Glen Campbell, hit singer and guitarist, dead at 81

GLEN CAMPBELL -- Pictured: Musician Glen Campbell -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)(gettyimages)

Glen Campbell, the upbeat guitarist from Delight, Arkansas, whose smooth vocals and down-home manner made him a mainstay of music and television for decades, has died, his family announced on Facebook on Tuesday. He was 81.

“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 … following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease,” a Facebook statement said.

Campbell is best remembered for a string of country-inflected hits that ran from the mid-’60s to the late ’80s: “Gentle on My Mind,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Southern Nights” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” among them.

They fit in neatly on both pop and country radio, with two of them — “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” — hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

He was also famous for “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” a TV variety show that ran from 1969 to 1972.

Before he became a solo star, Campbell was one of the music business’ most in-demand session guitarists, known for his astonishing speed and his brilliant ear.

He was part of the famed “Wrecking Crew” of L.A. session musicians that included Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel and Carol Kaye. The crack band played on records by Phil Spector, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees, the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra.

That’s Campbell’s fretwork on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me Rhonda,” Sinatra’s “Something in the Night” and Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” among hundreds of recordings.

Such versatility was a necessity to get work and stay fresh, Campbell said in an interview. As a teenager, he was in a band with his uncle and the group had a regular radio gig.

“Music was my world before they started putting a label on it,” he told ClassicBands.com in 1999. “We had a five-day-a-week radio show, six, seven years. You use up a lot of material doing that. We did everything from country to pop, when rock came along.”

Seventh son of a seventh son

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, in Delight, Arkansas, a very small town in the southwestern part of the state. (More accurately, he was born in Billstown, an even smaller community outside of Delight.) His father was a sharecropper and Campbell was his seventh son — making Glen, according to many sources, the seventh son of a seventh son.

He learned to play music on a five-dollar Sears guitar he received from his father, taking lessons from his Uncle Boo. His family moved to Houston when he was an adolescent. From there, he journeyed to Albuquerque to join his uncle’s band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys. He later formed his own group, the Western Wranglers.

But the real activity was in Los Angeles, where Campbell moved in 1960. He drew the attention of record companies with his song “Turn Around, Look at Me” — later a hit for the Vogues — and quickly started playing recording sessions, where his bright guitar picking and lightning fingers stood out.

His colleagues were in awe. Many members of the Wrecking Crew were longtime professionals who’d come from the jazz and pop worlds with years of training. Campbell could just flat-out play.

“Glen Campbell didn’t really read music. He could look at charts and get a sense of what was going on, but everything he did was by ear,” said Hal Blaine, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll drummers.

And Campbell had a blast.

”Boy, I was floatin’ on high water, coming down from Arkansas and getting to play music with these people,” he told The Age of Melbourne, Australia, in 2009.

He didn’t spend all the time in the studio, either. When Brian Wilson decided to stop touring with the Beach Boys, Campbell replaced him on the road. Always hoping for his own singing career, he put out a regular stream of singles. At one point in 1967, he opened for the Doors — just him and his guitar, dealing with a crowd clamoring for Jim Morrison.

A Rhinestone Cowboy

It wasn’t until being paired with a sympathetic producer, Al DeLory, that Campbell found his groove. He first hit with “Gentle on My Mind,” a John Hartford tune that was a minor success upon its first release in 1967.

That was followed by Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Campbell’s breakthrough, and continued with “I Wanna Live,” “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” and perhaps Campbell’s most fully realized song, the Webb-written “Wichita Lineman.”

The song was an answer to a Campbell request, Webb recalled in 2012.

” ‘Phoenix’ could have been a one-off thing,” Webb told American Songwriter. But not long after meeting in person, Campbell called Webb. “He said, ‘Can you write me a song about a town?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know … let me work on it.’ And he said, ‘Well, just something geographical. … And I remember writing ‘Wichita Lineman’ that afternoon. That was a song I absolutely wrote for Glen.”

Campbell won four Grammys at the 1968 ceremony, in both pop and country categories.

By late 1968, Campbell was a TV star as well. He had taken over the time slot of the controversial “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” for the summer and ended up with a surprise hit. CBS brought the show, now titled “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” back in January 1969. It ran for three years.

He was criticized for his clean-cut image and lighthearted attitude in the midst of late-’60s turmoil, but that was OK with him.

“If I can just make a 40-year-old housewife put down her dish towel and say ‘Oh!’ — why then, man, I’ve got it made,’ ” he told Time magazine.

Later in 1969, he hit the big screen as a co-star in the John Wayne film “True Grit.”

Meanwhile, his songs hit the charts with the regularity of an assembly line, though seldom becoming big hits. He finally had a resurgence in the mid-’70s, however, with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” one of the biggest hits of 1975, and “Southern Nights,” a remake of an Allen Toussaint song.

Fall and rebirth

The high life took its toll, however. He drank heavily and did drugs. He became a mainstay of gossip columns in 1980, with his third marriage over, when he struck up a relationship with country spitfire Tanya Tucker. He was 44, she was 21, and their affair was tempestuous, full of expensive gifts, public displays of affection, rip-roaring fights and more melodrama than an album’s worth of country songs.

The relationship lasted 14 months.

In 1983, Campbell married Kim Woollen, a former Rockette, and with her help, he cleaned up his act. There were a couple falls off the wagon — in 2003 he was stopped for drunken driving in Phoenix and briefly jailed — but, in general, he held up his end of the bargain.

“Before I met her, I didn’t know where I was at, or where I was going. And after I met her, I knew where I was going, and I knew where I to wanted to go,” he told CNN in 2012.

In 1994, he wrote a memoir, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which talked about the good times and bad. He became a regular presence in Branson, Missouri, playing his hits and joking with the crowds.

In 2011, he announced he had Alzheimer’s. Despite the diagnosis, he released an album, “Ghost on the Canvas,” to positive reviews, and followed it with a tour. He was showered with awards, including a lifetime honor from the Grammys. Later, he made a documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” that showcased the struggles on his final tour. A song from the movie, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” was nominated for an Oscar.

During the “Ghost” tour, there were times he would forget lyrics or find himself suddenly unfamiliar with a chord change. The audience urged him on, singing the song and guiding him back into the groove.

He told CNN he had no regrets.

“I am content with it. Don’t cry over spilt milk,” he said. “Get up and be a man and do what you have got to do.”

Campbell is survived by his wife, Kim, and eight children. Three previous marriages ended in divorce.