An accomplished guitarist, Glen Campbell was a highly sought-after session player who performed on recordings by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and Merle Haggard before becoming a successful solo artist known for his uncanny ability to pick great songs.
Below are the stories behind five of Glen’s most popular songs: “Gentle On My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.”
“Gentle On My Mind”
In the late 1960s, few artists carried a plate as full of activity as Glen. He had set his sights on a solo career, but was coming up empty in the search for a breakout hit song. Finally, on his way to a recording session, Glen found the song that would help launch him to solo stardom.
“I was listening to a Los Angeles country music station,” Glen recalled, “and heard a low voice singing a song called ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ and it really stuck. The song had such a freshness of spirit, I thought.”
Glen recorded “Gentle on My Mind” on May 17, 1967, at the Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood, Calif., and he recalled that the song truly changed his life and career path. “Gentle on My Mind” hit big on both the country and pop charts, copped three Grammy awards, including Best Country & Western Song, and helped establish Glen as a true crossover artist.
“I listen for chord progression, melody, a good lyric that says something—and something positive,” noted Glen. “I think Jimmy Webb writes probably the best melodies and chord progressions of anybody that I’ve ever heard, including the greats. He’s my very favorite writer of all time.”
Jimmy delivered to Glen such hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “I Wanna Live.” But the Webb‑penned “Wichita Lineman” positively electrified listeners around the country, reaching No. 1 on the country chart and No. 3 on the pop chart.
“‘Wichita Lineman’ is the song that brought me stardom,” says Glen. “It’s my favorite ballad. I cried when he played it. The song’s loneliness grabs you. Jimmy was driving through the nothingness of Oklahoma and Kansas. He saw this lineman on a pole in the middle of nowhere. Those lyrics. I need you more than want you and I want you for all time. Boy, that lineman was really in love with somebody.”
And, fans proved they were really in love with the song. On Jan. 22, 1969, “Wichita Lineman” was officially certified as Glen’s first gold single. He would follow up with three more gold singles: “Galveston,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.”
Glen and songwriter Jimmy Webb enjoyed one of the great partnerships in musical history. But as Glen noted in his book, Rhinestone Cowboy: An Autobiography, he has often made slight alterations to Jimmy’s work, not in the actual lyrics but in the melodies and arrangements. “I changed ‘Phoenix’ somewhat, amending the chord progression at the end,” Glen recalled. “Jimmy has always teased me that it’s my obsession to tamper with his work.”
Glen, a superb musician as well as vocalist, put his ear to work again on another Jimmy Webb penned tune, “Galveston.” Glen heard the original version of “Galveston” and felt that the tempo was too slow. He decided to record the song at a much faster tempo. Jimmy recalled to Country Weekly magazine in 2010 that “Galveston” was more of a lament and was “meant to be a sad song. It’s about this guy who’s involved in a war and doesn’t want to be there and it is [also] about this woman back at home who’s waiting for him. But Glen changed the tempo and it became a huge record. He was a gifted arranger,” Jimmy added. “Galveston” debuted on the charts March 15, 1969, and went on to become the third No. 1 single of Glen’s career.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” became a No. 1 hit for Glen on Aug. 23, 1975, but he recalled hearing the tune on the radio a year earlier.
“It was sung by [the song’s writer] Larry Weiss, and I bought a cassette copy,” Glen noted. Glen wanted to cut the song and told a label executive, “I’ve got to do this song I found. I won’t take no for an answer.” His demand led to an incredible coincidence. The executive agreed to listen to the song if Glen would listen to something he had found for him. The tune in question was “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Glen said, “That was a sign that the song had to be right for me.” Glen especially loved the line in the first verse, There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon.
“I thought it was my autobiography set to song,” he said. “Rhinestone Cowboy” became a popular crossover hit for Glen, as it also reached No. 1 on the pop charts. On top of that, Glen’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” album topped the country charts in September of 1975.
Glen Campbell scored his fifth career No. 1 country single when the bouncy “Southern Nights” captured the top spot on March 19, 1977. The song was written by New Orleans-based R&B great Allen Toussaint, who used childhood memories of his Louisiana relatives as the backdrop.
Glen, who grew up in rural Arkansas, identified with “Southern Nights” and recorded it in October of 1976, with slightly altered lyrics. The tune became the title track to his 1977 album, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It was also recently included in the movie soundtrack for The Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.