American Icons: Jimmy Webb

A true living legend of songwriting, Jimmy Webb’s been crafting amazing songs, many of which have become cherished standards, for some forty years. And he’s still doing it. A brand new Webb album, Just Across The River, featuring duets with many luminaries (including Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Glen Campbell, Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt and more) has just been released, and it might serve as the bridge that connects this songwriter with his famous songs in the public mind. Though some might still not know his name, they know the songs: “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” “All I Know,” “The Highwayman,” “Up, Up and Away,” “MacArthur Park,” and many more. And those are just the famous ones. Webb is one of those rare songwriters who manages to bring a genuine measure of magic to everything he touches. Songs like “P.F. Sloan,” “Wooden Planes” and “Just Like Marilyn,” to name but a few, are not standards, but are every bit as powerful as the famous ones.

He was born on August 15, 1946, in Elk City, Oklahoma, and moved with his family around that area and West Texas before coming to L.A. when he was 18. It didn’t take him long to establish himself. A piano-based songwriter, his songs had a stunning musical and lyrical sophistication from the start, and by 21 he already had an unprecedented chain of hits for someone so young. First came Johnny Rivers’ record of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” then The Fifth Dimension’s exultant “Up, Up and Away.” Glen Campbell was never as great as when he sang a Webb song, and recorded many (including “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and more). Richard Harris had the biggest success of his career when he recorded “MacArthur Park,” replete with its unprecedented extended instrumental section. Webb quickly established himself as not only one of America’s greatest and most sophisticated melodists, but also as a lyricist of rare grace and grandeur, bringing a rich sense of place and time to his songs, usually found only in novels.

He’s also one of the most eloquent songwriters on the subject of his art, and has invested much of his wisdom and experience into his book Tunesmith, which no serious student of songwriting should be without. Given his proclivity for explaining the art, science and magic of writing songs, he’s one of the best guys around with whom to talk songwriting, as I’ve done on a few occasions throughout the past years.

Unlike many songwriters for whom their art is a lonely and arduous profession, Webb delights in it, and this joy lives in the words and music of all of his songs. “When I start on a song,” he explained, “sometimes at the beginning it seems just like an impossible task… It all looks unpromising. And I make myself play one note. And I get myself going and then momentum builds and I really get into the joy of it… You know I’m like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle, a glittering magical jigsaw puzzle.”

Despite the degree of joy he finds in the process, it remains a constant challenge for him. “It always feels like the first time to me,” he said. “It’s sort of like warming up for tennis or vocalizing. I have to get that thing going… It then becomes very rewarding for me as I approach the end of it and I keep fitting things in, and it feels good to me. It’s just the best feeling I have ever had. Sometimes it goes off the rails and I can feel that I’m losing it. I’m like a kid with my skateboard skidding out in front of me, and there’s nothing much I can do about it.”

Asked about the wealth of heartland imagery in so many of his songs, he said, “When I think of those [childhood] days the only way I can imagine this is with a picture. And to communicate that, I have to go back to that painting in my mind. I learned that way of expressing myself really from other writers. I’d be the first to say that Lennon and McCartney had a tremendous effect on me… songs like ‘Penny Lane’ had a cinematic impact on me… Paul Simon as well. He’s a very evocative writer.” (When I spoke to Simon about who he considered the great melodists of our time, he gave two names only – McCartney and Webb.)

Asked how he discovers great melodies, Webb said that unlike Burt Bacharach and other writers who work with pure melody first before thinking of chord progressions, he starts with chords. “Usually I’m playing a vamping kind of chord structure on the piano and singing over it. I never sit down and pick out a melody. I leave that to the voice to find its way through the chord structures… to let me sing along with this thing and see where this chord structure leads me melodically.”

Though he’s more famous as a songwriter than a singer, he’s a prodigious performer, and a night with Jimmy at the keys is not unlike getting to hear George Gershwin or Cole Porter live. It’s hard to believe one guy could have written all these amazing songs. Webb is still at it, thankfully, and if you get a chance to see him live, grab it. People ask why nobody writes songs like they used to. Fortunately for us all, Jimmy Webb still does.