In the last years of his life, late country singer Glenn Campbell had a very public battle with Alzheimer's disease. One year after his diagnosis, he went on his last tour around the U.S and sang for sold-out venues before the condition took over his life.
For over five decades, Glenn Campbell was an icon of country music and one of the best guitar players in the industry. Sadly, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.
In a courageous move, he decided to come clean to the press and his fans about it, to advocate for a cure and help to erase the stigma around the degenerative disease. Here’s his story.
Glen Campbell poses during a photo call at the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney on January 30, 2008 | Photo: Getty Images
The seventh of twelve kids from a family of sharecroppers, Campbell started playing guitar at age four, and although he never took music classes, his talent was innate.
He started playing on local radio stations and festivals as time went by, and then joined his uncle’s band at 17 before moving his own group, the Western Wranglers.
Photo of singer-musician Glen Campbell 1967 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a session musician, playing guitar, writing songs, and recording demos for other artists. There, he was part of a group of studio musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew, who were considered the best at the job at the time.
Campbell played guitar in records for Ricky Nelson, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Nat King Cole, and Elvis Presley. He did some solo releases in the following years, but in 1968, his fame skyrocketed.
Glen Campbell performing on the BBC's 'Young Generation' TV show, UK, circa 1970 | Photo: GettyImages
After hosting a 1968 summer replacement for the variety show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” CBS offered him his own show; thus, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” was born.
The show ran from 1969 to 1972, and Campbell hosted some of the biggest names in music, including the Beatles, the Monkees, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson.
Glen Campbell, circa 1975 | Photo: Getty Images
In the mid-’70s, Campbell released what he considered his best song, "Rhinestone Cowboy," which reached number 1 on the charts and sold over two million copies, settling his place in the country music industry for the next decades.
Campbell recorded and released 60 studio albums and six live albums between 1962 and 2017, sold over $50 million records, and won 10 Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
ALZHEIMER'S KICKS IN
In 2009, Campbell’s wife, Kimberly "Kim" Woollen, started to notice the singer was having issues with short-term memories and other cognitive impairments. However, two years later, the “Wichita Lineman” singer was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Glenn Campbell and wife Kim Campbell at the 39th CMA Awards on November 14, 2005 | Photo: Getty Images
“Once I knew that he had Alzheimer’s, everything started making sense," Kim told the Tennessean. “And that fills you with compassion when you can understand it. From the time that I understood, I was there for him every single second.”
At the time, Campbell planned to release the album “Ghost on the Canvas,” so instead of pressing pause to his professional life because of the disease, Glen and Kim decided to share the news with the world.
Glen Campbell and Kim Woollen in an interview with CMT on September 19, 2011 | Photo: GettyImages
“Glen is still an awesome guitar player and singer,” Kim told People at the time. “But if he flubs a lyric or gets confused on stage, I wouldn't want people to think, ‘What’s the matter with him? Is he drunk?’”
While Glen added: “I still love making music. And I still love performing for my fans. I’d like to thank them for sticking with me through thick and thin.”
HOW MUSIC AFFECTS ALZHEIMERS PATIENTS
Despite his sickness, it seemed that Campbell's guitar-playing skills were embedded in his brain, and even Alzheimer's could not remove it. He forgot many things, but when he was given a cue to play, he did so perfectly.
According to the star's doctor, Ronald Petersen, Campbell's case proves that those attacked by the disease should focus on what they can do instead of what they cannot. The medical professional also revealed how music affects patients:
"Music stored in the brain from a bygone era can actually stimulate some memories and some motor functions."
FAREWELL TOUR, DOCUMENTARY, AND THE HEARTBREAKING SONG
Soon after, they announced Campbell’s farewell tour, which took him across the U.S with over 150 tour dates—which he aced with the help of his youngest kids as his band and a reliable teleprompter that reminded him of the lyrics.
While he was touring, a filming crew followed Campbell around to create the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me,” which included the final song he recorded, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You.”
According to the singer's wife, memory is not the only thing that patients lose, but also their ability to be rational thinkers.
The sad tune touches on the consequences of Alzheimer’s with lyrics like: “I'm still here, but yet I'm gone,” and “You're the last person I will love / You're the last face I will recall / And best of all, I'm not gonna miss you.”
Glen Campbell at the CMT Flameworthy Video Music Awards December 2002 | Photo: GettyImages
The song was nominated for “Best Original Song” at the 87th Academy Awards and won Grammy Award for “Best Country Song” that same year.
THE FINAL YEARS
As the disease progressed, Campbell became combative, and it was hard for his family, especially his wife Kim, to be their caregivers. So, in March 2014, Kim enrolled Campbell in a long-term care facility near their home in Nashville. "You can't do it all by yourself," Kim said. "So, don't be a martyr."
In 2015, People visited the singer at the facility. He no longer recognized his family and couldn’t sing or play guitar. But for his wife, he was still the same man she fell in love with.
Glen Campbell and wife Kim during his Goodbye Tour performance at Route 66 Casino's Legends Theater on July 29, 2012 | Photo: Getty Images
One of his daughters, Debbie, said every time she visited he would reach out, hug her and say “Oh, my baby girl.” “It’ll go away, and it’ll come back, [but] if I hear it five to six times when I’m there, I’m good because it means he came to me at that moment,” she added.
His family was proud of Glen for helping raise awareness about Alzheimer’s through the intimate documentary that captured his early battle with it.
“I’m very grateful that he turned something horrible into something with great meaning,” said his daughter Ashley. “He didn’t let it get him down, and he was always happy to be there,” added his other daughter, Shannon. Campbell passed away on August 8, 2017, at the age of 81.
Glen Campbell at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards on February 12, 2012 | Photo: GettyImages
DEALING WITH GRIEF
Kim grieved for her late husband, even going through depression after his passing. However, she found comfort in knowing that she could help other families who went through the same challenges.
As a woman who took care of an Alzheimer's patient, Kim can relate with all the caregivers who experience difficulty in their work, such as when they fight back when given help.
According to the singer's wife, memory is not the only thing that patients lose, but also their ability to be rational thinkers. Nevertheless, caring for someone you love tops all the hardships.
Several other Hollywood stars have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, including Tony Bennett, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Dorsey, and Gene Wilder, among many others.
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