How Glen Campbell Discovered One of His Biggest Hits

Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” Was Playing on Jimmy Webb’s Turntable

Jimmy Webb wrote some of Glen Campbell’s most famous songs while inadvertently leading him to at least one hit he didn’t — “Southern Nights.”

Webb, whose credits include “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” took to his website to pay special tribute to his longtime friend, who died Tuesday (Aug. 8) at age 81.

During a 2010 interview with CMT.com, Webb talked at length about Campbell’s unwavering support of songwriters and his unique ability to hear a mainstream hit in left-of-center material.

In addition to recording Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” Campbell was apparently responsible for lobbying Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to record Webb’s “The Highwayman.” The latter revitalized their individual careers while providing a name for the superstar quartet.

“Depending on the way you hear the story, Glen says he played ‘Highwayman’ for Waylon and Willie and Johnny and Kris,” Webb said. “And that would have been probably five or six years after Glen recorded ‘Highwayman.'”

And as quirky as it seemed to suggest that Jennings, Nelson, Cash and Kristofferson record a song about reincarnation and spaceships, Campbell also heard the commercial potential in the title track of Southern Nights, a 1975 album by New Orleans R&B singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint.

“Glen is a curious character and a brilliant one,” Webb said. “I can remember him one day walking into my house, and I was listening to an Allen Toussaint record that my friend [guitarist] Freddy Tackett had given me. And we sat there for a while and listened, and this song came on — ‘Southern Nights.’

“And he got so excited. I mean, he just got uncontrollably excited — ‘Can I have that? Can I have that?'”

Webb assumed Campbell thought he had written the song and wanted to record it.

“I said, ‘Allen Toussaint wrote it,'” Webb said. “He said, ‘No, no. I mean, can I have your record?’ I said, ‘You want my record?” He said, ‘Yeah, can I have that?’ And I gave him my Allen Toussaint album and he went out of there. I mean, he ran out of there.”

Campbell released the single of “Southern Nights” in January 1977, and it topped three Billboard charts — hot country songs, adult contemporary and the all-genres Billboard Hot 100.

Webb was shocked at how quickly Campbell had managed to revamp the arrangement and record his own version of the song.

“That song was literally on the radio, like, two weeks later,” he said. “It might have been three weeks later, but it was like a whisper in our world. It was like no time at all.”

With “Southern Nights,” Campbell reimagined the swampy, atmospheric sound of Toussaint’s original by performing the song with different instrumentation at a faster tempo. He took a similar approach to “Galveston,” a song Webb wrote in a slower tempo about a soldier’s memories of the beach in Texas.

“If you listen to his versions of my songs, to be honest with you, they’re the pop versions of my songs,” Webb said. “Things like ‘Galveston’ — I never did that fast. But here’s the thing about Glen: All those records were hits. He could figure out how to do a song and translate it into dollars, into airplay, into mainstream entertainment.

Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell during 44th Annual ASCAP Country Music Awards - Show at Ryman Theater in Nashville, TN., United States. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage) Rick Diamond/WireImage

“And so I think that, as an arranger, Glen is somewhat underestimated. Because he could take a song almost out of thin air and turn it into a hit. Because he played on so many sessions with [producer] Jimmy Bowen and people like that.

“And he learned. He’s highly intelligent, very quick, and many of those records that he played on, he was the deciding factor. It was what he contributed that made them hits — for the Beach Boys and for Dean Martin and for those all artists. So the unknown factor about Glen is how potent he was as an arranger, and what he could contribute to a track to make it air-worthy.

“And that’s kind of a little secret that nobody talks about. But he did it for others, and he did it for himself.”

Southern Nights (Live) by Glen Campbell on VEVO.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.