He was one of 12 siblings of parents that were attempting to make end meets as cotton pickers in Arkansas.
The Rhinestone Cowboy is no more. Country singer Glen Campbell passed away earlier this month, aged 81, following a long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease and, even though he sang about how “a smile can hide all the pain” in his popular song, the end would not have been easy for Campbell, having announced his being diagnosed with the degenerating disease in 2011.
My first introduction to the musician occurred with Rhinestone Cowboy while I was still in school, though it took me another 20 years or so to discover Campbell’s wide-ranging repertoire, thanks entirely to my heading the international music division at EMI licensor The Gramophone Company of India — now known as Saregama, and still popularly known as HMV in trade circles — when I had access to Campbell’s recordings for Capitol Records.
But Campbell’s beginnings were a notch lower than humble. He was one of 12 siblings of parents that were attempting to make end meets as cotton pickers in Arkansas. In fact, their home had no electricity, and young Glen’s only form of entertainment then was switching on “an old battery radio”. However, what changed Campbell’s outlook to life was obtaining his first guitar at a then princely sum of $7, following which he learnt to play the guitar by himself, obsessed with jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s style.
Moving to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, Campbell became a much sought after session guitarist, playing for several legends, including Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. By 1963, Campbell apparently appeared on 586 recordings, including the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man, the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, and Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas. In fact, Campbell temporarily replaced the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in the band in late 1964, when Wilson suffered from a nervous breakdown while on tour with Campbell playing bass and singing high harmonies. Subsequently, Campbell played guitar on the legendary 1966 Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds.
Campbell’s interests also spanned across television — including The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which featured musicians such as Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Ray Charles — as well as acting in movies such as True Grit when, in 1969, Campbell was picked to play the part of a young Texas ranger by Hollywood star John Wayne. He then appeared in a comedy, Norwood, the following year.
While there is little doubt that Glen Campbell remains one of the most underrated guitarists in the world — check out his distinctive finger picking style and indelible guitar riffs via the videos of his live performances — he subsequently received validation from the likes of Tom Petty (“He had that beautiful tenor with a crystal-clear guitar sound”), Brian Wilson (“His main forte is he’s a great guitar player”), and from multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, who collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and passed away last year, who called Campbell “the best guitar player I’d heard”. Further, Campbell was virtually single-handedly responsible for country music’s crossover into the mainstream, helping make a career for someone like Kenny Rogers, who recently announced a farewell tour.
Campbell has released more than 60 studio albums, selling in excess of 45 million units globally (for the trivia-minded, Campbell was so popular in the US in 1968 that he even outsold the Beatles!), and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, won six Grammy Awards, and was a recipient of their Lifetime Achievement honour in 2012.
Meanwhile, do listen to a song called I’m Not Gonna Miss You, which is reason enough to see the documentary, I’ll Be Me, which focuses on the singer’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease and his final tour.
It is one of the most poignant songs that I have heard, co-written by Campbell with producer Julian Raymond, and released in September 30, 2014. It was apparently the last song recorded by Campbell, and was nominated for Best Original Song at the 87th Academy Awards, and won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
Glen Campbell is survived by his wife, their three children, five children from his three previous marriages, innumerable grandchildren and great grandchildren, three sisters and two brothers and, needless to say, is also survived by his fans. It would be fitting to make reference to the lyrics of I’m Not Gonna Miss You: “I’m still here, but yet I’m gone.” Rest in peace, Glen Campbell.