It’s well-known that several prominent musicians and songwriters—Glen Campbell, PJ Proby, Mort Shuman and Delaney Bramlett among them—recorded “vocal guides” so that a post-army Elvis could make better use of expensive recording studio time for his Hollywood movie soundtracks. The singers would do the songs in Elvis’s style, he’d listen to them, and then he in turn would let it rip, in a sense, imitating them imitating him. It was nothing, if not efficient. The studio musicians who performed on the demos were often members of Phil Spector’s LA-based “Wrecking Crew” and apparently it was a bit of an assembly line process going on with up to six of them getting recorded per day. One prolific songwriter, Ben Weisman, who wrote or co wrote 57 numbers for the King (including one of his greatest “shits,” the income tax-related song, “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”) explained how it worked:
“I approached writing for Elvis differently than I did for any other artist. The songs had to have a combination of blues, country, rock and pop [what came to be called ‘rockabilly’]. It was like walking in his musical shoes. With each new Elvis movie, more of my songs were being recorded. It became more and more exciting, for I was becoming the only songwriter to have so many songs recorded by him.
After completing each song, I would make a demonstration (demo) record, using a singer that could copy Elvis’ sound. I used the same type of rhythm section that he used, with the same type of vocal backgrounds. The end result was a tailor-made production, just for him.
One of the first demo singers I hired was Otis Blackwell, who wrote such great Elvis songs as “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and many more. Some of the other talented singers I found were Glen Campbell, Delaney Bramlett, P.J.Proby, Ray Peterson and Dorsey Burnette.
Among the musicians who played on my demos were Phil Spector, Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, plus Ronnie Tutt, Glen D. Hardin and James Burton, who ended up in Elvis’ band.”
Texas-born singer PJ Proby—Elvis once dated his older sister—did twenty such vocal guides for Presley (for just $10 a pop!) mimicking his singing style in a full-throated manner that was said to have mightily amused him. (This talent for imitating Elvis came in handy for when Proby portrayed the “later years” Elvis in a West End musical.) Songwriter Gerald Nelson wrote and performed nineteen songs for Elvis, Don Robertson did at least two dozen, but it was Glen Campbell, who Presley is said to have greatly respected, whose vocal guides—for Weisman and his songwriting partner Syd Wayne—got the most serious attention from Elvis. (When Presley resumed live performances in the late 60s, he’d even asked Campbell, who he’d known since 1956, to be the lead guitarist in his TCB touring band, but by this time Glen Campbell was already far too big a star in his own right with his popular Goodtime Hour TV series and massive hits like “Wichita Lineman,” and so James Burton, recently relieved from his duties in Ricky Nelson’s band, got the gig. During the 70s, Campbell would perform “Loving You” onstage, doing a nearly perfect Elvis imitation.)
Since Glen Campbell’s death last year, it’s no surprise that his longtime label Capitol Records would trawl the vaults for what they might turn into product, but apparently the cupboard was pretty bare. Then the original reels of Campbell’s Elvis guides were found by producer Stephen Auerbach, the nephew-in-law of Ben Weisman, in a storage locker. The results heard on Glen Campbell Sings for the King—like those found on a decade’s worth of the soundtracks to Presley’s own 1960s films—is pretty, er, spotty, but there is some (admittedly goofy) fun to be found here. I reckon it picks up a bit at the halfway point.
The collection will also be available on limited edition 180-gram clear vinyl only at GlenCampbell.com. There’s even more Glen Campbell on UMe’s terrific new Bobbie Gentry box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County - The Complete Capitol Masters.
Elvis and Priscilla Presley with Glen Campbell
Below, an exclusive clip of Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine reminiscing about Glen Campbell: