On Friday (Nov. 16), Glen Campbell and Elvis Presley fans will have 18 tracks of new (old) material to dig into: Fifty years after their creation, Capitol / UME is releasing Sings for the King, a collection of demos recorded by the Rhinestone Cowboy for the benefit of the King of Rock and Roll. The very existence of these recordings, though, is all the more peculiar when you consider their dates.

Campbell cut these selections, by songwriters Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne, between 1964 and 1968. The first three of those five years cover Campbell’s stint in the famed studio musician collective the Wrecking Crew and his time as a touring member of the Beach Boys. During that period, Presley was one of many stars who shined brighter thanks to Campbell’s behind-the-scenes talents.

By ’67, however, Campbell was a superstar in his own right. Most of his best-known hits, including “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman,” captured the public’s imagination during that two-year run. With his good looks, Southern charm and ability to play and sing more than just country songs or pop standards, the former Arkansas farm boy suited that era of television variety shows — just as Presley’s looks, location and personal tastes had positioned him perfectly to expose rock ‘n’ roll to the masses.

While the Sings for the King collection offers no conclusive answer as to why Campbell still cut demos during two of his most lucrative years as a solo artist, it does establish why Weisman and Wayne were wise to use him to pitch would-be Presley songs. As a vocalist and guitarist, Campbell excelled at singing and playing in the same style as Presley; “Anyone Can Play,” for example, might be the iconic singer’s best impersonation of the King on record (the soundtrack to the 1991 animated film Rock-a-Doodle notwithstanding).

Sings for the King
Capitol / UME

Because the Sings for the King demo years overlap Presley’s film career, Campbell had ample opportunity to sing revved-up theme songs sure to keep dancers grooving. “Spinout” (1966), “Easy Come, Easy Go” (1967) and “Clambake” (1967) existed as Campbell-sung demos before becoming the title tracks of critically maligned yet infectiously fun movies. However, Presley didn’t only sing rock songs at any point in his career, so Campbell was called on to record an impressive variety of styles: the soulful “Peace in the Valley” sound-alike “Any Old Time,” the Latin-flavored “Magic Fire” and even a country song titled “How Can You Lose What You Never Had.” In each case, Campbell hits the notes and captures the moods expected of the King.

Weisman wrote or co-wrote a whopping 57 songs recorded by Presley, but even he offered up the occasional dud. The quirky Southern charm of “I ain’t even got a pot to … peel potatoes in” and other lines in “I Got Love” would’ve made eyes roll in the Las Vegas audience that rejected young Presley, Hank Williams and other 1950s “hillbilly” acts. “All I Needed Was the Rain” bears a strange resemblance to “Ode to Billie Joe,” the breakout hit by future Campbell duet partner Bobbie Gentry. Mirroring the song’s structure paid dividends for “Harper Valley PTA” singer Jeannie C. Riley and others, but did Presley really have anything to gain by playing copycat?

Sings for the King constantly points to the similarities between longtime friends Campbell and Presley: Both were backslidden gospel singers at heart. Both used music to overcome their meager beginnings. Both helped define the big screen, the small screen and the radio dial for baby boomers. Most importantly, both shared talents with the public that transcended the caricatures of sequined jumpsuits or high-brow country singers. Campbell was likely one of the few famous people to truly “get” Presley in the late ‘60s. Perhaps that bond made it too hard to say no to juggling fame with a brief return to session work.

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