‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ superstar Glenn Campbell dead at 81

Glen Campbell (far right) takes the stage with The Band Perry during a tribute during his final public appearance at the 54th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February, 2012. (Reuters file photo)

NASHVILLE – Glen Campbell, the affable superstar singer of Rhinestone Cowboy and Wichita Lineman whose appeal spanned country, pop, television and movies, died Tuesday, his family said. He was 81.

Campbell’s family said the singer died Tuesday morning in Nashville and publicist Sandy Brokaw confirmed the news. No cause was immediately given. Campbell announced in June 2011 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and that it was in its early stages at that time.

In the late 1960s and well into the `70s, the Arkansas native seemed to be everywhere, known by his boyish face, wavy hair and friendly tenor. He won five Grammys, sold more than 45 million records, had 12 gold albums and 75 chart hits, including No.1 songs with Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights.

His performance of the title song from True Grit, a 1969 release in which he played a Texas Ranger alongside Oscar winner John Wayne, received an Academy Award nomination. He twice won album of the year awards from the Academy of Country Music and was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Seven years later, he received a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

His last record was Adios, which came out in June, and features songs that Campbell loved to sing, but never recorded, including tunes made famous by Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Johnny Cash.

A handout photo made available by the Las Vegas News Bureau shows the legendary Campbell near the start of his career, on stage at the International Hotel on July 13, 1970. (Photo via EPA)

Campbell was among a wave of country crossover stars that included Johnny Cash, Roy Clark and Kenny Rogers, and like many of his contemporaries, he enjoyed success on television. Campbell had a weekly audience of some 50 million people for the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, on CBS from 1969 to 1972. He gained new fans decades later when the show, featuring his cheerful greeting Hi I’m Glen Campbell, was rerun on cable channel CMT.

He released more than 70 of his own albums, and in the 1990s recorded a series of gospel CDs. His 2011 album Ghost On the Canvas included contributions from Jacob Dylan, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins.

The documentary Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me came out in 2014. The film about Campbell’s 2011-12 farewell tour offers a poignant look at his decline from Alzheimer’s while showcasing his virtuoso guitar chops that somehow continued to shine as his mind unravelled. The song I’m Not Gonna Miss You won a Grammy for best country song in 2015 and was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.

Campbell’s musical career dated back to the early years of rock ‘n’ roll. He was part of the house band for the ABC TV show Shindig! and a member of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew studio band that played on hits by the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Crystals. He played guitar on Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In the Night, the Monkees’ I’m a Believer and Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas.

Born outside of Delight, Arkansas, he was just 4 when he learned to play guitar. As a teenager, anxious to escape a life of farm work and unpaid bills, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to join his uncle’s band and appear on his uncle’s radio show. By his early 20s, he had formed his own group, the Western Wranglers, and moved to Los Angeles. He opened for the Doors and sang and played bass with the Beach Boys as a replacement for Brian Wilson. (In 1966, Campbell played on the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album.)

By the late `60s, he was a performer on his own, an appearance on Joey Bishop’s show leading to his TV breakthrough. Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers saw the program and asked Campbell if he’d like to host a summertime series, The Summer Brothers Smothers Show. Campbell shied from the Smothers Brothers’ political humor, but still accepted the offer.

As he would confide in painful detail, Campbell suffered for his fame and made others suffer as well. He drank heavily, used drugs and indulged in a turbulent relationship with country singer Tanya Tucker in the early 1980s.

He is survived by his wife, Kim; their three children, Cal, Shannon and Ashley; and his children from previous marriages, Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane and Dillon. He had 10 grandchildren.

Among Campbell’s own hits, Rhinestone Cowboy stood out and became his personal anthem. Written and recorded by Larry Weiss in 1974, Rhinestone Cowboy received little attention until Campbell heard it on the radio and quickly related to the story of a veteran performer who triumphs over despair and hardship. Campbell’s version was a chart topper in 1975.

“I thought it was my autobiography set to song,” he wrote 20 years later – in his autobiography, titled Rhinestone Cowboy.