From 'Rhinestone Cowboy' to the song Frank Sinatra called the greatest torch song ever, a look at the legend's best tunes
Glen Campbell, who died Tuesday at age 81 after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease , was one of the most enduring country and pop voices of the past 50 years, leaving behind an immense body of work, including over 50 studio albums, dozens of songs that graced the pop charts, and five No. 1 country hits.
Campbell’s body of work — from his debut 1962 traditional roots record Big Bluegrass Special all the way to his final studio LP, 2013’s See You There — is a vast exploration of the many strands of American music, ranging from jazz to folk to country to bluegrass to gospel. Below, EW has chosen 10 of those songs that best exemplify Campbell’s legendary life in music.
“The Universal Soldier,” 1965
Released just as the war in Vietnam was beginning, “Universal Soldier” was Campbell’s first pop hit of any sort, reaching No. 45 on the charts. Campbell’s jangly folk-rock rendition of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s anti-war anthem was an unlikely breakthrough for Campbell, who by the end of 1965 was quoted as saying, “People who are advocating burning draft cards should be hung.”
“Gentle on My Mind,” 1967
Cambell’s impassioned delivery of John Hartford’s wistful travelogue was the turning point in the singer’s career, breaking him into the mainstream and opening the gates for a string of chart-topping hits that would soon follow. Though the song has been recorded by hundreds of artists, Campbell’s exquisite version of the country standard remains definitive.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” 1967
Campbell’s first of several hits with songwriter Jimmy Webb, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” earned Campbell multiple Grammys and established the singer as a bonafide hitmaker. Campbell’s rendition of the tune that Frank Sinatra once called “the greatest torch song ever written” was a soulful expression of regret, heartbreak, and guilt.
“Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” 1968
The lead single on Campbell’s Wichita Lineman album was one of Campbell’s most disturbing portrayals of middle American malaise. Despite its saccharine strings and easy melody, “Everyday Housewife” was a tortured exploration of aging, nostalgia, and gender.
“Wichita Lineman,” 1968
“Jimmy saw a guy out in the middle of nowhere, working on high-line wires, that’s where he got ‘lineman for the county,’” Campbell once recalled of “Wichita Lineman,” the Jimmy Webb classic written specifically for Campbell. The recording, which featured Campbell’s former bandmates in the Wrecking Crew, is considered by many to be the greatest single of Campbell’s 50-plus year career.
Campbell’s triumphant rendition of this Jimmy Webb-penned soldier’s lament, released during the height of Vietnam, further reflected the singer’s ambivalence about war. But his vocal, full of equal parts celebration and pain, sold just about everyone on the song, including Little Richard, who once said, “When Glen Campbell says one word ‘Galveston’ — it shakes me up…That’s the whole soul of it right there, when he says that one word.”
“Rhinestone Cowboy,” 1975
“Maybe the best song I’ve ever sung,” Campbell once said of his signature tune, a depiction of a road-hardened journeyman singer proudly carrying on to the next show. The song, which topped the pop and country charts, was a comeback single for Campbell that also became the biggest hit of his career.
“Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.),” 1975
The singer’s follow-up to “Rhinestone Cowboy” was another personal statement from Campbell, an expression of discomfort and dissatisfaction with big-city fame and showbiz success sung by the sharecropper’s son from Arkansas. “Country Boy” was Campbell’s fifth straight number one hit on the Easy Listening chart, but its schmaltzy veneer masks one of Campbell’s deepest declarations of anxious introspection and self-doubt.
“Southern Nights,” 1977
As his last No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, “Southern Nights” gave Campbell one more taste of massive stardom before the singer receded from the pop consciousness in the 80’s. Allen Toussaint, who wrote the song, was delighted by Campbell’s rendition: “I love Glen’s version,” he once said. “I had never thought of it as an uptempo and mainstream song before.”
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” 2014
Campbell’s final studio recording is a devastating reflection on mortality composed several years after Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I’m still here but yet I’m gone,” sings Campbell, who co-wrote the composition, in the song’s opening line. Campbell’s final single was nominated for an Oscar and won the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2015.