Then there's Richard Harris, the famous Irish actor best known to a younger generation as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. Harris had a hit song with Webb's "MacArthur Park," enchanting listeners with the story of a cake left out in the rain. Harris seemed an odd choice to record the song, but it made perfect sense to Webb.
Jimmy is still at it, with the 2010 solo album Just Across The River and the 2011 release Cottonwood Farm, which features Webb performing with his equally musical sons.
Jimmy Webb: I'm fine.
Songfacts: I was concerned, because when I was exchanging emails with (publicist) Cary, he said that you weren't feeling well.
Jimmy: Yeah, I caught something. I usually catch something when I'm out on the road, but this time I got - I don't want to go there.
Songfacts: That's all right. I'm glad to hear your voice. It's good to talk to you. I wanted to talk first about the new album, which is a family affair, I guess?
Jimmy: It's all my sons. Chris, James, Justin, Corny's playing bass, Cal Campbell (son of Glen Campbell), who's practically family, is on drums .
Songfacts: Here's a question I don't often get to ask people, but because you have such talented sons, is the songwriting skill hereditary?
Jimmy: I don't know about songwriting skill. They seem to all be able to write to some degree or another. They're all musicians, that's for sure. They were all drawn into that from a very early age. And you kind of look on from the sidelines with horror and go, "Oh, no, you can't be contemplating a career as a" - And then they say things like, "No, no, dad, I'm going to" - Like my son Charlie, he went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, he says, "I'm going to study film school." He went from film school to computer animation to business, and now he's a full time songwriter and musician.
And so they go through all these permutations as though they're trying to camouflage themselves, and somewhere deep down inside they all seem to be musicians and songwriters.
Songfacts: So I guess in a sense it is in the genes somehow?
Jimmy: Well, I don't know whether it goes that deep, to be scientific about it. It is something that they grew up with. I mean, it's something they were around all the time. And so that's the old argument between science and sociologists, is it the environment? Or is it really something genetic? It must be to some degree genetic. If you look at Glen Campbell's kids, every one of them is a fantastic musician and singer. I remember one night watching Ashley, Glen's daughter. Glen was playing something of mine, like "Highwayman" or something, and she was watching his hands and playing banjo and she said, "Dad, could you play that again?" And he played it again. And the second time she played it almost perfect. "Could you just play it one more time?" And he played it one more time, she played it with him. Beautiful 17-year-old girl, she looks like a movie star. But she was so quick she reminded me of him. That's the way Glen was when we grew up - he's only 10 years older than me. And when we worked together, he was extremely bright and quick at picking up chords and changes and things.
So yeah, I guess there's as good a genetic argument as there is an environmental argument.
Jimmy: Not really. I mean, there were obvious reasons, I think that Glen's voice is perfectly suited to early JW - "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" - there was some kind of a surreal fit between his voice and those songs. And yet there were times that we went out and we tried to make that happen, like on the album Reunion, which a lot of people think is the best thing we ever did, but it didn't sell any. It sold, like, three copies. I think the re-release 15 years later sold more than the original release.
So there were times that we tried to deliberately create that success factor and we were unable to do that. There were times when we weren't particularly trying to do it, and we just did it. It's very hard for me to look back and say, "Oh, a-ha, now I see why we were successful." Because at the time it certainly wasn't anything that I was in control of.
Glen was very, very good at arranging things for Top 40 radio. He came over to my house one time and spent some time there, and I remember I was playing an Allen Toussaint record. I liked this record, it had a real lowdown kind of delta feeling, great piano, syncopated piano chops and interesting songs on it. I was playing along, and he said, "What was that song?" I said, "Southern Nights." And he said, "Is that your record?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, can I have it?" And I said, "You mean you want my record?" (laughing) And he said, "Yeah." So I said, Yeah, you could have it. And he was gone, man. He had my record and it was like one of those animated cartoons, the roadrunner - *pooow* He was gone. And he worked out that (singing) "do do do." That record, I mean, within 4 weeks that record was on the air. He worked at a frightening pace once he got going.
So he was very, very good at commercializing my songs. He could come up with great intros and great solos, great breaks, and he wrote perfect strings, because he wrote very little. It was a minimalist approach and it just left Glen out there with the song and the guitar. I tended to write a little bit more as an arranger, and probably too much. So I could have done better to have stayed out of Glen's way, I think.
On certain songs, the magic is undeniable: "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." And it's almost as though the song was waiting for the singer and the singer was waiting for the song.
Songfacts: Did he ever return your record album or does he still have it?
Jimmy: No, he never did. (laughs)
Songfacts: Shame on him.
Jimmy: After all these years I don't care. I'm glad he had a hit record with it. He proved that he could pretty much call it. And for a while there, he could cut a hit record whenever he wanted to, and that's a pretty good trick.
Songfacts: One of the songs that you do on the new album, Highwayman, not only a song that Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings recorded, but it was also sort of the name of the supergroup. And I'm curious, did the song come first and then the group name?
Jimmy: Yeah, after they recorded it, it was very successful for them. It was a Number 1 country video. I won a Grammy that year for best country song. We were pretty much ignored by CMA, because they didn't know what to do with that. It was like Waylon said one time, "Which country?"
Songfacts: Exactly. That must have been gratifying, though, guys like that, to think so highly of your song.
Jimmy: Well, it was very, very nice. They did a beautiful Highwaymen album cover where they had portraits of all four of them and then they had a highwayman with a desert, Monument Valley look to it, which was very cool. And then they had it painted on the side of their bus, "The Highwaymen." And they traveled that way for a long time, until finally one of the guys died (Jennings). That was it, that was pretty much the end of the Highwaymen.
But they had ten years or so and it was a big turnaround for me in my career to have a hit record in the '80s and something that was big on the country charts and something that won another Grammy and everything. It was a big thing for me.
Songfacts: Do you remember when you wrote that song? Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired the writing of it?
I went from the highwaymen to the sailor to the dam builder. And a couple of hours went by and I was done, I was finished with it. I called George Martin, who was in America. It was very weird, because I was in England calling George Martin who was in America, saying, "Hey, George, I wonder if we could get this song on our album." Because we were right at the end of our album. And he really liked it and wanted to do it. So we got it on my album (El Mirage), and Glen heard it. And Glen did an album called The Highwayman and actually got in a huge row over it at Capitol. He left Capitol over that album.
Songfacts: Oh, really?
Jimmy: Well, the story that he tells is that they wanted him to cover "My Sharona" and that he wouldn't do it.
Songfacts: I can't imagine him doing that.
Jimmy: There are so many things in the world you can't imagine. (laughing)
Songfacts: (laughs) I guess so, I guess you're right.
Jimmy: Particularly in the record business. But anyway, he ended up cutting "Highwayman." And then when they were working on the very first Outlaw project, which they were all doing, Kris and Waylon and Willie were down there in Nashville working with Johnny Cash, because he wasn't feeling well, and he was obligated to do this album. And they said, 'Don't worry, we'll come down and we'll help you do it.' Which is a really nice thing for them to be doing. And I guess Glen stopped by to play some guitar, he was involved in it in some way that isn't 100% clear to me. But they told me that Glen played the song for them, and somehow or another they ended up recording it. It was a good thing for them, because there's four guys, there's four verses, each guy sort of plays a character, it's almost like a theatrical thing. It just worked out well for everybody.
Songfacts: That's a great story. I never realized that.
Jimmy: It's one of those times when the song and the singer collide at exactly the right moment, like Glen in "Wichita Lineman." There's a chain reaction and it just goes beyond anything that you ever imagined could happen.
Songfacts: The Wichita Lineman, it's interesting how when you write you can put yourself in the shoes of people that do work that definitely you don't do, right? I'm assuming you've never been a lineman for the county?
Jimmy: No, not particularly. I've never worked with high-tension wires or anything like that. My characters were all ordinary guys. They were all blue-collar guys who did ordinary jobs. As Billy Joel likes to say, which is pretty accurate, he said, "They're ordinary people thinking extraordinary thoughts." I always appreciated that comment, because I thought it was very close to what I was doing or what I was trying to do. And they came from ordinary towns. They came from places like Galveston and Wichita and places like that.
Whereas, no, I never worked for the phone company. But then, I'm not a journalist. I'm not Woody Guthrie. I'm a songwriter and I can write about anything I want to. I feel that you should know something about what you're doing and you should have an image, and I have a very specific image of a guy I saw working up on the wires out in the Oklahoma panhandle one time with a telephone in his hand talking to somebody. And this exquisite aesthetic balance of all these telephone poles just decreasing in size as they got further and further away from the viewer - that being me - and as I passed him, he began to diminish in size. The country is so flat, it was like this one quick snapshot of this guy rigged up on a pole with this telephone in his hand. And this song came about, really, from wondering what that was like, what it would be like to be working up on a telephone pole and what would you be talking about? Was he talking to his girlfriend? Probably just doing one of those checks where they called up and said, "Mile marker 46," you know. "Everything's working so far."
Jimmy: But he could have been talking to his girlfriend - I'm a romantic, so that's where I go.
Songfacts: Sure. Tell me about "By the Time I Get To Phoenix." Do you have a vivid memory of writing that song? And if so, what do you recall about that experience?
Jimmy: Not really. I remember that I was a contract writer at Motown Records.
And they came to me and said, "We need a song for Paul Petersen." And I wrote "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." And they didn't like it for him. They didn't like it for anybody. They ended up cutting it with a couple of different people and not really being happy with it. And when I left the company they gave me the song and said, "You can take this one with you." And I said, "Okay, I will. I like it." They liked verses and choruses there. Verses and big choruses. And "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is three verses, very simple, very direct storyline.
The guy who hired me at Motown, Mark Gordon, who managed the Fifth Dimension, he was signing them over at Soul City, which was Johnny Rivers' company. I ended up going over there. They bought my contract out, I went over there. And I took "Up, Up and Away," "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "Worst that Could Happen, and a handful of hit songs that were there with me.
So after all that, Johnny Rivers cut "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Went in and did it with the Wrecking Crew and Marty Paich doing the strings. And then the story loops back to me from Glen Campbell. He was driving along the street one day, heard Johnny's record and thought, "I could cut that record and make a hit out of it."
Songfacts: And he was right again, wasn't he?
Jimmy: Yeah, I think they both cut them in the same room, in Western 3.
Songfacts: No kidding?
Jimmy: Yeah, I remember working in there with Lou Adler on the first one, but I don't remember working on Glen's records. I wasn't always around for Glen's records. So there are these long, torturous stories for most of these songs that have not had easy lives. (laughing)
Songfacts: Apparently, yeah. There's a version of the song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" by a guy named Nick Cave. I don't know if you're familiar with him.
Jimmy: I know him very well, he's a good friend. It's a good record. He and I used to stay at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel together.
Songfacts: Is that right? I never would have guessed that. His version - and he would even probably admit that he's not a great natural singer, but his version of that song is so sad that it's hard to listen to sometimes. He just really captures that melancholy of the song.
Jimmy: Yeah, he did a nice job on it. He's a good artist, I like him.
Songfacts: Well, you earn cool points in my book for knowing Nick Cave.
Jimmy: I know everybody. (laughing)
Songfacts: I guess so. (laughs) Did you ever talk to Nick Cave about songwriting?
Jimmy: Maybe I did. I don't know. We used to commandeer a table down in the lobby in the Roosevelt Hotel and drink like fiends. I don't drink anymore. I haven't had an alcoholic beverage in years.
Songfacts: Good for you.
Jimmy: Back in the day, we would drink a little bit.
Songfacts: I can imagine.
Jimmy: I don't know that we really ever specifically talked about songwriting. Something you'd be surprised that songwriters don't always talk about.
Songfacts: Well, you probably don't want to give away your secrets.
Jimmy: I've given all mine away. I don't have any secrets. But maybe there are some guys out there that feel they have secrets.
Jimmy: Well, I met Richard on stage at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. We were doing like an anti-war pageant with Walter Pidgeon, Edward G. Robinson, Mia Farrow and some other people, and I was doing music. In our off-time we used to like to play the piano backstage and sing and have a few beers, and Richard and I got to be really good friends. And we were just kind of tossing around that thing about, "Wow, one of these days we ought to make a record." And I used to say that to everybody, I'd say that to a cab driver.
So one day I got a telegram over at my house on Camino Palmero that said, "Dear Jimmy Webb, come London, make record. Love, Richard." And it was the first time I was ever out of the country. I got on a 707 and flew to London and started doing this record with Richard. "MacArthur Park" was kind of in the pile, but we had a lot of songs that we were interested in doing. And we ended up doing two albums. And a lot of people think the second album was better than the first. The second album was called The Yard Went on Forever.
The first one was called A Tramp Shining. And that takes us to the sort of hidden question in your question, which is why would you get an actor instead of a singer? Well, he was a singer. He had just done a very successful top-grossing motion picture, which was a musical version of Camelot. And he had sung all the Lerner & Loewe stuff. I mean, it wasn't perfect, but he had sung it. He had gotten through the score and it was considered successful. And I thought he had done a good enough job singing Lerner & Loewe that I thought I could make a record with him. I didn't think it was that weird - I still don't know why people are so taken aback by it. It's not like some strange thing. I had just done a musical. You know what I'm saying?
Jimmy: He knew every Irish song that he had ever heard, he could sing them all, he did sing them all. His favorite drinks were black velvets, champagne and Guinness. Get a couple of black velvets in him and he'd start singing Irish songs. And I still know probably about a thousand Irish songs that Richard taught me.
Songfacts: How cool is that?
Jimmy: And we ended up making a successful album - it's hard to find a more successful album than that album. The song itself, "MacArthur Park," was covered by probably 150 or 200 artists. Still being covered, including Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, all the jazz artists wanted to cut it.
Songfacts: And that's got to be gratifying when jazz musicians love it on just a music level, right?
Jimmy: Yeah. So it was, I mean, now that Richard's gone, he's a little easier to appreciate. He brought a great kind of theatrical dignity to "MacArthur Park" and to those songs. And if he missed a note or he didn't carry it off particularly well as a singer, he had the actor's ability to step his way through the lyric and to speak some of the lines and basically to carry it off. He played Camelot on the road live. He had a bus and truck company then. And he eventually bought the rights to the Lerner & Loewe score, so he owned the publishing. And he played Camelot on the road for eight years. He told me one day at a bar that he made $65 million playing Camelot on the road.
Songfacts: Camelot was very good to him.
Jimmy: Yeah. (laughs) So it's a little insulting to say that he couldn't perform, or that he couldn't sing.
Songfacts: Now that you explain it that way, I see exactly what you mean. I wanted to wind things up here by talking about the Fifth Dimension and some of the songs that you wrote for them. I think "Up, Up and Away" was one of them. And there's quite a number. How do you recall that experience?
And it turned out great. And the next album was the Thelma Houston album, Sun Shower, which has some of the most fantastic orchestrations I've ever done. I don't know whether I've ever really gotten up to that level again. But, I mean, it was just something that I was doing. It was learning on the job, but at a fantastic rate. And I loved the kids, I loved Billy, Marilyn, Ron, Lamont, and Florence. And we'd all kind of started out together, we all had holes in our tennis shoes and we all had day jobs. And we made it happen together. They had a huge career. They went off and they did Laura Nyro and they did Andrew Lloyd Webber. They did everything. They had a huge career.
There was a lot of dissonance in that group, unfortunately. They could probably have done better as a group if they had gotten along a little bit better. And I won't say any more than that, because I don't want to malign anybody. But I still work with Billy and Marilyn. They're two of my favorite singers in the world, I love them to death. She had a huge Number 1 record, I mean, a platinum record called "One Less Bell to Answer" on a Hal David/Burt Bacharach song. She was the host on Solid Gold, you know.
Songfacts: I remember that.
Jimmy: They just had a huge career, and I was there. I think I was instrumental and I wrote their first big hit. And I was there for the first two albums. I was really integrated into the structure of the albums, whereas I didn't produce, I hadn't made it to producer yet, but I was doing all the music. I was learning a tremendous amount. I was doing all their vocal arrangements, too.
Songfacts: Oh, really? I didn't realize that.
Jimmy: Yeah. Eventually they got someone to come in and write everything down. In those days we just did it - the old expression is we woodshedded everything. We would just sing it over and over and over, and they would be like, "Okay, hey, why don't you guys try this?" And you'd just try things and try things and try things. And sometimes I think that's the way the best stuff was created. Particularly in the rock and roll world.
Songfacts: I can't argue with you on that. I think the evidence speaks for itself.
Jimmy: Everything didn't have to be written down. When you got to orchestra parts and stuff like that, you almost had to write them. I mean, Harry Nilsson used to experiment with having Van Dyke Parks hum the parts to the orchestra, which I never saw as being a very successful strategy.
Songfacts: Right. Sometimes you need to write it down. Especially with musicians who are used to reading music instead of improvising. That's what they go by.
Jimmy: Exactly. (laughing)
Songfacts: Well, Jimmy, it's been such a treat to be able to talk to you and hear these stories. I think we've only scratched the surface, and you're still making music.
Jimmy: I had a record on the charts last year, my album Just Across the River was - I forget, I think it was 60. It didn't do badly for an old geezer.
We spoke with Jimmy on May 16, 2011. Get more at Jimmywebb.com.
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