Jimmy Webb: He Writes the Songs...

201708Jimmy-Webb-3Music fans all over the world expressed their sadness when the death of country music legend, Glen Campbell, was announced early in August. However, few Campbell fans were as sad as Jimmy Webb. Not only has Webb written some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century, he passed his composition, 'Wichita Lineman' on to Campbell and this became the song that would define the singer's lengthy and glittering career.

Artists from Tony Bennett and Linda Ronstadt to Bryan Ferry, Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart have recorded albums that include examples of the so-called Great American Songbook, a phenomenon generally accepted to include such masters of the art as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy McHugh and Richard Rodgers amongst others. However, that is only part of the story because a further generation of great songwriters grew up in the latter half of the century and enthusiasts would argue that they defined their era as much as Cole Porter did his.

Born in Elk City, Oklahoma in 1946, Webb to a Baptist preacher and his wife, Jimmy Layne Webb was exposed to a steady musical diet from his earliest years. Both of his parents were keen that he should learn the piano and organ and, by the age of 12, he was helping out by accompanying the choirs in the churches in south-western Oklahoma for which Webb Senior was responsible. Jimmy was encouraged to listen to music at home too, providing it was either country music or gospel – white gospel, of course, since this was conservative, 1950s America. His first purchase was, oddly enough, a copy of Glen Campbell's 'Turn Around, Look At Me'. Much later Webb would claim that he was attracted by Campbell's distinctive voice.

In 1964 the Webbs' world expanded when the family moved to Southern California and Jimmy enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College to study music. He was so sure that he was now in the right place that, when his mother died the following year and his father started to make plans to return to Oklahoma, he announced his determination to stay in California and try his luck as a songwriter. In a statement rivalled only by John Lennon's Aunt Mimi's observation that, “The guitar's all right John, but you'll never make a living out of it”, Webb Senior responded, “This songwriting thing is going to break your heart.” However, he realised that he was beaten and gave Jimmy 40 dollars: “It's not much but it's all I have.”

Realising that he would have to start small to make it big, Jimmy found himself a mundane job transcribing music for a small music company in Hollywood. It wasn't what he was hoping for exactly, but at least he was working in the industry and meeting people who were as obsessed by songwriting as he was. It wasn't long before Webb earned himself a contract with Jobete Music, which happened to be the publishing branch of Motown Records. This meant that the first Jimmy Webb song ever to be recorded was 'My Christmas Tree', which appeared on Merry Christmas, a 1965 album recorded by The Supremes. In 1966 Webb landed his first big break by signing a contract with Johnny Rivers, a singer and producer who recorded his song, 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' on his album, Changes. Rivers liked Webb's songs so much that he recorded seven of them for his next album, Rewind and then enlisted his help to provide material for The 5th Dimension, a new group that he was producing. Webb wrote five songs for the debut album, Up, Up and Away including the title track, which would ultimately be the tune for which they would be most famous.

In 1967 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' was recorded by Webb's old country music hero, Glen Campbell and its immortality as a pop classic was assured. In 1968 no less an authority than Time issued a massive compliment by acknowledging Webb's “gift for strong, varied rhythms, inventive structures and rich, sometimes surprising harmonies.” Considering that that same year marked the release of 'Wichita Lineman' – a song that still regularly makes the Top 10 lists of many singers – it was hardly surprising that Webb decided that life would be better under his own steam. Canopy was a music publishing company designed to make life easier and more profitable for Webb and it wasn't long before his name as a reputable songwriter reached new heights.

On the face of it Canopy's first project, A Tramp Shining – an album of Irish actor, Richard Harris's 'interpretations' of Webb's songs – was not an obvious choice. Harris, who would never rival Glen Campbell in the easy listening stakes, was an idiosyncratic vocal performer but remarkably his version of 'MacArthur Park' reached Number Two in the US charts on the 22nd of June 1968. Today MacArthur Park (which many consider Webb's masterwork) is still an extraordinary achievement. Turned down by The Association, Harris had no such compunctions, despite its different movements, unwieldy seven minute 20 seconds running time and obscure lyrics (“MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark/All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain...”) When asked about the inspiration for the song many years later Webb stated that it described the end of a love affair and, far from being symbolic or psychedelic as had long been suspected, all the images were visible to him during the incident in question: “There's nothing in it that's fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it's a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.” Refashioned as a disco number, MacArthur Park would enjoy a renaissance in 1978, becoming a global hit for Donna Summer.

Having landed no less than eight Grammy Awards for 'Up, Up and Away' and 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' alone, it made sense for Webb to consider recording his own songs. He would go on to release six albums: Words and Music (1970), And So: On (1971), Letters (1972), Land's End (1974), El Mirage (1977) and Angel Heart (1982) all of which would all be critically acclaimed but fail to achieve the sales of other artists' versions of his material. One song, 'P.F. Sloan' from Words and Music so impressed Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau that he declared it “a masterpiece that could not be improved upon.” 'P.F. Sloan' is one of those songs that almost everyone knows (and was recently revived by British singer, Rumer on her Boys Don't Cry album, a tribute to America's late 20th century singer-songwriters), but few would realise that it is a Jimmy Webb original.

The 1970s was truly the era of the singer-songwriter, hence Webb's series of solo projects which perfectly suited a landscape marked by such talents as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Williams, Elton John, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Clifford T. Ward, David Gates, Don McLean and Leon Russell to name but a few, but the music world changed drastically in the 1980s and, after the release of Angel Heart, Webb changed his focus altogether, preferring to take on larger projects such as film scores, musicals and orchestral music. It wasn't until the 1990s that he returned to his first love of songwriting, producing five critically praised solo albums: Suspending Disbelief (1993), Ten Easy Pieces (1996), Twilight of the Renegades (2005), Just Across the River (2010) and Still Within the Sound of My Voice (2013) all showed that Webb had suffered no loss of talent.

Now aged 71 he continues to write and, in 2013, was inducted into the Songwriting Hall of Fame. The loss of Glen Campbell hit him hard and he described the country music legend as, “My friend, my brother in music” going on to observe that, “This I can promise. While I can play a piano he will never be forgotten. And after that someone else will revel in his vast library of recordings and pass them on to how many future generations?”

He might have been speaking about Glen Campbell, but these words could equally apply to Jimmy Webb's own repository of classic songs.

Some of Jimmy Webb's Greatest Hits

'By the Time I Get to Phoenix'
'Do What You Gotta Do'
'Up, Up and Away'
'Wichita Lineman'
'Didn't We'
'MacArthur Park'
'All I Know'
'Watermark'
'Galveston'
'Where's the Playground Susie'
'P.F. Sloan'
'Honey Come Back'

Artists Who Have Recorded Webb's Songs

Diana Ross & The Supremes, Glen Campbell, The 5th Dimension, Johnny Rivers, Richard Harris, Dusty Springfield, Clarence Carter, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams,
Nina Simone, Bobby Vee, Thelma Houston, The Four Tops, Barbra Streisand, Roberta Flack, Sammy Davis Jr., The Temptations, Tom Jones, B.J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick, Cass Elliot, Harry Nilsson, Art Garfunkel, Scott Walker, Matt Monro, Joe Cocker, Nancy Wilson, Cher, Judy Collins, Donna Summer, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Amy Grant, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, R.E.M., Carly Simon, Aimee Mann, Sparklehorse, Josh Groban, Rumer, Albert Lee,
Shirley Bassey.

 
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