Glen Campbell's dear friend, the producer and banjo player Carl Jackson, once told me that Glen could not only sing the phone book, but that you'd be queuing to buy it. It wasn't enough that, as a genius guitarist, the Arkansas farm boy had risen to the ranks of session A-listers The Wrecking Crew by the time of his solo breakthrough in 1967. From there, he proceeded to wipe the floor with every other vocalist in town too.
Glen's beautifully rich and supple tenor unfailingly made the hairs on your arm stand to attention, enriching every recording he ever made - a total of 64 studio albums over 55 years. With such a prolific discography, many wonderful treasures can be lost to time, so here we offer a deep dive past the linemen and the cowboys, glorious as they are, to offer a chronological selection of ten lesser-known diamonds from the Campbell jewel box.
This reaches back as far as Glen's second album, his first in his own name, Too Late To Worry – Too Blue To Cry. Although already having started to receive some recognition with his own releases, in these early stages of his long association with Capitol Records, you can hear the label struggling to know exactly what to do with him. From one album to the next, he swerves all over the road, from country revivalist, to crooner, to surf-rock instrumentalist. Yet his voice remains true and pure, attractively mimicking the hit sound of Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music of the year before.
Released on the fascinating, posthumous Glen Campbell Sings For The King - ‘Restless’ was recorded in Glen's pre-fame 1960s period - amidst cutting song demos for Elvis' recording consideration. He even does a decent Presley impression at one point, providing symmetry in the knowledge that the pair later became friends. Closing the set is this beguiling vocal adaptation of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with suitably dreamy piano accompaniment to Campbell's lovely vocal. The King didn't take up the option, but he'd have suffered by comparison if he had.
By 1967, Campbell was making his commercial breakthrough in both country and pop. Just three months after Gentle On My Mind came By The Time I Get To Phoenix - riding Jimmy Webb's title song to become the first country release to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Amongst a set of covers that took him everywhere from Ernest Tubb to Paul Simon, he cut this charming piece. Written by Jerry Reed, his fellow guitarpickin' wizard, it was as usual arranged and conducted - par excellence - by his studio confidant Al De Lory.
Two of country's most telegenic stars of the moment combined to great effect for a whole album of duets, unimaginatively but inarguably titled Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell. Gentry, the enigmatic Mississippi native, had released the original of this just a few months earlier on The Delta Sweete - now widely regarded as her finest hour. Both versions are sensuously delicate, and if the combined reading is a little sweeter, it's still full of Southern Gothic mystery, not to mention its great strings and flutes. Other memorable hit singles from the record would ensure its impact for some time, before Gentry withdrew from public view, hidden to this day.
Here's an opportunity to sing the praises of Gordon Lightfoot, rightly regarded in his native Canada as a song-writing deity, but too often taken for granted elsewhere. This stunning composition, originating from his third album 1968's Did She Mention My Name?, was where the romantic poetry of Lightfoot's words was set to rich orchestrations for the first time. That style was prime Campbell country, so it's little wonder he picked this song to be the title track of his 1971 LP. No mean songwriter himself, Glen was always the supremely deft interpreter, so heart-stopping lyrics such as “her laughter was the steeple bells that ring to greet the morning sun” were in good hands.
Another track from The Last Time I Saw Her, Campbell was at this time still having hits - but was no longer the golden boy of the Webb-inspired 'Wichita Lineman' and 'Galveston' years. While the 'Rhinestone Cowboy' revival was still four years away, his antennae for a good song were nevertheless in full working order. As often in his work, this song (written by Reed under his birth surname) might be too sentimental in other hands, but he owns it with understated elegance.
It's taken great restraint to get this far into the list without choosing one of Webb's compositions for his great friend and collaborator. Beyond the wonderful but obvious signatures, he wrote so many utterly superior songs for Campbell to turn into magic that this list could very easily be based solely on their work together. If there's one album to recommend above all others, it's the magnificent Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb - which includes the thankfully better-known 'The Moon's A Harsh Mistress' and this gorgeous reflection on loss. “There are so many words you never heard me say / so many songs you never heard me sing / I hope you'll hear them all one day.”
Campbell was at this stage entering what were perhaps the least-remembered years in his career. The album It's The World Gone Crazy didn't even make the Top 40 of Billboard's country charts, despite the inclusion of what by this time was a relatively rare big country hit - the film theme 'Any Which Way You Can.' As ever, there's treasure to be found, reliably here in Webb's unashamedly nostalgic salute to teen romance, “two behind the wheel like double-neck guitars”, all perfectly expressed by Glen.
Here began what you might call Glen Campbell's home run, and what a wonderful sequence it was. Meet Glen Campbell was the first in a series of late-period albums fashioned with immense skill and affection by producers Julian Raymond and Howard Willing. They made adventurous song choices for Glen that were every bit as insightful and imaginative as those that Rick Rubin made for Johnny Cash. One of the less-played among them was this wistful reflection on a child growing up too soon, deftly crafted by Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg. He would also contribute the title song to 2011's companion piece Ghost on the Canvas, by which time Glen and his family were becoming aware of the cruel impact of Alzheimer's – something they did so much to bring into the public gaze.
We simply must end with a Jimmy Webb song, and with one from the noble sign-off that was the Adiós album. For the last time, Jimmy writes, Glen sings, and there is no greater symbiosis in popular music history. The album, tirelessly and sensitively created line by line by Carl Jackson, was an emotional farewell to and from a man who had been in our lives for all our lives, and always will be.
Photography courtesy of Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.