Glen Campbell, whose 21 Top 40 hits were a major force in the convergence of country and pop, has died at the age of 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,” the singer’s family said in a statement.
Releasing his first single in 1958, Campbell became a member of what was later known as the Wrecking Crew, the legendary, loose-knit group of Los Angeles session musicians that included Leon Russell, Carol Kaye, and Hal Blaine. According to a 2011 Rolling Stone profile, he played on 586 songs in 1963 alone, and went on to appear, sometimes uncredited, on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” In all, he sold 45 million records and topped the country singles chart 12 times. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Campbell had many of his biggest hits, including “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston,” with songs written by Jimmy Webb.* Their collaboration grew so intuitive that Campbell could merely call Webb up and ask him for “a song about a town,” and out came “Wichita Lineman,” a plaintive, lonely ballad whose emotions rise above its syrupy, sentimental string arrangement. “At first, you go, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone about Campbell’s predilection for sanded-smooth sounds. “But it was such pure, good stuff that you had to put off your prejudices and learn to love it. It taught me not to have those prejudices.” Musicians from Isaac Hayes to R.E.M. paid tribute to Campbell and Webb by covering their songs, proving their appeal across genres and generations.
Campbell’s last #1 hit was 1975’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and his last appearance in Billboard’s Hot 100 came just two years later, but he remained a force on country radio into the 1990s, and in 2015, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” cracked the Top 20 in country digital sales. That song was taken from the soundtrack to I’ll Be Me, a documentary which chronicled the farewell tour Campbell undertook after announcing he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His last album of original songs was 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, but he released another in June called Adiós, featuring performances of some of his favorite songs by other songwiters: Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It also included four songs by Jimmy Webb.
Campbell was joined on Adiós by three of his family members, including his daughter Ashley, a recording artist in her own right, “Almost every time he sat down with a guitar, these were his go-to songs,” she told Rolling Stone. “They were very much engrained in his memory—like, so far back that they were one of the last things he started losing.”
Campbell is survived by his wife Kimberley and eight children.
*Correction, Aug. 9, 2017: This article originally included “Gentle on My Mind” in a list of songs written by Jimmy Webb. It was written by John Hartford.