In 1969, there was no bigger star in popular music than singer-guitarist Glen Campbell. Although Johnny Cash was by then a weekly TV star like his fellow Arkansan, Campbell’s broad appeal ensured chart dominance across the genres of pop, country and easy listening, and his album output was impressive by any standard. In 1968, five Campbell albums were issued, with four of them topping the country chart and one, Wichita Lineman, also hitting Number One on the multi-genre Billboard 200.
Fifty years ago on March 17th, 1969, Capitol Records released Campbell’s thirteenth album, Galveston. Led by the Jimmy Webb-penned title cut, Galveston also doubled the number of Webb contributions on a Campbell record, with “Where’s the Playground, Susie” released as the follow-up single to the title track.
Where Webb’s 1967 smash for Campbell, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” was a heartbreaking road trip, “Galveston” set its poignant scene on a Texas island town, yet both songs rely on the narrator’s imagination to tell their respective stories, a method that opens Webb’s compositions to myriad interpretations.
First recorded in 1968 by Hawaiian balladeer Don Ho, his dirge-like version of the song featured a different second verse which more directly addressed the narrator’s plight as a military man in a faraway battle, wondering about the 21-year-old he left behind in Texas: “Wonder if she could forget me, I’d go home if they would let me/ Put down this gun and go to Galveston.” With the Vietnam War raging, the song’s viewpoint, whether anti-war or not (and Webb preferred not to specify that) was of a man who simply dreamed of being somewhere else, fearing death as he cleans his gun with cannons flashing around him. Campbell’s more up-tempo version of the tune might have obscured the seriousness of the subject matter, but once again his pure and pristine vocal delivered the goods, with “Galveston” topping the country chart and landing in the Top Five on the pop survey. Just one year later, recordings of “Galveston” had sold six million copies, having been cut by 27 different artists, from fellow country star Faron Young to jazz great Dizzy Gillespie.
Meanwhile, the Galveston album logged 11 weeks at Number One on the country chart, but was kept at Number Two on the Billboard 200 by the cast recording of Hair. Elsewhere on the album, Campbell contributed the greatest number of tracks he had co-written for an LP — three — until 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, which featured five songs penned with producer Julian Raymond. Only one song recorded in the intervening years, from the 1985 gospel album No More Night, is credited to Campbell as songwriter. Certified gold in April 1969, Galveston would wait another 22 years before receiving its platinum record denoting one million in sales.
In the above promo clip from the time of its release, Campbell — in military dress — plays guitar and sings, while shots of an unidentified woman, “standing by the water” and scenes around the city of Galveston are superimposed onscreen.
For Webb, the success of “Galveston” earned the songwriter an unusual opportunity: to serve as grand marshal of the Gulf Coast city’s eighth annual Shrimp Festival and Parade. Landing in Southeast Texas wearing what he described in his 2017 memoir The Cake and the Rain, as a “Pierre Cardin spacesuit, a tartan in gray, green, and red featuring a long coat and his odd circular zippered collar,” the songwriter reviewed the 100-plus shrimp boat fleet with the festival’s teenaged queen “Miss Shrimp Boat” by his side, then climbed into a Cadillac, from which the royal pair would greet spectators along the parade route. “Miss Shrimp Boat Festival” would, however, become a victim of collateral damage as some less-than-friendly locals began hurling insults at the Grammy-winning tunesmith and pelting him and his companion with prawns, including some of the boiled variety. As shrimp began piling up in the backseat of the car, Webb urged Tiny, the vehicle’s ironically named hulk of a driver, to beat a hasty retreat from the scene.