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Glen Campbell: A Rhinestone Cowboy Who Shines On

The legendary musician, who died Tuesday at age 81 after a public battle with Alzheimer’s disease, spanned genres and generations.

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    Country music legend Glen Campbell died Tuesday following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The musician was 81. During his recording career, Campbell released more than 70 albums and sold more than 45 million records, including the popular hits “Gentle on My Mind” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

    (Published Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017)

    Glen Campbell, during a half-century-plus career, defied easy categorization as his impeccably smooth voice plied the varied waters of country, rock, folk and even the thump of New Orleans-infused pop.

    But Campbell's final performances and recordings as Alzheimer's disease slowly ravaged his mind made as clear as the sweet notes he sounded that his identity was firmly rooted in producing great music, no matter what the type.  

    By the time he got to the end of his life, Tuesday at the age of 81, Glen Campbell had wrought a legacy as an inspirational musical force whose work spanned genres and generations.

    His bittersweet final years belied his launch as grinning country boy charmer who seemed to effortlessly entertain crossover audiences during the turbulent late 1960s. Far from an overnight success, the Arkansas native laid the seeds for his blossoming as a versatile superstar during stints on guitar for top acts ranging from Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys, with whom he toured at the peak of their popularity.

    Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

    Campbell reached remarkable heights of fame on his own, beginning with "Gentle on My Mind," the proto-Eagles tune initially issued in June 1967, the same month the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band."

    The song, like Campbell's subsequent renderings of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," sailed up the charts on the strength of his signature delivery – catchy, confident and, above all, heartfelt.

    Campbell turned up the energy for his 1970s hits “Rhinestone Cowboy” and New Orleans music master Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” – songs that were hard to label and even harder to stop humming.

    Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for alice McCall

    His affable charm made Campbell a natural for TV, as evidenced by his late 1960s variety show and decades of guest appearances that displayed his gentle humor. Glimmers of that iconic personality came through in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” which detailed the ailing and aging musician’s struggle to forge on during his farewell tour

    Singing, though, seemed to transport Campbell and his audience back to his storied past. Just listen to his recently released final album, "Adios" – especially his version of "Everybody's Talkin’," which could have been ripped straight from Campbell’s late 1960s hey-day.

    For all he endured near the end, Glen Campbell never shed the timelessness of his voice, which is destined to resound as the calling card of a rhinestone cowboy who shined in music and beyond.

    Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.