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Songs for all seasons: A conversation with Jimmy Webb

Bill DeYoung

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Despite great success as a songwriter, Jimmy Webb never had a hit on his own. He tried for years - even Beatles svengali George Martin produced an album for him. "I began to think ‘I know I’m not singing out of tune. I know that this sounds great – and yet it doesn’t seem to make any difference,'" Webb says. "So at some point I sat down with my demons and I said ‘Look, I can’t do that any more.’" Photo: Rockstars and Babies.

President Bill Clinton once tapped Jimmy Webb on the shoulder at a reception. “Ah want to ask you a question,” the leader of the free world said, smiling, to the legendary tunesmith. Webb held his breath.

“’By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’” Clinton continued, name-checking one of Webb’s most famous compositions. “Did you ever get there?”

The exchange proved that a good song – no, a great one like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which Frank Sinatra called “the greatest torch song ever written” – transcends the songwriter’s inspiration and resonates, emotionally, in listeners everywhere. “When you listen to a song and it’s touching parts of you, and it’s getting responses from you, that you’re not 100 percent in control of,” is how Webb describes it.

He understands because he’s been there. “I know that the first time I heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers, I had to pull the car over and stop,” Webb says. “Because I couldn’t drive and listen to that song at the same time.”

The son of a small-town Oklahoma preacher, Webb’s rich catalog of compositions rivals those of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, albeit in a different, more contemporary style, in the so-called Great American Songbook.

Consider: “Up, Up and Away,” “Didn’t We,” “MacArthur Park,” the aforementioned “Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” “Where’s the Playground Susie,” “Carpet Man,” “Galveston,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” “All I Know,” “Crying in My Sleep,” “Highwayman.” Recorded by a cross-section of performers, over the years, who sold millions of records and drove the songs deep into the collective subconscious.

A concurrent career as a recording artist, singing his own songs, failed to bear fruit, and Webb, now 72, has settled comfortably into the role of a sort of elder statesman of songcraft.

He and his grand piano will be at the Capitol Theater March 28 for a show called The Glen Campbell Years, celebrating his longtime friend and favorite musical interpreter, who died in 2017.

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was one of Campbell’s very first hits, in 1967.

“I’ve had guys from MIT point out to me that it’s impossible to make that journey that I describe in the song,” Webb chuckles. “And so were really upset about it. They had stopwatches and maps in my dressing room. And I said ‘Hey, it’s just a song, man. Sit down, have a drink.'”

“Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park” and a handful of his earliest success were the result of his youthful obsession with Susie Horton, who’d been his high school sweetheart in Colton, California, where the Webb family had relocated after leaving the Dust Bowl. “My romantic life,” Webb declares, “was always in a tumult.

“The truth was, (leaving a note and walking out the door) was something I wanted to do. I felt that I had endured enough in my relationship with Susie. That’s where the real quote-unquote songwriter steps in. Because it’s like ‘Well, I’m never gonna really do this – I’d love to, but I’m not – but I can pretend I did it and write a song about it.’

“So that’s really what it is, sort of acting out a moment of extreme depression and distress, and purging one’s self by somehow or another investing the song with all that angst and all that sorrow.”

And there you have it, President Clinton.

The 5th Dimension’s Grammy-winning take on “Up, Up and Away” was Webb’s first taste of success. He was 21 and pining hard for Susie Horton, who’d left him and married someone else (“The Worst That Could Happen”). The money and fame that resulted helped – a little.

Producer Johnny Rivers left the making of the second 5th Dimension album to his engineer, Bones Howe, and gave his designate the green-light to record a “song cycle” composed, start to finish, by freshly-minted hit machine Jimmy Webb. The young songwriter penned, and arranged, 10 songs, each a touchstone reference to elements of his own broken relationship.

The Magic Garden was released in late 1967 (much to Webb’s chagrin, Rivers insisted that a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” be tacked onto the running order).

Next came actor Richard Harris’ over-the-top reading of Webb’s ambitious “MacArthur Park,” another song inspired by Horton, and their picnic lunches together (I recall the yellow cotton dress foaming like a wave on the ground beneath your knees/The birds like tender babies in your hands, and the old men playing Chinese checkers by the trees). It was an unlikely smash hit.

“McArthur Park” went to No. 1 in 1978, covered – equally dramatically – by disco queen Donna Summer.

Webb’s longing for the lost girl of his dreams also resulted in “Wichita Lineman,” which would become one of the most oft-recorded songs in history. Glen Campbell had the first version, which reached the top of the charts in early 1969. It quickly usurped John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” as his signature song.


Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” is that rare bird, a recording that still sounds as wistful and emotionally-charged as it did when it first hit the airwaves, more than 50 years ago. There’s a word for it: Timeless.

Webb, for his part, gives credit to Campbell’s producer/arranger, Al de Lory of Capitol Records, who believed in simple, “clean” string arrangements.

“It wasn’t garbaged-up too much,” says Webb. “It didn’t have a lot of glissandos, or a lot of trying to do new stuff with strings. And the lines are very precise. It doesn’t really go to some weird note that you don’t expect, which is my style. It was a masterful job, and way ahead of its time.”

Campbell was Capitol’s cash cow for the better part of a decade. Their winning relationship came to a screeching halt in 1978 when Campbell brought in a new Jimmy Webb song, “Highwayman,” and said he wanted to record it as his next single. “He recognized it as an epic thing,” Webb recalls.

The haunting, poetic song-poem about reincarnation would become a standard in the following decade, recorded by the million-dollar quartet of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

But when Campbell brought “Highwayman” to his home label, explains Webb, “They listened to it politely and they said they thought should cover ‘My Sharona’ instead. Which, by the way, I think is a hell of a record. But it’s not for Glen.

“Arguments didn’t go on for very long with Glen. He ended up walking out of Capitol Records and never went back. That was over ‘Highwayman.’”

 

They were friends, thick as thieves, for 50 years. There’s at least one Jimmy Webb song on nearly all of Glen Campbell’s 30-plus albums.

Not a day goes by that Jimmy Webb doesn’t think about Glen Campbell. “We came from the same gene pool,” Webb says. “We were both born in small towns. Glen was raised in a musical atmosphere. So was I. We both did church music, and we were both exposed to a lot of county music. Ernest Tubb was my father’s favorite singer.”

An exceptionally talented guitarist, the Arkansas-born Campbell arrived in southern California in the mid 1960s and quickly found work as a session musician. He was a brick in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the legendary cadre of L.A. studio musicians.

Campbell played on “Johnny Angel” and “Along Comes Mary,” on “River Deep, Mountain High” and “I’m a Believer.” He was the guitar player on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” and even toured as a member of the group.

According to legend, upon meeting Webb for the first time, the clean-cut Campbell took one look at the scraggly songwriter and said “Get a haircut.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the pair to bond over their single, unshakeable passion. “Glen could stand by me, and look at my hands on the piano keys, and play the same chords that I was playing,” says Webb. “That’s unheard of. But he had an instinct for music.

“We all kicked cans on the way to school, but Glen would take three cans and make a tune out of it. He could play the bagpipes. He could play the harmonica. He could play any kind of a guitar that was ever made. He conquered that fretboard and those strings, and he got more out of a guitar than almost anybody you can think of.”

Campbell’s final years were darkened by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease; it had advanced to Stage 5 when Webb last visited his old friend in the hospital.

“I loved the man, and I still can’t believe he’s gone,” Webb says quietly. “I have to face that every day, because he was really important to the musical part of my life. The fact that I can’t go over to Glen’s house and play some new songs and stuff, I can’t describe what a terrible feeling that is.

“All in all, he conducted himself as a man should conduct himself, and he came across the line as a winner. Will there ever be another? No. There will never be anybody even close to him.”

Click here for a special Spotify playlist: St. Pete Catalyst – The Songs of Jimmy Webb.

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