The genius who came from dirt poverty to capture all our hearts: RAY CONNOLLY pays tribute to the Rhinestone Cowboy Glen Campbell

Legendary singer Glenn Campbell pictured with Elvis and Priscilla Presley in 1970

Legendary singer Glenn Campbell pictured with Elvis and Priscilla Presley in 1970

Glen Campbell was a brave man. You have to be brave to set off on a tour of the U.S. aware that you have Alzheimer's disease and may not always know where you are, who is on stage, or the order of songs you are going to sing.

But that is what Glen Campbell did in 2011 at the age of 75. He knew what his illness was, but he knew, too, that going on tour would draw attention to the disease, which could only help others similarly afflicted.

Some might think it was cruel to allow him to go through such an experience. But anyone who saw the documentary of that tour, I'll Be Me, should surely have had any misgivings dispelled.

Because, although some of the singer's moments at home were upsetting to watch, what you saw when Campbell came onstage was him shrugging off the sickness to become a consummate, happy entertainer again.

It didn't matter if he sometimes unknowingly sang Gentle On My Mind twice. He was saying: 'I know I have a degenerative disease. But I'm still me. And I can still play and sing and entertain you.'

And couldn't he just. On Tuesday, when news of his death in a Nashville care home, aged 81, was announced, how many of us found ourselves sadly humming Rhinestone Cowboy as we glanced back at moments of our lives that had passed away, too?

That's what music does for us, and Glen Campbell, with his corn-fed looks, and lilting voice, was the perfect interpreter of the ordinary life put to music. Perhaps that was why one of his hits was Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife. His fans were everyday people who bought more than 45 million records over the singer's six-decade career — he had 12 gold albums and 75 chart hits.

He sang of a working man stretching cables across the sky in Wichita Lineman, and a man's broken-hearted journey from city to city as he leaves the women he loves in By The Time I Get To Phoenix. The pictures he painted may have been of the American West, but emotions are the same the world over, and Glen Campbell could convey feelings like few others.

He made it sound easy, but he wasn't just a personable guy with a good voice. In fact his voice wasn't even his first passport to success. It was his musicianship. He was a brilliant guitarist.

Born the seventh child of 12 to a poor Arkansas sharecropper (a tenant who farms in return for a share of the crops) in rural America, he spent his childhood helping his father in the fields before buying a Gene Autry cowboy guitar from a catalogue for $7.

As popular as some rock ’n’ roll bands might have been, they often didn’t play on their own records. Musicians such as Glen Campbell were there to do that

As popular as some rock 'n' roll bands might have been, they often didn't play on their own records. Musicians such as Glen Campbell were there to do that

The only radio station where he lived mainly played country music, so every time he heard a new song he taught himself to play it. By the time he was 15 he was playing professionally on a radio station in Albuquerque.

He knew he was good and, after having his own local band, in 1959, aged 23, he set off for Los Angeles where he found work as a guitarist with a group of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew.

As popular as some rock 'n' roll bands might have been, they often didn't play on their own records. Musicians such as Glen Campbell were there to do that.

None of us knew it, but the first time we probably heard him was when he played on Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas. He then appeared on many Phil Spector hits, including The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.

Then there was The Byrds' Mr Tambourine Man and Frank Sinatra's Strangers In The Night. Unnerved to be in the presence of the great Sinatra, he couldn't stop staring at him. He would laugh when he recounted the incident. 'Frank asked the producer: 'Who's the fag guitarist over there?' I told him I'd slap him if he said that again.'

What Sinatra probably didn't know was that there was no point in Campbell staring at the music sheet. He couldn't read music. He played entirely by ear.

While always hoping to find fame for himself, he stood in for Brian Wilson on guitar, singing falsetto on tour with The Beach Boys, too, when Wilson was unwell. He was even on their Pet Sounds album in 1966.

A year later, his big break as a singer came when he recorded Gentle On My Mind. It breathed itinerant American life and has since become a classic.

But it was his relationship with songwriter Jimmy Webb later that year that was to cement his singing style when he recorded By The Time I Get To Phoenix, to be followed by Wichita Lineman.

Webb hadn't finished writing the lyrics to that when it was recorded, so Campbell improvised the last verse. What impressed Webb even more was the singer's octave leap at the end of every verse when Campbell sings 'still on the . . . line!'.

'He made me sound good,' Webb said recently. 'He hit notes that, honestly, he shouldn't have been able to hit. A lot of other singers would have said: 'Hey, listen. Take this home and work on it. Because I can't sing it.'

But Glen Campbell could. He could act, too, a bit, and being good-looking was soon appearing alongside John Wayne in True Grit, singing the title song.

By now he had a TV show, The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, aptly named for his seemingly happy disposition. He was enjoying the folksie charm of playing the cowboy with crocodile-skin boots and hat in real life, too.

Then came Rhinestone Cowboy. Already turned down by some of the biggest singers, Campbell made it an anthem for Middle America, with the lyrics catching the mood of the trials and tribulations of the ordinary man.

But Campbell was not very ordinary any more. Things were going wrong in his personal life. Having married for the first time when he was 17, when fame arrived he began to follow the well-trodden path of many singers, taking cocaine and drinking heavily.

He hadn't had those problems when he'd been doing sessions, he would say later. Only with fame did he lose his footing.

Another disastrous marriage followed and by 1976 he was married for a third time.

'For the next three or four years, I was self-destructing,' he would say. 'I was looking for a way out of my unhappiness.'

That marriage was over by 1980 and Campbell became involved with country singer Tanya Tucker. The relationship got violent at times, with rows which made it to the gossip columns. One fight at a New York hotel left him with a $1,200 bill for room damages.

Drugs and drink would continue to blight his personal life — he said he started taking cocaine because 'pot just made me go to sleep' — before in 1981 he met Kimberly 'Kim' Woolen on a blind date, marrying her a year later.

Kim later described her husband as a 'monster' when he was taking drugs and encouraged him to get involved in the church to tackle his addictions. It worked.

He said he woke up one day in a Las Vegas hotel room 'and I didn't know who I was. It was strange. Nobody else was there, but somebody was talking; it was if God had sent an angel to rescue me. I didn't want whisky, drugs, anything. That was the end of it'.

There was one slip in 2003, when he was convicted of drink driving. He told the police he was 'Glen Campbell, the Rhinestone Cowboy', and insisted 'he had never been drunk a day in his life, only overserved'.

He was sentenced to ten days in jail. 'But I made it a good thing,' he said. 'I went down and took my guitar, my drummer and bass player and played for the other inmates of this holding pen they had. I think I got two days off for good measure. And I haven't had a drink since. Thank you, Lord'.

Born a Baptist, he and Kim were now born-again Christians and they would have three children, who were part of his backing band until he was too ill to perform.

Then in 2011 he announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis. His response was to go on one last tour while he was still able, and in 2012 to make his final goodbye to his fans at the Grammy Awards.

For a man with three ex-wives and eight children it was sad, but not surprising, that not everyone was happy when he was moved to a care home in 2014.

But there was never going to be a happy ending to this story of a man who brought so much pleasure to so many millions; a man who, towards the end, was brave enough to face up to his disease in the most public way.

Ray Connolly's biography Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is now available in paperback from Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 


Ray Connolly pays tribute to Glen Campbell

The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.