How we made: Rhinestone Cowboy

Co-producer Dennis Lambert and songwriter Larry Weiss remember how, inspired by Hop-Along Cassidy, they created Glen Campbell's signature song

Dennis Lambert, co-producer

In 1975, Brian Potter and I had produced hits for the Tavares, the Righteous Brothers and the Four Tops. Al Courey, who was then vice-president of Capitol Records, asked if we'd be interested in working with Glen Campbell. At that point, Glen's career was in a lull. He hadn't had a major hit since the late 60s, with songs like Wichita Lineman – but he was still a star, with a TV show. Most importantly, I had always adored him. I thought he was an incredible singer and musician.

I told Al that with Glen it was all about the songs. If we could bring something special to the table, he had the artistry and the name to make it really great. We had a terrific meeting of minds. Glen was a product of the LA recording system and understood what went into making hit records. We'd been talking about his feelings, writing and bringing him songs, when Larry Weiss came to play me some tracks from his recent album. One of them was Rhinestone Cowboy. I said, "Larry, this is amazing," and my mind was racing, because I was already thinking about Glen. Larry wasn't that excited to hear that we were going to be producing Glen, I think because he was more concerned about his own album, but he gave me permission to play him the song. At the same time, Al Courey had somehow got a copy. A whirlwind happened within the space of a few days.

Glen doesn't mince words. He either feels something and jumps right on it or he doesn't: he thought the song was great. We didn't copy Larry's version, but took the essence of it, which was right on the money. Why fix something that isn't broken? I've made over a hundred albums, but the two and a half I made with Glen were my absolute favourite times in the studio. His pitch is impeccable; he's got the soul of a true musician. He doesn't read music, but he is a virtuoso guitarist, and it transfers to his voice. In the studio, he didn't wear headsets: he liked a little speaker instead. When he started singing, he'd drown out the track, and that's how he was able to finesse his vocal. He'd give you one or two great takes, and you knew you had it. For Rhinestone, I made him play guitar because I knew the other musicians would be excited to be sitting there playing with Glen Campbell.

I did have doubts that a major star would connect with a song about a guy walking the streets on Broadway, but he understood it as a metaphor for anyone trying to make it. He'd expressed disappointment with the way life was unfolding for him. He was recently divorced, estranged from his family, drinking, and involved with drugs a little too much – and yet he was this beautiful soul who we got to know and really love. That song became his signature tune. When you can make that happen, it's very powerful.

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Larry Weiss, songwriter

My family had recently moved from New York to California, and I wrote Rhinestone Cowboy as a reflective piece about pursuing the American dream. It was slightly autobiographical. I'd had hits as a writer, but I'd never had that gigantic song. In 1974, I had just recorded my album Black & Blue Suite with four great musicians who'd worked with the Beatles, and they gave me a standard to aim for.

I had heard the phrase "rhinestone cowboy" somewhere, and it stuck. When I moved to Nashville 20 years ago, I finally found out that it meant rhinestone-studded country singers of the 50s and 60s. But I gave it my own spin. When I was a kid, I'd loved cowboy movies: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hop-Along Cassidy. To me, the singing cowboys were the rhinestone cowboys.

The chorus came from the 1944 movie Buffalo Bill. In the last scene, he rides out on a white horse, in a white outfit, with long white beard and hair, and he thanks everybody for giving him such a great life. There's another scene where he's at his lowest point, sat on a stuffed horse in a penny arcade holding his hat in the air. I now realise that it was about trials and tribulations. In a way, I wrote the song about that without even knowing it.

I was so disappointed when it wasn't a hit that I was ready to quit. But Glen told me that when the song was presented to him, he'd already heard it on the car radio and had to pull over to the side of the road. He said: "People told me I was mad to like it, but it just blew me away." The song had been turned down by everybody from Elvis Presley to Neil Diamond, but it worked better with Glen singing it. If Neil or a pop singer had sung it, it wouldn't have meant as much.

I'm always proud when I hear it: it sounds good, and it's always "ker-ching". My only regret is not going to the 2012 Grammys, for its tribute to Glen. I watched it, of course. When Glen walked out singing in a rhinestone outfit designed by my dear friend Manuel Cuevas (AKA the Rhinestone Rembrandt, who created the outfit for the song's original video), the place just blew up. I suddenly realised: "My God, I've written an American anthem."


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