(This article was first published in November, 1996)“He is one the most Innovative and musically proficient songwriters of our generation,” declared singer/songwriter Billy Joel
“The greatest torch song ever written,” Frank Sinatra said of the classic, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
The late songwriter Sammy Cahn observed, “His ‘MacArthur Park’ is a major piece of work — major! I’d almost compare it to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’”
High praise, indeed, from a widely-respected music industry trio, referring to a single composer — Jimmy Webb.
The following is a short list of some of the performers who have covered his music, which indicates his broad appeal: The Brooklyn Bridge Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, David Crosby, The Fifth Dimension, Art Garfunkel, Isaac Hayes, Richard Harris, REM, Johnny Rivers, Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand.
Just as screenwriters rarely receive the same credit for a film as the actors who transform their words, songwriters, too, are typically overshadowed by the entertainers who sing their material. The name Jimmy Webb name may not strike a chord with music fans, but his songs certainly do.
He has written classics such as “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “MacArthur Park,” among many others. Incidentally, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written in 1965, has been performed over five million times, according to the music licensor, BMI. Furthermore, five of his compositions were top ten hits in less than two years in the 60s.
For almost twenty years Webb’s fans found it difficult to obtain recordings of his own material. After performing songs — made famous by Campbell, Ronstadt and Garfunkel — for years in concert, Webb steadfastly refused to record his well-known or new tunes.
Fortunately, for his loyal fans and the music-listening public, Jimmy Webb recently changed, so to speak, his tune. Some of his most popular songs are featured on the recent Guardian Records release, Ten Easy Pieces. Billboard, the music industry bible, hailed it as “one of the year’s must-hear albums of the year.”
With a straightforward, exquisite production by Fred Mollen, Webb performs the songs in a relatively austere atmosphere — mainly his voice and a grand piano — with sporadic guitar passages or other instruments effectively utilized, in addition to opportune vocal accompaniment that capitalizes on the talents of Shawn Colvin, Michael McDonald, Marc Cohen and Susan Webb, his sister.
The captivating, often haunting, performances reflect the affection and admiration Webb has for these songs — somewhat comparable to the inherent respect and love parents develop for their children.
Last week, despite a cold and persistent cough, the 50-year-old Oklahoma-born son of a preacher gave me an exclusive interview, in which he spoke about his latest recording and a career that has spanned four decades.
Webb said he had avoided doing a project like Ten Easy Pieces because “I’d become so familiar with these songs that I didn’t know what I could do with them…You’re heart’s not there and you start feeling weird about the material after having performed it a thousand times.”
Besides, he added, “I didn’t want to be obvious” since he viewed “a greatest hits project as a commercial enterprise.” He modestly continued, “I never made a record just to sell.”
Webb noted that the “ten easy pieces” were a compromise among his producer, management, record company and himself. “Most of them were hits,” he acknowledged, but some were selected for other reasons.
Webb cited “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” which had been recorded by many artists, but never charted, and “If These Walls Could Speak,” because he considered it one of his best.
The new album, Webb noted, has been warmly received across the board since its release and he really “likes it, despite some initial trepidation.”
While he is aware of the difficulty of getting the record played on radio, due to the medium’s increasingly narrow format restrictions, and distributed, Webb facetiously said he would “sell it door to door,” if necessary. He mentioned that, in addition to traditional retail outlets, the CD would also be available on a cable shopping channel.
Webb’s career began when he was a young songwriter tied to singer Johnny Rivers’ music company. Rivers recorded several Webb tunes for his 1967 album, Rewind.
Glen Campbell subsequently heard and recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the first of five Webb originals that steadily made the music charts.
The Fifth Dimension, a mixed gender, Los Angeles-based quartet, recording for Rivers’ label in 1967, recorded Webb’s vibrant “Up, Up and Away,” which became an instant hit and launched the group’s successful career.
The impact of these rapid successes transformed Webb into a songwriting sensation while still in his early 20s. He skyrocketed to worldwide acclaim, in 1968, when he produced and orchestrated “MacArthur Park” for actor Richard Harris. Webb said that project was an especially memorable experience because he got the chance to travel to Europe and “work with this crazy Irish actor.”
Clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes, “MacArthur Park” was played in its entirety on Top 40 stations that previously only programmed pop songs that tracked under three minutes and rarely over four.
Between 1970 and 1982, Webb commenced his own singing career and released six albums, which virtually came and went unnoticed. Nonetheless, he continued to compose songs for other singers.
In 1993, Webb went back into the studio to record the Linda Ronstadt/George Massenberg produced Suspending Disbelief. The album contains some of his finest songs, including “Postcards from Paris,” “Too Young to Die,” “Friends of Elvis” and “Adios,” which was a top-ten hit for Ronstadt in three years earlier. While the release garnered some distinguished critical praise, including Time magazine calling Webb “our best raveler of the blind spots of the heart” and The New York Times citing it as “an album that may very well be the songwriter’s perfect moment,” it did not sell well.
Many of Webb’s songs concern love remembered, love lost and regret in the wake of broken relationships. Despite the melancholy of those universal themes, Jimmy Webb’s songs eclipse the art of heartbreak and its consequential suffering, so the listener appreciates the sensitive passions and emotions intricately woven into the music and lyrics.
Throughout his career, Webb has garnered numerous accolades, including the distinction of being the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. In 1993, he was recognized by his peers when he became the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters.
Jimmy Webb is unquestionably one of the most important songwriters of the last thirty years and his songs have left a conspicuous mark on our culture.
Though his singing career failed to gain broad recognition, his immense songwriting accomplishments have earned him an exalted position as one of the indispensable talents of our time.
In his forthcoming book about songwriting, Webb states, “The paramount joy of the craft is that, however simply it begun, it can take the songwriter a lifelong voyage across many distant and wondrous musical seas.
Jimmy Webb’s admirers and fans enthusiastically agree they’re glad he embarked on his musical journey.