Country legend Glen Campbell will be widely remembered by music fans for such well-known radio hits as “Rhinestone Cowboy.” But to advocates for people with dementia, his greatest legacy is his bold decision to become the very public face of Alzheimer’s disease.
Campbell died Tuesday at the age of 81, after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s, his publicist Sandy Brokaw announced.
The announcement prompted a spate of tributes from mental health advocates who hailed Campbell, his wife Kimberly, and family for bravely revealing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis before embarking on a final “Goodbye Tour” that was documented in the award-winning documentary “I’ll Be Me.”
The film is an unflinching portrayal of the progression of Campbell’s disease on the tour, which had to be cut short.
Since then, Campbell and his family have continued to advocate on behalf of the cause, sharing his story on Capitol Hill and speaking out on behalf of the 5.5 million Americans diagnosed with the memory-robbing disorder.
“Glen was a courageous advocate on behalf of Alzheimer’s, not only bravely sharing his diagnosis with the world, but continuing to bring joy to his fans through his music while facing the disease so publicly,” said Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Tuesday.
“Glen and his family helped to bring Alzheimer’s out of the shadows and into the spotlight with openness and honesty that has rallied people to take action on behalf of the cause. In this spirit, we will continue to work aggressively to pursue greater awareness, provide support to families, and accelerate research to slow, stop and ultimately cure Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only cause among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. Without new treatments, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is projected to nearly triple by 2050, as the baby boom generation grows into old age.
Since Campbell’s disclosure that he was struggling with dementia in 2011, he has become the most visible face of Alzheimer’s since Ronald Reagan.
The country music legend’s last hit song and video, 2014’s “I'm Not Gonna Miss You,” is a heartrending musical reflection on his battle with dementia — one that hit home with relatives and advocates of Alzheimer’s sufferers across the country.
The song, which went viral shortly after its release, was just one in a series of courageous efforts by the Campbell family to publicize the singer-guitarist’s challenges.
Few people outside of Campbell's wife and three children felt the pain of his declining mental health as deeply as Jimmy Webb, the legendary songwriter who wrote the rhinestone's cowboy biggest hits, including "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I get to Phoenix."
In a Newsmax interview shortly after the release of “I’m Not Going to Miss You,” Webb called the Campbells’ decision to go public with his story “difficult and brave,” adding: "Believe me, if there were a way for me to change this lyric, I would. Glen is one of my dearest friends."
Webb said the early indications of Campbell's advancing dementia were subtle. For instance, he’d forget the words to some of his favorite songs while the two were performing together, Webb recalled. But only those who knew him well would notice the memory lapses.
"It just started out with him like maybe forgetting a couple of lines in a song and I'd kind of look at him and I'd think, you know, time to cut back on the red wine or something like that," Webb told Newsmax.
But it eventually became clear those little episodes were more than just minor bouts of forgetfulness.
Webb and his wife, Laura Savini, remained in close contact with the Campbell family through the various phases of the disease.
"There's certain stages of the disease where — I don't know how to put this, but — it's almost like cute. There's an endearing quality to it, almost like having a child, having a very precocious child," Webb said. "But then it goes from there very quickly to a place where it's no longer that, it's something else. And it really requires constant attention."
Webb called Campbell "a true musical genius" who inspired him from the time he first heard the singer’s voice on the radio as a teen growing up on a farm in Elk City, Okla.
Webb called "Wichita Lineman," which won a Grammy in 1968, "a perfect record." With Campbell's advancing dementia, the song took on a poignant new meaning — particularly in the fading walk-off line: "He's still on the line."
Webb noted that he last collaborated with Campbell on a duet of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — another Grammy winner — for the songwriter's 2010 duets album, "Just Across the River." It marked both the first and last time that the two sang the track together.
Although Webb's songs have been performed by many artists over the years — including Frank Sinatra ("Didn't We"), Art Garfunkel ("All I Know”), Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings ("The Highwayman"), the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"), Joe Cocker ("The Moon's a Harsh Mistress"), Donna Summer, Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park"), and Brad Paisley ("Galveston") — Campbell has been the most public voice for his music.
"We were counting up the other day that he's recorded about 70 or 80 different songs of mine," Webb said. "So basically, he would record everything that I wrote and out of those songs came some hits. But certainly not all of them were hits and some of them are just absolutely gorgeous and nobody ever heard them.
Campell’s last hit release, “I'm Not Gonna Miss You,” recorded in 2013, may be the song that most cements his legacy.
"I'm still here but yet I'm gone, I don't play guitar or sing my songs," Campbell begins, then pays tribute to his wife, Kim, singing, "You're the last person I will love, you're the last face I will recall."
In the accompanying video, Campbell's moving lyrics are punctuated by personal videos and clips of performances marking his five-decade musical career.
Among the film’s most striking images: Footage of a doctor showing Campbell X-rays of his brain and explaining how the disease will steal his memory.
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