Songwriter Jimmy Webb celebrated his birthday this past Friday. He turned 74. I want to take the occasion to compile my notes on Webb’s work and revisit it this morning.
Webb is a winner of numerous Grammy awards and a member of the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. He first achieved fame as an incredibly precocious songwriter in the ’60s — the composer of the over the top pop epic “MacArthur Park” as well as of several hits for the 5th Dimension and, perhaps most notably, Glen Campbell.
Having met Richard Harris in Los Angeles, Webb flew to London at Harris’s invitation. In London Webb played his songs for Harris. Webb recalls the events that followed in his one-man shows and in his striking memoir, The Cake and the Rain. Harris somehow seized on “MacArthur Park.”
What the heck was this outrageous song all about? It took us a few years to begin to put it together, but Webb’s old flame “Susie” (Susan Horton Ronstadt) was at the heart of it. She proved to be quite a muse. Whatever the song was about, Harris brought Webb’s epic to life and it didn’t seem to bother him that Harris was slightly off on the name of the park. He nailed the feeling. See the rest of the story here and in Webb’s memoir.
I don’t want to revisit all the hits in versions everybody knows, but let’s go back to the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” Working as a young staff songwriter for Motown in the 60’s, Webb parted from the company on good terms. He asked Motown if he could take the song with him. Fortunately, they agreed. It’s an ode to romance, freedom, and release. “For we can fly!” The clarity of the stereo sound in the video below beats what we could hear on AM radio at the time and probably on vinyl as well.
The 5th Dimension loved Webb’s songwriting. They recorded his song cycle The Magic Garden in 1967. The label really should have released “The Worst That Could Happen” as a single.
Johnny Maestro recorded it the next year and turned the song into a hit for Brooklyn Bridge in 1969. I do believe that “Susie” was the inspiration for this one too.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (number 2, 1967) and “Wichita Lineman” (number 3, 1968) were of course the songs that launched Webb’s partnership with Campbell. The songs announced the arrival of a major new writer with a voice of his own. Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” to order for Campbell as a follow-up to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He was all of about 20 at the time.
Webb’s partnership with Campbell remained productive in the ’70s and ’80s as they continued to work together (work documented on the bountiful Raven compilation Reunited with Jimmy Webb: 1974-1988), although without the chart success of their earlier hits. Among the peaks of their later work is Webb’s haunting “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” a song also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Nanci Griffith, Renee Fleming and many others.
I don’t think any performance of this song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (video above, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Campbell briefly introduces the song: “Here’s one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs. It’s called ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.’ As you can tell, I’m partial to Jimmy Webb.”
Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is a man’s lament over a fickle woman. As I say, “Susie” inspired much of his work — see, for example, this Los Angeles Times article on “MacArthur Park” — and she may have been the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metaphor in the song’s title, but that’s my own speculation in this case.
By contrast, we can make an educated guess that she has something to do with the song Campbell performed in the video of the remastered hit single “Where’s the Playground Susie.” She’s right there in the title of the song. Campbell also introduced this song in concert as “one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs.” He had a few of them.
“Galveston” was another Webb song that Glen Campbell turned into a hit single (1969). I never heard the heartbreaking beauty of the song until Webb slowed down the tempo for the version he recorded with Lucinda Williams on Just Across the River. In the video below it is sung by Campbell at a slower tempo with Webb backing him on piano.
Stephen Holden profiled Webb for the New York Times in 2010. The occasion of Holden’s profile was the release of Webb’s Just Across the River, a wonderful recording in which Webb revisited some of the highlights of his catalog together with Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Nights”), Billy Joel (“Wichita Lineman”), Willie Nelson (“If You See Me Getting Smaller”), Lucinda Williams (“Galveston”), Jackson Browne (“P. F. Sloan”), Michael McDonald (“Where Words End”), Mark Knopfler (“Highwayman”), and Linda Ronstadt (“All I Know”).
Webb also teamed up with Campbell on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (video below). In the liner notes Webb wrote that he had been a fan of Campbell since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He said that he considered Campbell “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.”
“I used to literally pray that God would let me grow up and be a songwriter and be lucky enough to have Glen Campbell record one of my songs,” Webb wrote. “I rest my case for the existence of God.”
Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. He went public with the diagnosis and embarked on the farewell tour featured in the documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me. The 2011 album Ghost On the Canvas was to be his final recording, but he revisited a few of the highlights of his career during the recording of Ghost On the Canvas. His producers added a spare backing to the tracks and released See You There in 2013. Five of the album’s 12 songs are written by Webb, including the lesser known “Postcard From Paris.”
Webb’s work lives also lives in the numerous artists who have taken it up. “All I Know” was the last of many unrecorded songs Webb played for Art Garfunkel when Webb worked with him back in the ’70s and Garfunkel immediately glommed onto it. It was a hit for him in 1973.
Webb called on Linda Ronstadt to help him out on the song for Just Across the River. Ronstadt retired from performing in 2009 and announced that she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. The Parkinson’s has disabled her singing. This may be her last recording. With Ronstadt’s assistance, and with the backing by Bryan Sutton on guitar, this poignant song becomes more poignant than ever. I thought some readers might enjoy hearing the song in this unfamiliar version even though, in the singing department, Webb is the guy who wrote the song.
Billy Joel is one of Webb’s prominent admirers. How great it is to be able to revisit “Wichita Lineman” with Webb and Joel.
Shawn Colvin covered Webb’s “If These Walls Could Speak” on her album Cover Girl (1994). Shawn is a brilliant singer/songwriter who achieved stardom with the Grammy-winning pop hit “Sunny Came Home” on A Few Small Repairs in 1997. She is also a compelling live performer and interpreter. On Cover Girl she explored songs written by others and, by my lights, it is full of knockouts. One such is “If These Walls Could Speak.” You can’t help but feel the personal connection she finds in Webb’s lyrics:
They would tell you that I’m sorry
For being cold and blind and weak,
They would tell you that it’s only
That I have a stubborn streak
If these old walls could speak.
I don’t think any clip captures her artistry better than what appears to be the amateur video below of Colvin performing Webb’s song as an encore before an appreciative audience at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano in December 2011. Her eyes well up with tears as she sings that touching chorus.