This was originally recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965, who had a hit with "Memphis" the year before. The story of how the song was recorded starts with Jimmy Webb's first job: staff songwriter at Motown Records. Webb told us: "I worked for Motown when I was about 17, 18 years old. I was a white face. There were a lot of black faces and mine was a white face. But they always treated me very kindly, treated me like family there and really taught me a lot. And they had another kid there who had been on The Donna Reed Show, his name was Paul Petersen, and he had a couple of records. They're almost novelty records. One of them was called 'My Dad.' Kind of a ballad called (singing), 'My dad, now he is a man.' And it was a hit. And then he had another one called 'She Can't Find Her Keys.' He went out on a date with this girl and I don't know, she can't find her keys.
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.' I think they both cut them in the same room, in Western 3. 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." (See our full interview with Jimmy Webb