Seals & Crofts.

Campbell's guitar acumen and versatility made him an essential player on Los Angeles' thriving recording scene in the 1960s, and he contributed to sessions for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rick Nelson, The Mamas and The Papas, Merle Haggard and many more. Campbell couldn’t read music, but he quickly became a respected, first-call player. He played on Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” The Monkees’ “Im’ a Believer,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” and more. He played 12-string guitar on the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.,” and toured with the Beach Boys in 1965, as a replacement for the band’s troubled and reclusive leader, Brian Wilson.

Campbell was invited to join the Beach Boys as a full-time member in 1965, but he declined that opportunity. By then, he was set on establishing a solo career of his own.

After recording a minor hit in 1961 with "Turn Around - Look at Me" for small, independent Crest Records, Campbell had signed with Capitol Records, releasing "Big Bluegrass Special" by "The Green River Boys Featuring Glen Campbell" in late 1962. His early albums received little in the way of attention or acclaim, but he broke into the mainstream in 1967, at first with the Top 20 country hit “Burning Bridges” but most notably with a nimble version of his friend John Hartford's drifter's masterpiece, "Gentle On My Mind."

“I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face and the summer sun might burn me ‘til I’m blind,” Campbell sang, in a smooth, clear voice, with twang-less diction a broadcaster would envy. “But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads, by the rivers flowing gentle on my mind.”

"Gentle On My Mind" did not ascend to the top of the "Billboard" country charts, but it was performing rights organization BMI's most-played song of 1969 and 1970. In 1999, BMI ranked “Gentle” as the second most-played country song of the century, and the 16th most-played song of the century in any genre.

Campbell’s affable stage presence and camera-ready looks made him a natural for television.

"Someday, in the very near future," this talented young man is going to have his own television show," said comedian Joey Bishop in 1967, introducing Campbell on a late night variety show. Tommy Smothers of musical comedy act The Smothers Brothers watched and listened with interest. He also watched as Campbell’s follow-up to “Gentle,” the Jimmy Webb-penned “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” reached #2 on the “Billboard” country chart and #26 on the all-genre chart. In early 1968, Mr. Campbell won two Grammy awards for his recording of “Gentle On My Mind” and two more for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and the Smothers Brothers announced that Campbell would host his own television show, nationally televised on CBS.

Campbell’s show began as “The Summer Brothers Smothers Show,” a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers, and it ran as a weekly variety show from January of 1969 through June of 1972. Each week, Campbell would sing

the opening lines of “Gentle On My Mind” and then announce to viewers that they were watching “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.”

“I had albums before that, but once the TV show started everything really took off,” Campbell told The Tennessean in 2005. “I used that show to get every country act I could onto television.”

“The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” featured much more than country. He performed Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Stevie Wonder and “Squares Make The World Go ‘Round” with the Smothers and Nancy Sinatra. He brought on teen favorites The Monkees (in earlier years, he’d played guitar on Monkees recording sessions) and west coast country-rock singer Linda Ronstadt. He stood and snapped his fingers like Frank Sinatra, and did a hip-shaking Elvis Presley impersonation.

Still, he made his country roots clear both on and off-camera, helping himself to major country chart successes in 1968 with “I Wanna Live” (his first No. 1), “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” (a No. 3 “Billboard” country hit) and his first cross-over smash, “Wichita Lineman,” which topped country and adult contemporary charts and landed at No. 3 on the pop charts. Producer Al DeLory’s sophisticated arrangements complemented a soaring voice, and Campbell was at the forefront of a modern country movement.

“The change that has come over country music lately is simple,” he told “TV Guide” in 1969. “They’re not shuckin’ it right off the cob any more..... I think the public is getting tired of all that crazy acid rock and wants to get back to good melodies. Country music has more impact now, because it’s earthy material - stories of things that happen to everyday people. I call it ‘People Music.’”

In the late 1960s, the “People Music” business was booming. Campbell won Country Music Association awards for best entertainer and male vocalist, two Academy of Country Music awards for best album and two more for male vocalist, and a total of five Grammy trophies. In 1969, buoyed by another Jimmy Webb-written gem, the soldier’s lament “Galveston” (a No. 1 country and adult contemporary hit), Campbell out-sold the Beatles. “Galveston became Campbell’s second

"Not since Elvis Presley's ascendancy more than a decade ago has a young soloist come along to capture the mass audience with such effectiveness as Glen Campbell, wrote Vernon Scott of United Press International.

Campbell’s manager, Nick Sevano, arranged for the singer to act in movies including “True Grit” with John Wayne and “Norwood” with Kim Darby and Joe Namath, but Sevano combatted the Presley comparisons.

“I don’t think he’s a new Elvis,” Sevano told “TV Guide.” “I think Glen has a broader audience than Elvis.”

Four of Campbell’s singles reached country music’s Top 10 in 1970, but his sales domination began to subside in the new decade. CBS cancelled his show in 1972, and his marriage to Billie was in trouble. Campbell developed an over-fondness for Glinlivet scotch, and his dedication to touring and performing came at the expense of his recordings.

But in 1975, after more than six years without a No. 1 hit, Campbell staged a comeback with “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Written by Larry Weiss, “Rhinestone Cowboy” topped both country and pop charts, and, reestablished Mr. Campbell as a hit-making, seat-filling force.

“I really just rode on the crest of that, to forget everything that was happening to Glen Campbell, personally,” Campbell told VH1’s “Behind The Music.”

“Rhinestone Cowboy” was a major anthem in the summer of 1975. In early fall, Billie Jean Campbell filed a divorce suit. By then, Campbell had, he would later reveal, begun using cocaine. That year, he also began dating Sarah Barg, the estranged wife of his friend and fellow performer, Mac Davis. He and Barg married in 1976, but Campbell’s cocaine use continued to escalate and the relationship suffered for that and other reasons.

“We were drinking and cocaining, and nothing lasts when you’re doing that,” he told VH1.

Campbell returned to the top of the charts in 1977 with “Southern Nights,” his final No. 1 hit. His behavior, though, was increasingly erratic. Campbell and Barg divorced in 1980, the same year he began dating powerhouse singer Tanya Tucker. She was 21, he was 44. The couple announced an engagement in late 1980, but the relationship ended, angrily, in early 1981. Campbell spent much of that year completely out of control, but a near-overdose in Las Vegas, a new relationship with a Radio City Music Hall Rockette named Kimberley Woolen helped spur newfound faith and a change of direction.

“I accepted Jesus Christ on December the 21st, 1981,” he told The Tennessean. “I’m singin’ a new song.”

Campbell married Kim Woolen in October of 1982, and she would be a sustaining influence for the rest of his life. He dropped cocaine, and eventually halted his drinking, and he reached country music’s Top 10 with 1984’s “Faithless Love” and “A Lady Like You,” 1985’s “(Love Always) Letter To Home” and “It’s Just A Matter of Time,” 1987’s “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” (with Steve Wariner) and “Still Within The Sound Of My Voice,” 1988’s “I Have You” and 1989’s “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone.” He also aided Alan Jackson’s ascent to country music stardom, suggesting Jackson move to Nashville and helping him to become a staff songwriter at his Glen Campbell Music publishing company.

The 1990s held no hits for Campbell, but he performed often, opening the Glen Campbell Goodtime Theatre in Branson in 1994 and starring there for three seasons. In 2003, he was arrested near his Phoenix home on drunk driving, hit-and-run and assault charges. He later pled guilty to extreme DUI, apologized to fans and entered a care facility. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, by which point he was already showing signs of dementia, seeming shaky in interviews though he clearly understood and appreciated the honor.

“You can have ‘male vocalist’ and all that stuff,” he told The Tennessean. “I’ll take the Hall of Fame. It’s the highest honor you can have in country music, and this makes me feel so good.”

Capitol Records released Campbell’s 60th studio album, the critically acclaimed “Meet Glen Campbell” album in 2008, with Campbell covering songs written by rock royalty including U2, Lou Reed, Tom Petty and Dave Grohl. “Meet Glen Campbell” provided music fans a reintroduction to Campbell’s musicality, with his still-strong voice and still-potent guitar.

In 2011, Campbell and his wife announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but that he would release a new album and go on a “Goodbye Tour” while he could still perform. The new album, released on Surfdog Records, was praised by Will Hermes of “Rolling Stone” as “baroquely arranged drama that echos his string-swelled seventies hits..... Dude’s definitely not going out softly.”

Campbell played his final Nashville show in early January of 2012, performing at the Ryman with a band that included three of his children. He opened with “Gentle On My Mind,” played many of his hits and thrilled an audience that included Tucker, “Grand Ole Opry” stars Jeannie Seely and Ricky Skaggs and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Ralph Emery.

“Campbell remained in fine voice and proved to still be a staggeringly sharp and fluid guitarist, wowing the crowd early on with an explosive solo on ‘Gentle’ and muscular melodic licks on his classic ‘Galveston,’” wrote Dave Paulson of “The Tennessean.”

He read lyrics from a Teleprompter that night, but imbued each song with significant feeling.

“An encore in the tightly scripted show wasn’t a sure thing,” Paulson wrote. “But Campbell returned to the room’s delight for ‘In My Arms’ - another affirming cut from ‘Canvas’ - before taking bows with his band and giving his crowd a last - and clearly loving - wave goodbye.”

At the Grammy Awards in Feb. of 2012, The Band Perry performed “Gentle On My Mind,” and Blake Shelton sang “Southern Nights” before Campbell took the stage to sing “Rhinestone Cowboy,” with Paul McCartney pumping his fist from the audience in approval.

Campbell played his final show on Nov. 30, 2012 in Napa, Cal. Early in 2014, he showed up at the venerable Station Inn to watch daughter Ashley Campbell perform with his old friend, Carl Jackson. In April of 2014, his family confirmed that Campbell was staying in a Middle Tennessee memory-care facility.

“There’s a lot of sadness, (but) we just continue to try to make the best of every day and keep a sense of humor,” his wife told “People” magazine.

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