On August 8 America lost a music icon, Glen Campbell. During a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Campbell was one of those rare entertainers, who exhibited extensive versatility. Although, initially, he achieved notoriety as a country singer, he was able to cross over into popular music as well. In addition, he was a successful songwriter, musician, actor, and tv host.
Glen Travis Campbell was truly a rags to riches story. He was born in Billstown, Arkansas, a farming community in Pike County, AK. Billstown, which is southwest of Little Rock, is, literally, in the “middle of nowhere.” Even Campbell described it as “too small for most maps.”
To label Campbell’s family as “poor” was, actually an understatement. He was one of 12 children. His parents were sharecroppers. He described his childhood rather succinctly: “We had no electricity. Money was scarce. A dollar in those days looked as big as a saddle blanket.” Campbell quit school at age 14 to work. “I picked cotton for $1.25 a hundred pounds,” he recalled. Later, he worked in a succession of odd jobs, such as pumping gas and installing insulation.
As a musician Campbell was a natural. He never had a formal lesson, although some of his family members played instruments and/or sang. When he was four he received a cheap $5.00 guitar as a gift, which started him on his way. He honed his skills primarily by listening to the radio. At age six he was performing on local radio. Later, he performed at fairs and in church. After his parents moved to Houston he performed in local night clubs in the area. At 17 he moved to Albuquerque, NM, where he played in local bands and performed on an uncle’s radio show.
In 1960 he moved to LA where he made a decent living as a session musician. For the uninitiated, a session musician, aka studio musician, is one who is retained to perform in specific recording sessions or live performances. He is not a permanent member of a band or ensemble; rather a short-term replacement. Normally, these musicians are highly skilled, but they rarely achieve individual fame. Campbell was very much in demand as a session musician, playing with the likes of Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys. He and Presley became friends, partly because of their common humble country beginnings. “Elvis and I were brought up the same humble way,” he was fond of saying, ” picking cotton and looking at the north end of a south-bound mule.”
Campbell got his big break when he was hired as a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers in 1968. He was a rousing success. Audiences loved his warm, likeable personality and singing style. That success led to his own variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which aired from 1969-1972.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was, perhaps, his period of peak popularity. It was during this period that he managed to “cross over” into mainstream pop. Also during this period he had a series of “hits,” such as “By the Time I get to Phoenix,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He became so popular that in 1968 he sold more singles than the Beatles. 1969 was a pretty good year for Campbell, too. He won an Album of the Year Grammy and performed the Academy Award-nominated title song in True Grit. He also co-starred with John Wayne in the critically-acclaimed movie.
After his tv show had run its course Campbell’s career continued apace. He continued to pump out “hits,” such as “Southern Nights,” which reached #1, “Country Boy,” and “Sunflower,” written by Neil Diamond. Moreover, he appeared frequently on tv. For instance, he co-starred with Robert Culp in the made-for-tv movie Strange Homecoming; he hosted a number of tv specials, such as the American Music Awards; and he was a frequent guest onvarious tv variety and talk shows.
Campbell’s personal life was “interesting,” to say the least. He was married four times, the first time when he was only 17 and his wife only 16, and fathered eight children, the first in 1956 and the last in 1986. He also fought alcoholism and cocaine addiction during the 1980s.
Campbell was extremely prolific. During his long career he released 64 albums, 82 individual “hits,” provided soundtracks for four movies, appeared in 13 movies, and won numerous Grammies and other music awards.
In 2011 Campbell disclosed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Nevertheless, Campbell continued to perform In 2012 he embarked on what he termed his “Goodbye Tour with three of his children joining him as part of his back-up band.
Campbell passed away on August 8, 2017 in Nashville, TN from Alzheimer’s disease. Rest in peace, Glen. You will be sorely missed.