Known for "Galveston," Glen Campbell Was So Much More

Glen Campbell, whose formidable guitar skills earned him a spot in the group of legendary Southern California session players known as the “Wrecking Crew” and later became one of the country’s leading country-pop entertainers, has passed away. According to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for his label, Universal Music, confirmed his death. 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, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer's disease," Campbell’s family said in a statement.

Glen Campbell singing at Stafford Centre, September 2011
Glen Campbell singing at Stafford Centre, September 2011
Photo by Jason Wolter

Campbell was born in 1936, one of 12 children in a rural Arkansas sharecropping family, and soon discovered an affinity for the guitar, gravitating toward gypsy-style players like Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt. In his teens, he played in groups with names like the Western Wranglers and the Dick Bills Band. After he moved to California, his early solo efforts stalled but Campbell was drafted to play guitar on dozens of songs and albums by top stars like Merle Haggard, the Monkees, the Mamas & the Papas, and Frank Sinatra’s 1966 comeback hit “Strangers in the Night.” He also became a member of the Beach Boys’ touring band, after Brian Wilson retired from the road, but turned down an offer to join the group full-time in favor of a solo career.

This time Campbell was much more successful, embarking on a long string of hits, many of them from the pen of Oklahoma-born songwriting ace Jimmy Webb; those include “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Where’s the Playground Susie.” Other hits in those years were, among others, "Gentle On My Mind" and his version of the Everly Brothers' "Let It Be Me." Later came “Rhinestone Cowboy” – which lent its name to his 1994 autobiography — “Southern Nights” and, in the ’80s, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Campbell also did a fair amount of acting, co-starring with John Wayne in the 1969 film True Grit and from 1969 to 1972 hosting the TV variety program The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Campbell, who had been out of the spotlight for years, made headlines around the world in mid-2011 when he and his wife announced his Alzheimer's in People magazine. “If he flubs a lyric or gets confused onstage, I wouldn't want people to think, 'What's the matter with him? Is he drunk?" Kim said.

His subsequent farewell tour stretched on for more than two years and upwards of 120 shows, at least two of them in the Houston area. At the September 2011 stop at Stafford Centre, the Houston Press wrote:

The Campbells should be commended for their candor, and even for wanting to give the singer one more chance to say thank you – and goodbye – to his fans. But at what cost? He did flub lyrics, and get confused, and more. Besides making several quips about not remembering things, Campbell asked several times what key a song was in, couldn't remember the name of perhaps his biggest hit, "Wichita Lineman," and had to stop one song completely and start over. Painfully.

The show was all the more poignant because at that point, several of Campbell’s children were in his touring band. However, we noted, Campbell had little difficulty with the lyrics to most of his best-known tunes: "'Galveston' was great, ‘Gentle On My Mind,’ ‘Dreams of the Everyday Housewife’ and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ all came and went without incident.”

Walk the Line director James Keach’s 2014 documentary about Campbell’s tour, I’ll Be Me, was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell co-wrote with Julian Raymond. Tim McGraw gave a moving performance of the song at the 2015 Academy Awards after Campbell’s poor health prevented him from traveling to the ceremony.

One of Campbell’s most famous songs remained “Galveston,” his 1969 No. 1 hit about a soldier fighting in Vietnam who flashes back to happier times on the Gulf Coast.

“I was always fascinated with the Gulf, and I got a chance to see the big water a couple of times with my dad,” Jimmy Webb told the Press in April 2016. “I used to do evangelical stuff; go out and do revivals and stuff with my dad, so I got to see the water and the big boats and everything. I always remembered that, so when I started writing this song, I wanted to write a song about a blue-collar guy. My hero is just a regular guy, and that’s the guy I write about most of the time.”

Glen Campbell wasn’t quite a regular guy, perhaps – too talented, too driven, too dexterous – but he sure could sing like one.

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