Winner of ten Grammy Awards, ten Academy of Country Music awards, and a host of other music honours, Glen Campbell is a music industry legend.
Born in Billstown, Arkansas, USA, Glen started playing guitar at the age of just four when his father bought him a junior guitar from a Sears department store. Entirely self-taught, his fascination with music continued, and in his teenage years he worked a number of different unskilled casual jobs while playing as often as he could. He played mainly at country fairs, church picnics and the occasional nightclub. At the age of 17 Glen moved to Albuquerque to join his uncle’s band ‘Doc Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys.’ He also had the opportunity to play on local radio. Four years later Glen formed his own band, The Western Wranglers. He later recalled,
“We worked hard playing six or seven nights a week. I didn’t have my eye set on any specific goals or big dreams.”
In 1960 he moved to Los Angeles to become a session musician. Within a year he had a job at music publisher American Music writing songs and playing demos. Glen was soon in demand as a session musician and became a part of the famous studio team who soon became known as The Wrecking Crew. Throughout the 1960s he played on recordings for many well known artists including the Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Everly Brothers and Nat King Cole. Glen became particularly good friends with Elvis Presley after recording the soundtrack to the movie Viva Las Vegas with him.
“Elvis and I were brought up the same humble way – picking Cotton and looking at the south end of a north bound mule!”
During the early 1960s, he recorded a string of singles and several albums which were not a personal chart success, but a number of his songs were hits when recorded by others. The best known Glen Campbell penned from this era was ‘Turn Around, Look at Me’, which became a top 10 hit for The Vogues.
His first big hits came in 1967 with ‘Gentle on my Mind’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, each of which won a Grammy award. These were followed in 1968 by ‘I Wanna Live’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’ which reached number 1 in both the US contemporary music chart and the American country music chart.
This success was followed by his own TV show, acting roles in several films including the renowned Hollywood movie ‘True Grit’, and a Golden Globe award for the title song of ‘True Grit’ which was sung by Glen Campbell and written by Elmer Bernstein.
The 1970s and early 1980s took Glen to the pinnacle of his career with the million-selling chart toppers ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, and the most played song of 1977, ‘Southern Nights.’ He also acted in the classic Clint Eastwood movie ‘Any Which Way You Can’ singing the title song.
Addiction and Marriage Problems
Sadly, success is often accompanied by excess. For Glen Campbell, both alcohol and drug addiction afflicted him. He started drinking heavily and using drugs in the 1970s, and was unable to fully shake off the addictions until the 2000s.
Alongside his addiction issues, Glen admitted that he was not a good husband either, and he ended up marrying four times.
All through his career, despite the personal problems, Glen credited his success and his survival to his relationship with God. There were plenty of Bible characters, like Sampson and David for instance, who fought with addictions and personal issues but were still ‘heroes of the faith.’ Despite the ups and downs, Glen Campbell was brought up in a Baptist church and he retained his faith throughout his life. There were mistakes and failures, but he believed that God sustained him through every high and every low. In a 1990 Cross Rhythms interview he said,
“I’ve been extremely successful in my career. And, what’s more, I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family and friends. But I know that it wouldn’t have happened if the good Lord had not wanted it to. I’m very grateful for all that I have, and want to give the Lord the thanks he deserves.”
By his fourth marriage, Glen realised that he needed to pull his life together, change his ways, and ask for God’s help and forgiveness for his reliance on drugs. He said,
“I had promised Kim that cocaine would not be part of our marriage. I tried and prayed, but I didn’t keep that promise. One night shortly after our first child, Cal, was born, some musician friends were in town, and I stayed up till dawn doing cocaine with them. When I got home, Kim was heartbroken and furious, and I was afraid she was going to take Cal and leave. I can’t say I would have blamed her, but I think it would have torn my heart out. As I had done so many times before, I begged the Lord to deliver me. I don’t understand why, but that day it was as if Jesus reached down and pulled my hand back from the cocaine. I never touched the drug again.”
Drugs were not the only problem. Talking of how he came off alcohol he said,
“In August of 1986 I was in Hawaii for concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. After one of the shows I went out for drinks with friends. I don’t know that I had any more to drink than usual, but the next morning I awoke with just about the worst hangover of my life. The sun was streaming through the curtains, and it was all I could do to roll out of bed and get on my knees. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘get me off this stuff. Help me find a way.’ This time I wanted to surrender everything to Christ, my pain, my drinking, my whole life. Again, I don’t understand the mystery of why he chose that moment to save me, but he reached into my life and took up the burden…
Speaking of God’s grace and forgiveness he said,
“Today I truly have peace ‘which passes all understanding’. I really don’t understand it. But I thank the Lord all the time. I am a man richly blessed, despite myself.”
As a child and in his youth, Glen was brought up in a Christian family who attended the local Baptist, but he was not baptised. It wasn’t until 1981 when, in his mid 40s, he returned with his fourth wife Kim to his hometown to be baptised by his brother Lindell, who was a Baptist minister. He said,
“It was freezing cold, four days before Christmas, but I wanted to be baptised like the Christians of old – fully immersed. I stripped down to my blue jeans and waded into Saline Creek, my childhood swimming hole. Once, when I was two, I fell into a slough and nearly drowned. It was Lindell who resuscitated me on the muddy red bank…
“When the baptism was over, Kim and I sat in Lindell’s truck, shivering under a mound of blankets as I sang ‘Oh Happy Day’. I couldn’t help thinking back to when Lindell had saved my life as a little boy. Now, so many years later, I was hoping to be saved again.”
Glen recorded 60 studio albums and seven live albums. Although many country artists write about Christian themes, Glen Campbell wrote about all kinds of subjects and life themes. He did record one explicitly Christian album, an album of his favourite hymns. He particularly liked singing hymns when he attended the Baptist church near his later home in Phoenix. He said,
“I love singing gospel music and hymns. Being a Christian I love to tell people about Christ and what he’s done for me and can do for them. [My church] has an orchestra with strings and a 300-piece choir. It really satisfies my desire to sing with a big choir… it’s a great thrill getting to do that about once a month.”
IIlness and Death
In 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 75. In 2014, film producer James Keach made an award-winning documentary, about his farewell tour of the same year, and how Alzheimer’s affects musical performance. Glen died three years later in 2017 at the age of 81. In 2020, Kim, his wife of 34 years, published a memoir of their life together entitled ‘Gentle on My Mind: In Sickness and in Health with Glen Campbell.’
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo: Public Domain
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