From a poor farming town in Arkansas to the top of the charts, a look back on the Rhinestone Cowboy's remarkable life

By Jonathan Bernstein
August 08, 2017 at 04:33 PM EDT

Glen Campbell, the country singer and entertainer who sold more than 50 million albums during a career that spanned over a half century, died Tuesday after several years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Campbell 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, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease,” a statement read on Campbell’s website. “Glen is survived by his wife, Kim Campbell of Nashville; their three children, Cal, Shannon and Ashley; his children from previous marriages, Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane, and Dillon; 10 grandchildren, great- and great-great-grandchildren; sisters Barbara, Sandra, and Jane; and brothers John Wallace ‘Shorty’ and Gerald.”

Campbell was one of the most popular pop-country crossover singers in the second half of the 20th century, scoring more than 20 hits in the Top 40 and topping 25 country Top 10 singles. In the ’60s, he released four platinum selling albums for Capitol Records, including his 1967 breakthrough LP Gentle on My Mind and his signature 1968 record Wichita Lineman.

Campbell’s hit singles were mainstays of the easy listening radio formats during the cultural upheaval and musical revolution of the late-60s and early-70s, and his work often lacked widespread critical acclaim during the height of his fame, but in his later years, the singer began to receive an outpouring of accolades. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, honored at the Country Music Awards in 2011, and earned a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 2012.

Born in the poor farming town of Billstown in 1936, Glen Travis Campbell was one of 12 children to Wesley Campbell and Carrie Dell. His gifts for music came early: already a guitar prodigy by the time he was a teenager, Campbell left home at the age of 16 to tour the country as the guitarist in his Uncle’s country western-rockabilly band.

By the time he was in his mid-20s, Campbell had already settled in Los Angeles, working as a session guitarist in the loose collective of musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, whose studio sound came to define a generation of pop music. Working closely with producer Phil Spector, Campbell played on recordings by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, the Everly Brothers, and Merle Haggard and contributed guitar to landmark albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Campbell even joined the Beach Boys for a brief period in 1964, filling in for Brian Wilson as their touring bassist. “That was really the happiest part of my whole career,” Campbell said of his time as a guitarist in a 2004 interview.

During his time in Los Angeles, Campbell also began his solo career, releasing several traditional-leaning country-folk albums and earning a few very minor country hits along the way. In 1967, Campbell received his breakthrough with his rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” The song only became a major commercial success when it was re-released the following year, but it nonetheless initiated a two-year run of massive hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Galveston.” These plainspoken portraits of everyday struggle, written by Jimmy Webb and delivered in Campbell’s expressive, elegant tenor, would come to define Campbell’s career for decades to come. “It was a privilege to record all those Jimmy Webb songs,” Campbell would say of his most famous collaborator years later.

As he continued to rack up hit after hit throughout the ’70s (including his signature song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” in 1975), Campbell became known as one of America’s foremost interpreters of popular song. Over the first few decades of his career, he turned tunes by everyone from Allen Toussaint (“Southern Nights”), Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”), Neil Diamond (“Sunflower”), Cindy Walker (“Dream Baby [How Long Must I Dream]”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“The Last Time I Saw Her”) into deeply personal performances of pain, protest, heartbreak and celebration. “Some people have said that I can ‘hear’ a hit song, meaning the first time a song is played for me if it has hit potential,” Campbell wrote in his 1994 autobiography. “I have been able to hear some of the hits that way, but I can also ‘feel’ one.”

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Campbell’s fame peaked when he earned his own primetime variety show in 1969, which ran for four seasons on CBS. The pressures of fame and success caught up with Campbell, who by the late ’70s had become addicted to alcohol and cocaine. Campbell, a devout Christian, spent nearly the entirety of the past several decades of his life drug and alcohol-free, and credits religion for his sobriety. “I got caught up in the frenzy,” Campbell once said of his struggles with substance abuse, “And thank God I was delivered from it.”

Campbell also acted in several movies throughout the ’70s and ’80s, most notably in the 1969 John Wayne western True Grit, for which Campbell provided the eponymous hit theme song. Campbell continued to record and tour for the next several decades, scoring countless charting country hits throughout the ’80s and releasing several of religious, gospel-influenced albums in the ’90s.

Campbell remained active over the last decade of his life even as he struggled with his health. After releasing his album Ghost on the Canvas to rave reviews in 2010, the singer announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and embarked on an extensive world tour, spending much of 2011 and 2012 on the road. That tour was documented by the 2014 film I’ll Be Me.

Campbell’s song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the final track he ever recorded, was released with the documentary soundtrack and earned Campbell a Grammy in 2015. “All I wanted to do ever since I could remember,” Campbell said in 2012, “was play my guitar and sing.”