How the Romantic Epic ‘Doctor Zhivago’ Led to Glen Campbell’s Hit “Gentle on My Mind”

When Glen Campbell heard John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” on the radio, he was working as a session musician as part of the Los Angeles-based The Wrecking Crew. Though Capitol Records signed him as a solo artist, he’d yet to become a household name.

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“Gentle on My Mind” changed Campbell’s extraordinary career, but it all began when a banjo player in Nashville wrote the song after watching the romantic epic Doctor Zhivago.

Free Love

“Gentle on My Mind” is about a drifter who recalls past love during his travels. He moves through railroad yards, highways, fields, and junkyards. Still, the drifter finds and leaves another woman who cries to her mother when she wakes up alone.

John Hartford wrote “Gentle on My Mind” after he and his wife watched Doctor Zhivago; the love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova inspired the song.  

It’s knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

The song’s narrator regrets marriage and finds freedom on the road, though the memories of his wife are fond. Hartford’s wife Betty questioned the drifter’s regret for marriage. Hartford said the woman in the song is based on Lara from Doctor Zhivago and attributes the man “trapped” in a relationship to “artistic license.”

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads by the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

Finding Love During War

Based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel, the 1965 film takes place during World War I and the Russian Revolution and follows physician and poet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), whose life changes during the war. Zhivago, who’s married, works as a battlefield doctor during World War I and falls in love with Lara Antipova (Julie Christie). Antipova had enlisted as a nurse to find her missing husband, Pasha (Tom Courtenay).  

In 1968, Hartford told The Tennessean (then called The Nashville Tennessean), “I wrote it in 20 minutes. I didn’t realize what I had written until I came back later and looked at it. Actually, it’s about free love.” He added, “I think in pictures, like paintings, using words and sound.”

A Hit for Both Artists

Hartford recorded “Gentle on My Mind,” which RCA released as a single in 1967. Campbell heard the song and recorded his version with The Wrecking Crew. The band featured guitarist James Burton, bassist Joe Osborn, drummer Jim Gordon, pianist Leon Russell, and Douglas Dillard on banjo.

After tracking the demo at Capitol Studios, producer Al De Lory cleaned up Campbell’s rough recording and submitted it to Capitol Records for release in June 1967—only a month after Hartford’s version. It became the title track to Campbell’s sixth album, released in August 1967.

Campbell’s single reached No. 30 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and crossed over to a pop audience when it entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 62.

Between both recordings, “Gentle on My Mind” earned four Grammy Awards. It has been recorded many times, notably by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, and The Band Perry, whose version earned a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance in 2015.

The Band Perry’s version appeared on the soundtrack to the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

Made for TV

St. Louis-born Hartford was living in a trailer in Nashville when he wrote “Gentle on My Mind.” The song’s success allowed him to leave his job as a disc jockey and work full-time as a songwriter. Meanwhile, Tom Smothers invited Hartford to join the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS.

“Gentle on My Mind” also became the theme song for Campbell’s CBS variety series The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in 1969, on which Hartford, playing banjo and fiddle, appeared frequently. Campbell’s series eventually replaced the Smothers Brothers’ show and aired until 1972.

Though it wasn’t Campbell’s biggest hit, successive recordings of “Gentle on My Mind” made it the second-most popular song of the decade behind The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Meeting Lara Antipova in Person

As it happened, Hartford once shared a flight with Christie, who played Lara Antipova, and passed a note to the actress telling her about the inspiration for “Gentle on My Mind.” Christie invited him to sit with her. He told Rolling Stone, “After about 15 minutes of talking to her, I was so disillusioned. I kept thinking ‘why did I do this?’”

Glen Campbell was happy he did it. “Gentle on My Mind” became a defining song for the rhinestone cowboy.  

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Photo by Jasper Dailey/ Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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