This was written and originally recorded by Larry Weiss, a Brooklyn songwriter whose credits include "Bend Me, Shape Me
" by The American Breed, "Help Me Girl" by The Animals and The Outsiders (both with Scott English). Campbell was on tour in Australia when he first heard the song. He bought a cassette copy and listened to it over an over. When he returned to America, he told Al Khoury, an A&R man, at his record label, that he found a perfect song to record. Khoury replied that he also had a great song for Campbell - it was "Rhinestone Cowboy." Campbell took this bit of serendipity as a sign that he was destined to record it. The tune ended up becoming Campbell's signature song and a centerpiece of his live shows.
Campbell could relate to the lyric about a country singer who has seen it all. In the '50s, he spent several years playing honkey tonks in Albuquerque, and after moving to Los Angeles in 1960, he worked as a demo singer, a staff writer and a session musician before hitting it big in the late '60s after he turned 30.
Rhinestones are fake jewels that are popular on country-style clothing. They show up nicely on stage, so they are a popular fashion choice for some flamboyant country singers. One such singer was David Allan Coe, who called himself the "Rhinestone Cowboy" and released an album in 1974 called The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy. As Coe tells it, Mel Tillis gave him some Rhinestone suits, which he would wear backstage at the Grand Ol' Opry. When he went into the audience, the glistening suits made people think he was a star, even though he was a nobody at the time. Asked for autographs, he signed them, "The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy."
Coe says that Larry Weiss offered him this song, but he didn't feel comfortable singing about himself so he turned it down.
Campbell wanted to accentuate the vocals on his version, since he loved the lyric. To do so, he overdubbed a harmony vocal that plays throughout the song.
This song originated when Weiss overheard the phrase, "Rhinestone Cowboy" in a conversation. He told American Songwriter
magazine September/October 1984: "I heard the phrase and thought, 'Boy, I like that title'. I put my own meaning to it and wrote the song. I'll always be a kid at heart, and 'Rhinestone Cowboy' was sort of a summation of all my childhood cowboy movie heroes - particularly Hopalong Cassidy."
The song is about a Country singer struggling to make it big, and it reflected Weiss striving to make it in his songwriting career. He revealed in the same interview: "The idea for the song was also a crying out of myself. It was the spirit of a bunch of us on Broadway where I started out - Neil Diamond, Tony Orlando - we all had dreams of making it."
A note on Neil Diamond and his famous shiny suits: he is more comfortable in Blue Jeans
, but goes with the gaudy stagewear so the audience can see him more clearly.
For Campbell, this was a very important song, and one he would call "maybe the best song I've ever sung." It came at a time when his career had gone flat: his popular TV show had been canceled, acting gigs dried up, and he hadn't had a hit since 1971. The story of the faded star who perseveres in the song held a lot of meaning for Campbell.
This sold over 4 million units and hit #1 on the Hot 100, Country, and Adult Contemporary charts in the summer of 1975, becoming the first song since "Big Bad John
" by Jimmy Dean to reach the apex of all three charts. "Rhinestone Cowboy" gained three Grammy nominations and was the Country Music Association's Song of the Year for 1976. In 1977, the song earned Weiss the Nashville Songwriters' Association International's Songwriter of the Year award.
Although it wasn't used in the film, this was the inspiration for the 1984 movie Rhinestone, starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone.
Campbell performed the song on a telethon, which kick-started interest to the point of the RKO radio chain playing Campbell's version on the air before the single was pressed.
In later years, Campbell sang the line, "I've been walkin' these streets so long, singin' the same old song" to "I've been walkin' these streets so long, singin' those good old songs," since he wanted to show appreciation for the songs that served him so well.
Campbell performed this song on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he was a regular guest and occasional guest host. Carson would later poke fun at the song's ubiquitous popularity, threatening to sing it on the air. He eventually did... while wearing an outlandish cowboy outfit.
Campbell performed this song at the Grammy Awards in 2012, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Campbell had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease, but with the help of his wife, Kim, he decided to keep performing, which doctors said helped slow the progress of the disease. The Beach Boys, who Campbell performed with in the '60s, also played that night.