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Glen Campbell: Voice silenced, but still pleasing

Had he remained a backup performer for some of the biggest acts in show business, Glen Campbell would have enjoyed steady work all these years.

His death Tuesday at age 81 came after a recording career during which the native Arkansan sold an estimated 45 million records and had several crossover hits on the pop and country charts.

Both of his No. 1 singles on Billboard's Hot 100, "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights," came when disco dominated the air waves and record sales. The former ruled the charts for two weeks in September 1975, between "Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band and "Fame" by David Bowie. Music critic Steven Thomas Erlewine said "Rhinestone Cowboy" is about a veteran artist "who's aware that he's more than paid his dues during his career ... but is still surviving." Johnny Carson famously parodied the tune, which went No. 1 in four nations, on a "Tonight Show" program.

"Southern Nights" held Billboard's pole position on the last week of April 1977, following Thelma Houston's disco smash "Don't Leave Me This Way" and preceding The Eagles' masterwork "Hotel California."

"Rhinestone Cowboy," written by Larry Weiss, and "Southern Nights," by Allen Toussaint, were examples of Campbell's desire to exploit a golden age of American songwriting. Jim Webb composed three of his best-known singles -- "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" -- after a John Hartford composition, "Gentle On My Mind," released in 1967, propelled Campbell to superstardom.

Campbell represented a musical change of pace from other acts of the time. One could never pigeonhole a Campbell recording as rock, country or middle of the road. "Gentle on My Mind" was as different from "Light My Fire," released the same year, as the music of Clint Black and Barry White.

Campbell bridged the gap musically for many alienated by the so-called "hippie movement," embodied by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This was when Dean Martin, once a straight man for Jerry Lewis, stepped completely out of his former partner's shadow with a high-ranking variety show that NBC aired on Thursday nights for years. Frank Sinatra had a No. 1 single with "Strangers in the Night," on which Campbell played a backing guitar, and then another, "Somethin' Stupid," with daughter Nancy.

The seventh son of 12 children to John Wesley and Carrie Dell Campbell, Glen exploded on musical tastes in 1967, the "Summer of Love," in which young people not going to Vietnam were off to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. Pike County youths like myself formed the same attachment with Campbell that residents of Tupelo, Miss., and later Memphis shared with Elvis Presley. One of Glen's gigs while a session guitarist to the stars was on Elvis' 1964 movie "Viva Las Vegas," a piece of cinematic fluff during a decade that the King of Rock 'n' Roll largely abandoned the recording studio and concert hall.

While trying to get a solo career going, Campbell played bass guitar and sang falsetto harmonies as a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson, and later played guitar on the group's iconic 1966 album "Pet Sounds." Collaborating with producer Al De Lory, Campbell had a top-20 country hit ("Burning Bridges") in early 1967 and then had four monster crossover singles in a row, including "I Wanna Live."

With four Grammy Awards for performances on "Gentle on My Mind" and "Wichita Lineman," Campbell was ready to explore television, which even Sinatra couldn't conquer, and hosted a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers before helming his own show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," from January 1969 through June 1972.

His movie performances in "True Grit" (1969), opposite John Wayne, and "Norwood" (1970), with Kim Darby and Joe Namath, are best forgotten. Likewise, many of his fans glossed over Campbell's rocky personal life and battles with substance abuse. His highly publicized relationship with country artist Tanya Tucker, 22 years his junior, enhanced the careers of neither. Campbell was married to a former Radio City Music Hall "Rockette," whom he met on a blind date, for the last 25 years of his life.

Like former President Ronald Reagan before his death in 2004, Campbell became the face of Alzheimer's disease in later life. In that sense, he has been gone from us for some time. But the music remains. And, whether one is on the road from Phoenix to Albuquerque, or swinging on a porch on a Southern night, Glen Campbell's voice remains pleasing to the ear.

Editorial on 08/10/2017

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