Up, up and away with Jimmy Webb

Paul Sexton discovers why self confessed Anglophile and prolific songwriter Jimmy Webb is still breaking hearts over the radio.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 10 Jul 2012
  • min read
Jimmy Webb’s glass is always half full, as it should be for someone whose unparalleled catalogue continues to mean so much to so many. But there’s no denying that he talks with a certain nostalgia about the pop heyday that his incredible songs helped to create.

When the Oklahoman craftsman was on his unstoppable first run of hits as a composer, the power of the compositions was matched only by the wattage of the radio stations sending his work around the world. From 1967 onwards, to quote his first Grammy-winner, Webb was Up, Up and Away.

The flood gates never stood a chance: the Richard Harris epic MacArthur Park, The Worst That Could Happen by the Brooklyn Bridge, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, and endless others as the years went on, from Art Garfunkel to Linda Ronstadt. Not to mention the timeless classics Wichita Lineman, Galveston and By the Time I Get to Phoenix, all those and many more recorded by Webb’s ultimate vocal channel, Glen Campbell.

‘It’s just amazing,’ he says, still barely able to believe the impact a well turned three minute tune could have. ‘You go, “How could this be? How could these songs go out in the world and make things happen on their own?”’

He recounts one of many cherished stories he’s been told by grateful devotees, of a couple who split up but got back together years later when one gave the other a copy of Wichita Lineman. ‘These songs released these emotional missiles that went flying out into people’s lives,’ he says, with no trace of self importance.

‘Cupid used to be lumbered with the fact that he basically had a single shot weapon. He could only shoot one arrow at a time. Not any more, folks!’ he laughs, thinking back to the golden days of Top 40 stations. ‘We’re on the radio, we’re shooting millions of bullets 24 hours a day! We’re killing ‘em out there! That really intensified the whole phenomenon of young people falling in love.’

In May, the love in the room at London’s Grosvenor House as Webb was presented with the PRS for Music Special International Award, showed the respect due a man who started out in awe of one Great American Songbook and set about creating a new one.

‘I love Britain so much, and have since my first trips over here when I was a mere child, really, 18, 19 years old, working with Richard Harris,’ he says. ‘I became an overnight Anglophile, which quite upset Richard. He didn’t like it at all, and took me on a couple of propaganda missions to Ireland, to de-Anglicise me.’ Their friendship led to two albums, both released in 1968 and all written, produced and arranged by the precocious American. A Tramp Shining contained both the unique MacArthur Park and the beautiful ballad Didn’t We, and was followed by a second project, The Yard Went On Forever.

These days, he gives plenty of his experience back. Last year, after a decade on the board of ASCAP, Webb added new responsibilities as chairman of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. ‘There’ve only been four chairmen in its history,’ he says in humble tones. ‘Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, who I knew very well, a lovely fella. Then of course Hal David, and there’s no way to say how highly we think of him.’

He approaches the job with outspoken solemnity. ‘I blame the internet, and I don’t care who knows it,’ he says firmly. ‘We’ve been in a struggle for intellectual property rights since the first day I walked into that building. It’s almost like the little Dutch boy who puts his finger in the dyke. By the time there’s another meeting, we’ve got another dyke.

‘There’s really quite a huge and dramatic canvas that’s being painted right now, and we don’t know what the end picture is going to be. Both PRS for Music and ASCAP, and people like us all over the world who are trying to take care of our writers, don’t want to be in the position of having given away the family store. And to be remembered as the generation who blew this wonderful thing we had going, of getting musicians paid for doing their work.’
It's so important to find music that has its own voice and style

There was never much doubt that Jimmy Layne Webb was going to be part of that noble breed himself. Encouraged by his mother to take piano lessons as a boy, he played in his preacher father’s church and chose music as a serious option when, after the family’s move to California, his mum passed away at a young age and his dad went home. Even before that, he’d had his first experience of getting a song on the radio, and tells a delightful story about it.

‘I had a group of girls I worked with called The Contessas. They were all blondes, lucky me, and they worshipped me, naturally,’ he smiles. ‘I taught them the songs and rehearsed them and played the piano, I was probably about 16. I had them all dressed up in their blue gingham outfits with their hair pulled back, the 1960s style. All beautiful, cute girls, and good singers, very coquettish.

‘I drove them out to the radio station, pulled up in front, and I had copies of the record in the trunk of my car. We went up to the front and knocked on the door and the girl said, “No no, you can’t come in.” Then a couple of the DJs walked through and saw the girls, and said, “Come on in!” They opened the door, all of a sudden the radio station was full of blonde girls and the DJs were happier than hell.

‘Suzy Weir was our lead singer, and she said, “Would you play our record?” and one of the DJs was in the control room, he said, “I sure will honey, if you’ll sit on my lap.” She sat on his lap and he played our record.

‘The excitement of that was indescribable, listening to your own record on the radio. Today, think about walking into a radio station without your bullet proof vest on. Things have so utterly changed that so much of the sweetness and the innocence have gone out of it.’

Alone in California in 1965, Webb quickly landed his first publishing deal, at Motown’s fast expanding Jobete Music. ‘I wrote 45 songs there,’ he recalls, chuckling at the memory of his first recorded cover, My Christmas Tree, on a festive album by the Supremes (‘There’s a Christmas tree in a window frame, just inside my door/But my Christmas tree doesn’t look the same as it always has before’). It wasn’t, ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time,’ but he was on his way.

‘Jobete knew everything about writing hit songs, they knew the nuts and bolts,’ says Webb. ‘Holland, Dozier and Holland wrote, I believe, 15 top ten hits in a row for the Supremes. Well, you go out today and try to do something like that. If you can do it once or twice in a row, that’s pretty good. Five times, that’s like, wow. Ten times, I’ll take off all my clothes and pour ashes over my head on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway. But that part of it they had down.

‘It influenced me a great deal in the sense that I realised you could formulise a good percentage of what you were trying to accomplish, in terms of connecting with the audience. In a way, it was a precursor for what we see today, except this [generation] has managed finally to leech out the last vestiges of genuine human emotional responses, and give us something that really is akin to Velveeta processed cheese spread.’

One of the many Webb compositions that have stayed with us for four and a half decades, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, was written during that Jobete period and first recorded by American hit maker Johnny Rivers. Campbell won two Grammys for his 1967 vocal performance of it, and the song went on to become one of the most recorded ever. Glen himself, even as he bravely rails against Alzheimer’s, is still performing it across the US this summer, on what has become an extended farewell tour.

‘Every once in a while I have to remind [Glen] who I am, and he always grabs on to me so hard he almost breaks my neck. But he’s just determined that he’s not going to let it get the best of him. We’ve continued to play concerts, and our relationship has never been warmer. It’s good to spend time with him.’

Jimmy is currently working on a second volume of Just Across The River, the 2010 album on which he re-opened his songbook with help from Campbell, Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel and others. The follow up will include contributions from Joe Cocker, Keith Urban and even the Jordanaires, on a version of Elvis and Me, the song Webb wrote about his friendship with the King.

Meanwhile, his songs keep renewing themselves in the hands of others, as underlined by Rumer’s assured interpretation of P.F. Sloan on her new Boys Don’t Cry set. ‘I thought, how could this young girl possibly know about the song and why would she have any interest in this stuff? It’s all ancient history. It turns out she’s done her research and is into the fact that P.F. wrote Eve of Destruction. It’s wonderful to meet someone who’s actually interested in the music again after all these years.’

The songwriting lesson that Jimmy Webb first understood as a teenager stays with him as a 65-year-old. ‘I learned that a good, hard hitting record, a potentially successful record, had a beginning, middle and an end,’ he says.

‘It had what Jerome Kern called a “berthin’.” A cargo, as it were. It wasn’t just a beautiful showboat that went down the river. There was something on board, something of value that you could take away with you and apply to your own life.’