Glen Campbell, hit singer and guitarist, dead at 81

(CNN)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.

Watch “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on HLN TV.
“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 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.”
    Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Brian Wilson, Lenny Kravitz and other musicians flooded Twitter with tributes to Campbell.
    “Thank you Glen Campbell for sharing your talent with us for so many years May you rest in peace my friend You will never be forgotten,” said fellow country star Charlie Daniels.
    “RIP my dear old friend Glen Campbell. Music has lost a giant of a man & a talent. I shall be forever grateful for everything he did for me,” said singer Anne Murray.
    The singer’s daughter, Ashley Campbell, said she is “heartbroken. I owe him everything I am, and everything I ever will be. He will be remembered so well and with so much love.”

    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.
    The Alzheimer’s Assocation mourned the singer’s death, saying he and his family “helped to bring Alzheimer’s out of the shadows and into the spotlight with openness and honesty that has rallied people to take action on behalf of the cause.”
    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.

    Read more:

    Session Men offline: Glen Campbell & The Wrecking Crew (Director Gil Baker)

    CLICK "SUBSCRIBE" FOR MORE FROM THIS CHANNEL Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, Jim Horn, Don Randi, Carol Kaye, Earl Palmer, Jim Keltner, Lee Sklar, Bones Howe, Nancy Sinatra. Produced, directed and edited by Gil Baker.


    1965. At Western Studios in LA, a group of musicians (later known as The Wrecking Crew) are working on a song called Help Me Rhonda. They include Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Don Randi and Ms. Carol Kaye on bass. When Rhonda shoots to Number One, the Beach Boys are heralded for their brilliant musicianship. But their live shows don't sound like their records. And no wonder.

    The Wrecking Crew performed on all of the big Beach Boys hits. Brian Wilson requested these players after hearing the magic they created for Phil Spector on productions like Be My Baby, Da Do Ron Ron and He's a Rebel. It's not widely known that Capitol's contract with The Beach Boys, who were signed by Nick Venet, stipulated that they hire studio musicians.

    Wrecking Crew players also tracked hits for The Byrds (Mr Tambourine Man, Turn Turn Turn) Association (Never My Love, Cherish) Mamas & Papas (California Dreamin', Monday Monday) Grass Roots (Midnight Confessions, Sooner or Later) Carpenter's (Close To You, We've Only Just Begun) Fifth Dimension (Wedding Bell Blues, Marry Me Bill) Monkees (Mary Mary) Paul Revere's Raiders (Kicks, Steppin' Stone) Jay's American's (Cara Mia, Come a Little Bit Closer) Sonny & Cher (I Got You Babe, The Beat Goes On) Herb Alpert (Lonely Bull, This Guy) America (Ventura Highway, Horse with No Name) Frank (Strangers in The Night) and Nancy (Boots) to name just a few.

    Crew member Larry Knechtel, who won a Grammy for his piano and arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Water, is responsible for the organ on Never My Love, the bass on Mr Tambourine Man and that electric six-string solo on Bread's classic, The Guitar Man.

    Through the 1950's, studio musicians were expected to show up on time and read the parts an arranger had written for them. But with folk and rock dominating radio in the 1960's, sheet music went out the window. Great records in these genres demanded session players who could figure out their own parts, and come up with an arrangement themselves. Recording acts, composers, producers, publishers all received royalties. But the session men were paid what amounted to an hourly wage for their invaluable contributions on huge hits. This inequity eventually lead the session men in LA to threaten a strike. But the Musician's Union settled for an increased hourly wage and some added benefits. Still no royalty of any kind for the session men. Not even a single percentage point to split between them.

    The Wrecking Crew's counterpart in Alabama was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Pete Carr, Spooner Oldham and Barry Beckett were kids when they began cutting classics like Mustang Sally, When A Man Loves a Woman, I'm Your Puppet, Kodachrome, My Little Town, Tonight's the Night, Old Time Rock & Roll and Aretha's signature, Respect. They also cut hits with The Osmond Brothers, Dr Hook and other major label acts.

    As members of Nashville's A Team, Grady Martin, Bob Moore, Buddy Harman, Ray Edenton and Pig Robbins played on well over 15,000 sessions between 1957 and 1987, including the biggest country and crossover hits of all time. These legendary studio musicians created the instrumental magic behind Elvis, Patsy, Conway Twitty, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tom T Hall, Crystal Gayle and literally hundreds of other stars.

    The American Studios Band ruled in Memphis, where Reggie Young, Gene Chrisman, Bobby Wood, Bobby Emmon, Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill pasted the groove on classics like Sweet Caroline, Drift Away, Son of A Preacher Man, Angel of The Morning, Hooked on A Feeling, You Were Always on My Mind, Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues, Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto, Kentucky Rain, Funky Broadway, singles by The Box Tops (Cry Like A Baby, The Letter) and dozens of other hits.

    After helping to invent The Sound of Philadelphia heard on hits like Love Train, Me & Mrs Jones, If You Don't Know Me By Now, Backstabbers and Elton's Philadelphia Freedom, the MFSB Rhythm Section players, led by Bobby Eli, Earl Young and Vince Montana, created a new 70's genre with dance tracks like Disco Inferno.

    NYC studio greats Will Lee, Chuck Rainey, Paul Griffin, Vinny Bell, Herbie Lovelle, Hugh McCracken and David Spinozza discuss their careers and perform - with John Sebastian, (who played on dozens of sessions for other artists) providing commentary.

    Along with profiles on the key players at Motown, Stax, Criteria and the studio scenes in Chicago and London - Session Men explodes some long standing myths, and celebrates these unsung heroes of popular music.

    Gil Baker

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