Glen Campbell, The Wrecking Crew and Alzheimer’s

Glen Campbell can no longer play guitar and has lost the ability to verbally communicate. He is in Stage 7 of Alzheimer’s disease. For today’s generation, Campbell’s plight might not mean much. But to Baby Boomers, his is our collective decline. Although the seventh of twelve children born to a sharecropper in tiny Billstown, Arkansas, Glen Campbell has connections to Central Indiana.
Glen Travis Campbell was born on April 22, 1936. He started playing guitar at the age of four. While still a teenager, Campbell moved to Albuquerque to join his uncle Boo’s band. By the age of 22, Campbell had formed his own band. In 1960, Campbell moved to Los Angeles to become a session musician. By early 1961, Campbell’s skills were in high demand and he soon became an integral part of a legendary group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Campbell played guitar on recordings by Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Sonny & Cher, the Mamas & the Papas, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Jan and Dean, Elvis Presley, The Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, and Phil Spector.
Look at that list again. Betcha didn’t know Glen Campbell backed The King and was part of Phil Spector’s de facto house band known as The Wall of Sound. Keep reading and you’ll discover that Campbell’s guitar prowess doesn’t stop there. The Wrecking Crew were also sometimes called the Clique or the First Call Gang. They were a loose-knit circle of Los Angeles’ top studio session musicians whose services were constantly in demand by the biggest names in the business. While the musician’s roll of The Wrecking Crew changed often, the result of their work never did.
Often appearing anonymously with no credit in the liner notes, The Wrecking Crew backed dozens of popular acts on numerous top-selling hits of the era. If you needed a hit in the 60s and 70s, you called The Wrecking Crew. When you hear pop classics like “Be My Baby,” “California Girls,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “California Dreamin’,” “I Got You Babe,” “Surf City,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “”Rainy Days and Mondays,“ or “These Boots are Made for Walking,” you’re listening to The Wrecking Crew. They were sometimes used as “ghost players” on recordings credited to rock groups such as the Byrds, the Monkees, and the Beach Boys. At one point in the 60s, the Grammy Award for Record of The Year was awarded to a song performed by The Wrecking Crew seven years in a row. They are considered the most successful session recording unit in music history.
At the height of their careers, it wasn’t uncommon for The Wrecking Crew to work 15-hour days, recording hit records in the morning, radio ads through lunch, television spots in the afternoon, and performing backup for various touring acts before bedtime. Before the decade was out, they had clocked well over 10,000 hours of studio time and worked on hundreds of hit singles, including 40 chart-toppers, nearly doubling the Beatles.
Besides Campbell, the Wrecking Crew’s ranks included keyboardist Leon Russell and drummer Hal Blaine, who is reputed to have played on over 140 top ten hits including 40 number ones. Other musicians that constituted the unit’s ranks were drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Steve Douglas, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, guitarist and bassist Carol Kaye, as well as keyboardist Larry Knechtel (later a member of Bread).
During 1964-65, Glen Campbell became a touring member of The Beach Boys. When Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack during a flight from L.A. to Houston on December 23, 1964, he stopped performing live to concentrate solely on songwriting and studio production. Glen Campbell was called in as his temporary stand-in for live performances, before Bruce Johnston replaced him. On tour, Glen played bass guitar and sang falsetto harmonies. As thanks, Wilson produced Campbell’s 1965 single “Guess I’m Dumb.” Campbell also played guitar on the band’s Pet Sounds 1966 album, widely considered to be one of the most influential albums in music history. In April 1966, he joined Ricky Nelson on a tour through the Far East, again playing bass.
A year later, he recorded the song “Gentle on My Mind,” which earned the Grammy for Best Country and Western Recording. Campbell’s next single, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” also earned a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance. As Campbell racked up the accolades, the Country Music Association honored him as the Entertainer of the Year and, in 1968, Campbell released his biggest hits to date: “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” Campbell made history in 1967 by winning four Grammys total in the country and pop categories
In 1968, Campbell made a guest appearance on “The Joey Bishop Show.” The Smothers Brothers saw the performance and offered Campbell the opportunity to co-host “The Summer Smothers Brothers Show.” Campbell’s ease, humor and musical skill charmed audiences and impressed CBS executives, who offered Campbell his own prime time variety show.
Debuting in 1969, “The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour” was a combination of musical acts, comedy segments, and glamorous guest stars. The show, which was produced by The Smothers Brothers, became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and the U.K., making Campbell an international star. Although the variety series was canceled in 1972, the success of his No. 1 singles, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) and “Southern Nights” (1977), further cemented Campbell’s status as a crossover success. Along with his television success, Campbell starred on the big screen. He began his movie career opposite John Wayne in 1969’s True Grit. The Duke himself picked Campbell to play alongside him in the film, after his first choice, Elvis Presley, demanded top-billing over John Wayne. Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his debut performance.
During his 50 years in show business, Glen Campbell has recorded and released more then 70 albums. He has sold 45 million records and accumulated 12 Gold albums, four Platinum albums and one Double-platinum album. He also sang on four motion picture soundtracks. He has placed a total of 82 singles on the Billboard charts, 29 made the top 10 and nine hit number one. He has released 15 video albums and has been featured in 21 music videos.
And what about Glen Campbell’s connection to Indianapolis? They begin with Campbell’s August 30, 1969 appearance at the State Fair Coliseum. He returned five years later for a September 15, 1974 concert before an audience of 11,637 at Market Square Arena. It was the first ever concert held at the new venue. 37 years later Campbell was one of the first musical acts at the new Carmel Palladium. On June 4, 2011, Glen Campbell took the stage to perform a medley of his greatest hits. The audience was shocked when Campbell came across as unprepared and disoriented. Despite the assistance of three teleprompters, Campbell forgot lyrics to songs he had been singing for 40 years. He clanged countless off-key guitar notes that he could have played in his sleep back in The Wrecking Crew days. He struggled to communicate with T.J. Keunster, his music director and keyboardist since 1977 and he disconnected with the crowd of devoted fans who would have once been satisfied to hear him simply read the phone book.
It was in this atmosphere of negative publicity, fueled by rumblings of drunkenness and drug abuse, that Campbell’s wife Kim confirmed that her husband had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. According to his family, symptoms of the disease had been occurring for years, becoming more and more evident as the years progressed. As a result of this disclosure, Campbell embarked on a final “Goodbye Tour” with three of his children joining him in his backup band. This tour included a brave return to Indianapolis on June 11, 2012 when the 76-year-old Campbell played the Murat a year after he went public with his Alzheimer’s battle.
His final show was on November 30, 2012, in Napa, California. In April 2014, news reports indicated that Campbell became a patient at an Alzheimer’s long-term care and treatment facility. On March 8, 2016, Rolling Stone reported that Campbell was living in a Nashville memory care facility and that he was in the “final stages” of his disease. He was unable to communicate with people and could not understand what people said to him. However, although his family reported the Rhinestone Cowboy’s demeanor as “happy” and “cheerful,” he could no longer play the guitar.
The Alzheimer’s Association Greater Indiana Chapter offers free education for families affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Topics range from the basics of Alzheimer’s and how to identify the 10 warning signs to legal and financial planning and how to communicate throughout the various stages of the disease. The Association will host free seminars throughout central Indiana in the month of April and going forward. There will be a meeting at the Irvington Presbyterian Church at 55 Johnson Ave. on the third Tuesday of the month (April 18) at 1 p.m. Registration is requested to attend programs by contacting the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900. For a full listing of education programs, meeting dates and locations of support groups in the area, visit or call 800.272.3900.
The Association also hosts support groups across the state for unpaid care partners, family members and friends of individuals living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Support groups are free and designed to provide emotional, educational and social support for caregivers. Attendees will develop coping methods, encourage self-care, learn about community resources and optimize care techniques. While sharing personal experiences is encouraged, it is not required. There are no fees to attend programs or support groups.
The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Today, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, including 110,000 Hoosiers. Their mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health. If you or a loved one are experiencing the early signs of dementia, please contact them immediately. If not for yourself, do it for Glen Campbell.

Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis”  and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” and “Irvington Haunts. The Tour Guide.” Contact Al directly at or become a friend on Facebook.