By Brian Wise
Multi Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb has returned to Australia for the first time in nearly a decade to perform some of his greatest hits including ‘Up Up and Away’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘MacArthur Park’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston.’
At his Melbourne show in the Recital Centre last night, Webb spoke at length about various aspects of his career and punctuated the chat with some of his best known songs. In the 90 minutes on stage he was only able to touch on some of the highlights but dwelt on Glen Campbell, who had been such massive help in helping launch Webb’s career as songwriter. Webb told how he first heard Campbell’s single ‘Turn Around, Look At Me,’ on a small transistor radio hanging from the roof of the tractor while ploughing his father’s fields in Oklahoma. It sent him on a mission to not only buy the record but to determine that he wanted to write songs for Campbell.
“I prayed that I could write a song just half as good as ‘Turn Around, Look At Me’,” said Webb, perched at the grand piano and added jokingly, “and you know, I wrote a lot of songs that were about half as good as that.”
By his own admission, Webb is a songwriter rather than a singer but it is still interesting to hear his renditions of his own songs which he embellishes with the piano – even if he cannot quite hit the high notes like he once did (something he doesn’t try to hide).
The stories flow and are a constant source of amusement. There is the one about writing ‘Galveston,’ the follow up to ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ sitting in a former embassy that he was renting in Los Angeles at a piano that had been painted green (except for the keys) by one of the 30 guests living with him (or off him).
While he skips the more sordid aspects of the ‘lost weekend’ era of his friendships with Harry Nilsson and John Lennon, there is a tinge of bitterness at the fact that he had to assert his rights when Kanye West used ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ended up getting the credit (along with 12 others) but not getting to accept the ensuing Grammy. But for the most part the evening is a real feel good experience.
Of course, Webb’s visit also coincides with the recent publication of his autobiography The Cake & The Rain. While his 1999 book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting revealed Webb’s creative process, the latest book is a warts-and-all account of his life in and out of music – and what an astonishing life it has been. Throughout the new book Webb drops names like confetti – Sinatra, Presley, Glen Campbell, Barbra Streisand and more – but all of these artists form a vital part of his huge songwriting success.
For Jimmy Webb it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Determined to forge a name for himself as a songwriter, having been inspired at the age of 14 by hearing Glenn Campbell, he stayed in Los Angeles when his family moved against the advice of his father who had moved back to Oklahoma after the death of Webb’s mother. By the age of 19 he had signed a publishing deal and, in 1966, when he was just 20, Webb heard Johnny Rivers record ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix.’ Rivers was able to place Webb’s song ‘Up Up and Away’ with the Fifth Dimension and just a year later Glen Campbell recorded his own version of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ which entered the Top 30 and helped to establish Webb’s name as one of the great writers of his generation.
The hit songs continued with Campbell also having hits with ‘Wichita Lineman,’ ‘Galveston’ and ‘Where’s The Playground Susie?’ Even Isaac Hayes recorded an epic version of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ for his Hot Buttered Soul album. Perhaps one of his finest songs was ‘Do What You Gotta Do’, recorded by Al Wilson (and recently sampled by Kanye West).
But the song that will be forever associated with Webb’s legend is ‘Macarthur Park’ which helped turn Richard Harris into a pop star (for a brief while) and defied convention with its 7-plus minutes in length. The song also yielded Webb’s only No.1 single when Donna Summer revived it in disco form.
Webb remains the only artist ever to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. His numerous accolades include the prestigious Ivor Novella International Award (2012) and the Academy of Country Music’s Poet Award (2016). In 2016 Rolling Stone Magazine listed Webb as one of the top 50 songwriters of all time. Jimmy Webb was the youngest person ever inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Webb’s songs have been recorded by a litany of greats and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ was the third most performed song in the 50 years between 1940 and 1990. Webb has continued to write and record, and has released thirteen solo albums since 1968. His latest two CDs, Just Across the River and Still Within the Sound of My Voice, were both recorded in Nashville and feature duets with Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, JD Souther, Glen Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Mark Knopfler, Brian Wilson, Lyle Lovett and Keith Urban, among others.
On May 3 this year Carnegie Hall hosted A Celebration of the Music of Jimmy Webb: The Cake and The Rain featuring Ashley Campbell (daughter of Glen Campbell), Judy Collins, Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, Toby Keith, Johnny Rivers and Dwight Yoakam. The event not only coincided with the new book but also with the 50th anniversary of ‘Wichita Lineman.’
Just prior to his latest visit I had the chance to talk by phone to Webb.
Hi Jimmy, how are you?
I’m better than I’ve ever been. Yeah, I’m a little bit older but I’m much better.
We’re looking forward to seeing you back here.
I really can’t wait. My wife and I are coming together and I have a love affair with your country and your people and can’t wait to see them again and soak up the eucalyptus trees and perhaps have a little sunlight for a change.
Tell us about the format of the show that you’ll be doing. I assume it’s going to be a little bit different than when we saw you here last time.
I think it was about seven years ago. It seems like an awful long time. I may be wrong. I think it’s been a while. My show always changes, the content changes and the stories change. Pretty frequently the numbers that I’m performing and the way I’m doing them change. It’s me and a piano. That doesn’t change.
I imagine some of the stories will be a little bit different. There’s been an intervening period, and I guess you’ve collected a few more stories and obviously there’s some more songs I would imagine as well.
Quite a lot has happened, and as I said, I’ve got a couple of new tunes. I’ve made two albums since I was there, both of them in Nashville. One of them called Just Across the River and the other one called Still Within the Sound of My Voice. I’ll be doing songs from those and I’ll be talking about Glen Campbell quite a bit.
I talk about the book a little bit and then sprinkle the show with some anecdotal stuff about Richard Harris and Mr. Sinatra. Every song has its own DNA and I get into that. I try to lift up the curtain on the process, how songwriters arrive with a finished song.
I’ll be talking about that. The show is always light. Hopefully, it’s meant to be funny. I aim to entertain. That’s why I charge money. I work at it!
I’ll talk about the book in a moment, but I wanted to ask you about the tribute concert to you at Carnegie Hall last month. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well we got some folks together to raise money for two major Alzheimer’s charities. One of them is the Alzheimer’s Foundation, which is a big charity here, and also Glen’s trust, which is called the I’ll Be Me Foundation. People just, wonderful, wonderful talents fell into line and volunteered their services. It was really a wonderful, wonderful evening. I’m just thinking on my feet. Judy Collins was absolutely stunning, as well as Catherine Zeta Jones and one of my old partners in crime, Michael Douglas was hosting.
It was really very elegant, very intimidating as I was part of the show at least on a couple of the numbers, I was playing piano. Carnegie Hall is always intimidating, but always rewards the performer with the most beautiful sound. It was great. We raised a little money. We helped, hopefully, to give a little profile to this problem, which is really going to affect us baby boomers in a big way now in the next few years.
Of course, Glen is a very special person in your life, isn’t he?
Well, he is I look back on it now and it’s hard to believe, but Glen and I have been friends for over 50 years now. Of course, we helped each other at the beginning of our careers. People say, “Well don’t you feel like you were responsible for his success?” I just laugh. I can’t imagine anything further from the truth. I think that he was responsible for a lot of my success, and he was a proponent of mine and an advertiser of my merits and passed my songs along to other people including Highwayman, which he took down to Nashville and played for Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and they had a big hit with that.
On a couple of occasions I returned the favour. I played for him, Allen Toussaint’s ‘Southern Nights’ off of an Allen Toussaint’s solo album. He went running out of my house with the record. He was like Wile E. Coyote, it was bam, out of my house with my record. I never got the record back, by the way. Within a month or so he had ‘Southern Nights’ on the charts. We just had a reciprocal arrangement where we went for the music and it panned out for us more often than not. We played a lot together. We did many, many concerts. I would go out and do the first half and he’d come out sometimes with symphony orchestras. I really can’t count the times that I shared the stage with him, which was an immense honor for me to do that, and kind of follow him around the world. He was huge in Ireland and the U.K., and I know that he was much loved in Australia as well.
It all played out in a rather poignant way because I think it was 2012 and we were playing a concert in Indianapolis with the Symphony Orchestra there and a talk backstage with Kim, Glen’s extraordinary wife, and we were having an after-concert chat. She mentioned in passing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It did, it rocked my world because I figured that he and I would go into old age together and just make a dozen more records and who knows what could happen, what we could invent, what would come to pass. It played out in a very poignant way because this disease is insidious and it doesn’t just end someone’s life, it’s kind of like the fade at the end of a record. It just gradually takes someone away in bits and pieces. It’s been tragic. It hasn’t been easy, but I have to tell you something. What I have experienced is nothing to what the families of Alzheimer’s victims experience. The families, that’s where the rubber hits the road and that’s where the real pain is.
He’s had an exceptional career, Glen, and when you look back on it, I suppose we can celebrate that at least. His family are able to celebrate that, aren’t they?
He’s much loved. He’s much loved by the musical world. When I did those two albums in Nashville, they were more or less tributes to Glen, and everybody came in. Keith Urban came in. Vince Gill was there. Artie Garfunkel was there. Joe Cocker was there. Billy Joel sang Wichita Lineman. I know that when he was doing his, he’s got a wrap-up tour, he called it his goodbye tour, we know that in the rock genre there’s always some band on a goodbye tour and frequently it’s not really a goodbye tour. It’s a “maybe we’ll get back together,” tour, but in Glen’s case, it really was a goodbye tour. He said something kind of extraordinary. We were all sitting around talking about the prognosis one day, and they were trying to explain to him what to expect in the course of the disease, and he got very irritated and said, “Well I’m not finished yet,” and proceeded to get the band together and start rehearsing for a world tour.
He managed to crank out some exceptionally good performances for a guy with stage four Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t believe the way he played sometimes. It would seem almost that he had been set free in some way and his spirit had gone into a whole other musical higher plain, especially when he played, when he played solos and what have you. It was a bizarre moment there when it was working for him. His imagination was just completely unfettered. I think the people who got to see those shows were very lucky.
Just getting back to the tribute concert, can I ask you about one of my favorite musicians, a man I know you had a lot to do with early on and who helped you early in your career, Johnny Rivers – still going strong.
Johnny was there and sang ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’. He sang it very simply, just playing self-accompanied with an acoustic guitar. No, I was very, very grateful for the opportunity to tell the audience that night that this is the guy who really put me up on that stage. He was the first to record ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and he played ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ for Al De Lory. Al De Lory recognized it immediately as a hit for Glen, and that’s the way that happened.
I’m 70ish, and I feel that it’s amazing that these songs are still being performed or recorded and something I had never had anticipated. The reason is very simple. It’s because of the people around me. It’s not because of me; it’s because of the people who believed in me and passed my music along from hand to hand, from session to session and said, “This guy’s got something you should listen to.
I’m starting with Louis Armstrong who I met up in Vegas one night when I was just a kid. He looked at a piece of music and played a little bit on his horn and said to me, “You stick with it. You stick with it.” He told me that two or three times, “You stick with it man. You stick with it.” There were many, many nights when I’d be laying in some hotel room somewhere staring at the ceiling and saying, “What am I doing? What a life.” I would hear Satch saying, “Stick with it.” You get to this point in your life, you look back and if you’ve lived any kind of a life, you owe an awful lot to a lot of people.
You’ve mentioned some great names there, and you mentioned Satchmo. It’s like reading your book, The Cake in the Rain. It’s crammed with just about every big name in the music industry.
There’s names dropping all over the place there.
You’re lucky enough to be able to dro
Well somebody was writing about the book the other day and saying that there was a steady drip, drip of big name talent or whatever. I thought, “Well okay, that’s your point of view. That’s fine. I can take that on the chin because I’m a big boy,” but the truth is that I don’t know how to tell my story without talking about the people who pushed me along and helped me from a baptist preacher’s kid who’s really working as a farm laborer driving a tractor and not a very good student and really not very much to look forward to accept this crazy idea that I had, which people were only too glad to tell me how insane it was to want to be a professional songwriter. I was about as far away from that as I am from the Hubble Telescope. I was a long way from having Glen Campbell record one of my songs when I was 16 years old, and yet six, seven years later that’s exactly what happened.
I’m very lucky. I came on the scene when the music business was red hot. It wasn’t some kind of subordinated to the digital media kind of click in and out kind of a thing. It was really a passion with people. They loved their records. They loved their artists. They loved songs. There was a passion to it. There was a demand for good songs all over the industry. The timing was right. I had written a ton of songs. By the time I was 17, 18 years old, I had 50 or 60 songs. I mean that’s a lot of songs for a kid. It worked out nicely for me, but I wouldn’t want to try it again.
Fortunately, you don’t have to. The title of your book is The Cake in the Rain, which refers of course to MacArthur Park.
There have been essays written on that song, but it reminded thinking about this the other day, that I saw an interview with George Clinton at Jazz Fest a few years ago and the interviewer asked him about the meaning of the song Flashlight and George said, “Listen, it’s just a song. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Can’t you just enjoy it for a song?”
I thought that was a great explanation.
I can’t get away with doing that because people always press me on MacArthur Park. I think been asked, “What does The Cake Out in the Rain mean,” I’ve probably been asked maybe short of a million times, but not very short. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s comforting in a way to know that you have something out there that’s really got peoples attention. Sometimes its been very onerous. It’s been in one particular book, The 100 Worst Songs of All-Time, a very unpleasant man put MacArthur Park as number one. You have people who I mean they are physically insulted by the song. They come up to me and their faces are red and they’re demanding an explanation. It’s almost as though I’ve tried to put one over on them or something.
I can’t explain to you. There’s a whole mentality behind this song. I think that I settled on The Cake in the Rain as a title because I thought if you have any questions about this song, you can read this book and maybe it would save me trying to explain something that really should never be explained, which is, A, poetry and B, songs. What they really are is for each individual they’re something else. It’s not the same thing across the board. If it’s a good song, it’s hitting a lot of people, but it’s hitting them all a little bit differently because that’s what it takes to appeal to a million people. That’s what a million seller is. My god, how do you sell a million records? I don’t even know whether you can sell a million records anymore, but we used to be able to do it with a little three minute song.
That was a powerful, powerful incentive to really crank out the best stuff you could crank out because, man, when they caught fire and those records starting flying out of the store, there was nothing like it. It was adrenaline rush of all time to hear your own music on the radio and then to open up Billboard every week and watch those records climbing up the charts, clearly that was some of the tall green grass, as my daddy would say.
Of course, ‘MacArthur Park’ was a little bit more than a three minute pop song, but I’ve read that you’ve particularly enjoyed Donna Summer’s version of it because it go you your first number one. I was wondering, are there any other interpretations of your songs that you really enjoy hearing. It must be difficult for a songwriter, unless you’re writing songs for other people, which is often you did in the past in your early days, interesting for you to listen to other people perform your songs and have a different nuance.
Sometimes. I can remember that I played Maynard Ferguson’s version of ‘MacArthur Park’ a lot and more recently, I’m going towards jazz artists here, but Pat Metheny cut a song of mine called ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’ and it’s just hauntingly beautiful. Sometimes I hear there’s a wonderful Norwegian singer and I can’t remember her name right now, but hear records from overseas that I love.
I think that if someone asks me about ‘MacArthur Park’ I would say that I still favor Richard Harris because I produced that record and because it literally changed the way top 40 radio looked for a while. Believe me, it wasn’t going to happen again too many. The Beatles followed it with ‘Hey Jude’, which was 7 minutes 17, which is only about five seconds shorter. I think that maybe top 40 radio was getting a little bit worried about these long records because it was a serious problem for the flow of where they had a certain number of commercial breaks scheduled for an hour and they needed to play more music, more music.
I mean that was the rallying cry of the hot stations was we play more music. I used to get paid three times every time MacArthur Park aired because it was as long as three songs, so you could see how that would get to be a problem for them. I think I was lucky. I come back to, that’s my standby excuse, but I think I was lucky that they played it. I think that once they got Hey Jude out of the way, they decided, “Listen, we’ve got to stop playing these long records.” I could almost hear the station managers talking to the DJs and saying, “You guys have to stop playing these long records. They’re costing us money.” Look, we made a little bit of history, small letter H, little asterisk, MacArthur Park, one of the longest records ever played on AM on red hot top 40 radio.
It came as a complete and utter surprise to Richard and I. Maybe less to him. He was so supremely self-confident. It was like, “Oh, Jimmy, I’ll cut ‘MacArthur Park’ and I’ll be the pop star.” He actually believed it. I was thinking, “Well I love to hang with this guy. I love drinking Guinness and Black Velvet’s and Irish whiskey with this character. He’s like the big brother I never had, but he’s crazy if he thinks this thing is ever going to get played on the radio.”
I fell off my footstool the first time I ever heard it on the air. The whole thing on the air? I thought it was a little bit insane. Off it went. Then 10 years later, Donna Summer cut it and it was a number one. It was actually a hit twice in the U.K. They re-released it after two or three years and it went up again. It was a hit in Germany. There was an Italian version that did very well. There’s a list in the back of the book, there’s a kind of discography I guess you could call it. It lists all the artists.
It doesn’t list them all, but it lists 200 or 300 artists who recorded MacArthur Park. It’s insane.
One of my favorite songs of yours, which is much longer than ‘MacArthur Park’ is Isaac Hayes version of ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, which I think clocks in around 18 minutes or so.
Yeah, that was an ear opener. That was a whole side of a record, and I kept waiting for the song to start. I think it actually may have been one of the first rap records, but I loved Isaac, he was a gentle soul. Had a great set of pipes. He was a really talented dude. He was on the radio here for a long time, and much loved. I thought it was just a great tribute for him to do that. He brought his own world to it, his own feel. I love that. I love that. I don’t draw lines around genres of music. I just love good music, whatever it is.
Jimmy Webb appears at the Sydney Recital Hall on June 29 and at the State Theatre in Perth on July 1.