His classic songs include “Wichita Lineman,” “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Up, Up & Away,” “MacArthur Park” and “Galveston”
Happy Birthday to a cherished legend of songwriting, Jimmy Webb. Born on this day in 1946 in Elk City, Oklahoma, he moved with his family around that area and West Texas before coming to L.A. at 18.
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Although he emerged in the hippie era, he wasn’t a guitar-strumming folksinger, but a songwriter more in the mold of Cole Porter or Gershwin. A piano-based songwriter, he wrote songs with a stunning musical and lyrical sophistication from the start. By 21 he already had an unprecedented chain of hits, all of which are modern standards now.
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).
The amazing songs never stopped. “P.F. Sloan,” was a tribute to his friend, P.F. Sloan. The remarkable reincarnational ballad “The Highwayman” was recorded by the supergroup The Highwaymen, which featured Johnny Cash, Waylong Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
Which is not to say it was always an easy ascent. Like all songwriters, he had his share of rejections, but these were temporary set-backs. He knew if he never stopped, he was unstoppable, and he kept forging ahead. When the producer Bones Howe asked him for an epic song for The Association, Jimmy went away to his piano for days, working around the clock until “MacArthur Park” was complete. At the time his girlfriend worked in an office right off the park, and to him it was then and always a place of romantic sweetness.
He poured his soul into the song, with its long instrumental sections and orchestral movements. He brought it to The Association, who turned it down. He was dejected but not for long. Before long he was flying to London to record “MacArthur Park” with Richard Harris, among other adventures. Harris had the biggest success of his musical career with “MacArthur Park.”
Jimmy swiftly 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.
When Art Garfunkel was planning his first solo album, Angel Clare, he looked for a songwriter who could deliver songs with the same innovative melodic and lyrical beauty as his former partner Paul Simon. He and Jimmy got together. Jimmy played every song he had written over several hours. Garfunkel chose two to record, “Another Lullaby,” and the album’s beautiful opener and first single, “All I Know.”
In 1977, Garfunkel recorded Watermark, an entire album of Jimmy Webb songs.
His amazing song “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” was not a hit, and is not as famous as many of his songs. Yet it’s one of his magical songs, and has been recorded by a big range of great vocalists. These include Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, Joan Baez, Michael Feinstein and the late great Joe Cocker. As with everything he sang, Joe made it his own, and brought it to a whole new realm.
Jimmy Webb is 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.
Unlike many songwriters for whom their art is a lonely and arduous profession, he 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.