In Memoriam: Glen Campbell, 1936-2017, Forever Rhinestone Cowboy

by Yoram Kahana August 11, 2017
Actor and musician Glen Campbell, Golden Globe nominee

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Glen Campbell, an American music entertainment giant, twice nominated for the Golden Globes in acting categories, has died. He was  81. The son of an Arkansas sharecropper, one of a clan of 12 siblings, Campbell started playing guitar at age four, and only Alzheimer's disease made him stop some 77 years later.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated him in 1970 as Best Television Actor in Musical or Comedy and also as Most Promising Newcomer - Male (a Globe category that was later discontinued). Both of Campbell's performances fit the zeitgeist of the 1970s. In television, a nation roiled with racial and civil unrest at home and a neverending war in far-off Vietnam sought light entertainment, and Campbell's TV show fit the bill. Named The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour it ran for three seasons and was twice Globes nominated as Best Television Series- Musical or Comedy.  Campbell was nominated for best actor along with other popular entertainers headlining their own shows, Dean Martin and Tom Jones.

Campbell's other nomination was for his debut as a dramatic actor, alongside John Wayne and Kim Darby in the original version of the Western drama True Grit (1969). The cynical tale of three disparate characters united in one mission spoke to a disillusioned nation. Veteran movie idol John Wayne was Rooster Cogburn, a one- eyed alcoholic sheriff who teams in a hunt of a criminal with Texas ranger La Beuf, played by acting newcomer Campbell,  who is in the chase for bounty money, and with young Kim  Darby,  out to avenge her father's death. Campbell did not sing in the movie and did not have a hand in the theme song (Elmer Bernstein, holder of seven Globe nominations and two wins, did). He lost the Globe to another newcomer - Jon Voigt, Midnight Cowboy's co-star.


A scene from, "True Grit", 1969, John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby

Glen Campbell with John Wayne and Kim Darby, in True Grit (1969).

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The 1970s marked the high point of Campbell's importance and influence on American pop and country music, matched by few others. He sold some 45 million records, and was often on top of both the pop and country hit charts, with songs such as “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston” (all written by Jimmy Webb) - a testimony to the crossover talent of the all-American handsome artist, rosy-cheeked and affable, who had a broad audience appeal, beyond the limits of  his origins in country music. 

Glen Travis Campbell was born near Delight, Arkansas. When he was four, his dad gave him a  3/4 sized Sears Roebuck $5 guitar. Two years later Glen was performing on local radio. His influences were gospel and blues. He soon left the family cotton farm (he got “tired of looking a mule in the butt,” Campbell later said in an interview), quit school and joined a western band in Albuquerque, New Mexico, appearing on radio and television and, as he said, in "dancin' and fightin' clubs".

At 22 he landed in Los Angeles, and never looked back. Playing with small bands led to studio work as a session musician, backing stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, and groups on the order of the Beach Boys, which he eventually joined as a touring member, filling in for Brian Wilson. Playing several instruments although he never learned to read music, Campbell performed and sang on hundreds of recordings a year.

His own success came in 1967 when he was signed by Capitol Records.  His recording of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” hit the charts, and soon his version of  By the Time I Get to Phoenix reached the Top 40, bringing him a national following, four Grammy Awards in 1968 and television appearances, leading to his own Globe-nominated show. In 1970 Campbell also made his Las Vegas debut, and a year later he performed at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon and in London for Queen Elizabeth II.

But his success in recording and touring had a dark side. Three failed marriages, addiction to alcohol and cocaine, arrests and other humiliations. 

His fourth and last marriage in 1982 helped turn his life around, and for three more decades, he was active and successful. But in 2011 Campbell revealed that he had Alzheimer's  disease.  He also announced that he was going ahead with a farewell tour to support his new album, Ghost on the Canvas.  A planned five-week tour turned into 151 shows over 15 months. Campbell never stopped. He released his final studio album, Adiós, in June 2017.Adios, Rhinestone Cowboy. Always on our mind.