This month we continue with another songwriter who is thought of as “contemporary,” but nevertheless deserves to be alongside the greats in the annals of American popular song.
Born in Oklahoma in 1946, Jimmy Webb is a songwriter who created some of the most memorable standards of the latter half of the 20th century. And despite his age, and the fact that his knack for writing pop hits began to diminish almost 30 years ago, he is still regarded as “young” and “new” among the great American pop composers.
Webb grew up performing and playing in church choirs, and when his family moved to California in the 1960s, he began to study music at San Bernardino Valley College. After his mother’s death the following year, Webb’s father decided to return to Oklahoma, but Jimmy wanted to stay in California to continue his music studies and to try his hand at a songwriting career. Legend has it that father and son parted in the parking lot of the Paradise Palms Motel in San Bernardino, where Jimmy’s dad gave him $40. and not much hope for success.
Webb took a job transcribing music for a publishing house, then moved into a small-time songwriting job with a division of Motown. After some minor releases by Motown acts, including the Supremes, Johnny Rivers met Webb and signed him to a better gig in 1966.
Rivers’ gamble paid off within a year, when Johnny produced a successful album for a new group called The Fifth Dimension. Five Webb songs were used on the LP, including “Up, Up and Away.” Webb did the arrangement and orchestration for that song at the tender age of 21. This and other accomplishments led to established songwriters like Sammy Cahn to refer to Webb as a “genius.”
A couple months after “Up, Up and Away,” Glen Campbell released his version of another Webb song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Although this song had been kicking around on a Johnny Rivers album for a year, it made little impact until Campbell recorded it. It was then covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Billy Vaughn. Oddly enough, Campbell’s instant classic version only reached #26 on the pop charts. Today it is one of a handful of Jimmy Webb songs that is instantly identifiable with Campbell, and it is reputedly one of the most-performed songs of the past half-century.
1967 was one of the times when the Grammy Awards actually got it right, handing out eight gramophones for Webb’s two hits.
1968 saw Glen Campbell’s recording of “Wichita Lineman” sell over a million copies. This was followed by Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge, selling a million copies of “Worst That Could Happen.” Both of these songs would by overshadowed by Webb’s next 1968 hit, a song that like the lyrics of “Worst The Could Happen,” has been recognized as both the best and the worst song of his career.
“MacArthur Park” was originally concocted for The Association, of “Never My Love” fame. It was a bizarre, complex song with different timings and shifts, sort of a “Good Vibrations” on steroids. Webb was working on an arty concept album with actor Richard Harris (sadly, best known today for portraying “Dumbledore” in the early Harry Potter movies). Webb recorded Harris singing “MacArthur Park,” who mis-pronounced it as “MacArthur’s” throughout the session. Webb is said to have tried correcting Harris, but eventually tired and just let it go. At 7 minutes, 21 seconds and a marginal vocal, it’s possibly the most unlikely hit in history. It soared to #2 on the pop charts, #1 on adult contemporary, and #1 in many overseas markets. Harris’ LP, A Tramp Shining was exclusively Webb songs, and stayed on the album charts for almost a year.
When it came time for the 1968 Grammys, Webb garnered awards for “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park.”
The hits continued in 1969, with Glen Campbell’s classic recording of “Galveston,” and the lesser known “Where’s the Playground Susie.” Two more songs hit for Webb in 1969, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “MacArthur Park.” Wait a second…
Incredibly, two new versions of these songs hit the charts, which in retrospect shows that they were “standards” right from the start. Isaac Hayes did a soul version of “Phoenix,” and Waylon Jennings did a country version of “MacArthur Park.” Both recordings chipped at the bottom of the pop charts, but did very well in their specific markets. Hayes soared high on the R & B charts. Jennings’ “Park” hit the number one spot on the country charts, and won yet another Grammy! This would not be Jennings’ last Grammy with a Webb song, and believe it or not, would not be his last ride on the country charts with “MacArthur Park.”
Webb’s meteoric rise to the very top as a songwriter, in terms of critical acclaim, records sold, and awards, is probably unmatched in the history of American popular song. So by 1970, if you look at Webb’s career strictly in terms of chart success, he seemed to “plummet” as quickly as he rose. Fact is that the critical acclaim and penchant for writing “standards” would continue — and still does — and probably will continue as long as Webb works on new projects.
The poppish-hits were more or less over, but new songs were continually being covered by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, Thelma Houston, and Amy Grant. More significantly, Webb began to seriously pursue a career as a singer. After releasing six albums in a dozen years beginning in 1970, Webb had more critical praise than you could comprehend, but only sold a very comprehensible number of records. Many of these songs have become standards in their own right — recorded and performed by the likes of Streisand and Rosemary Clooney — but these are not regarded as “hit” standards and are not in the canon of popular song. At least not yet; these are Webb songs after all, so who knows what lies ahead.
In 1977 Webb scored gold again. Again with “MacArthur Park,” this time by disco diva Donna Summer. Her high energy interpretation hit #1 on the pop charts. Meanwhile, Waylon made another recording in 1977 called “MacArthur Park Revisited,” for his Are You Ready for the Country LP. It made a brief ride up the country charts, again.
Indeed Webb compositions seem to come out of nowhere and ride the charts from time to time. His 1977 composition “Highwayman” was picked up in 1985 and recorded in four parts by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and (surprise) Waylong Jennings. Their version was so moving that they took to calling themselves The Highwaymen, hit #1 on the country charts, and scored — you guessed it — another Grammy for Webb.
Through the 1980s and 1990s Jimmy Webb moved into film scores, musicals, TV soundtracks, orchestral music, commercial jingles and other projects. His pop songwriting continued, but with only an occasional foray into the mainstream, and with none of the impact of his better known songs.
Today Webb has openly returned to the Christian faith of his upbringing. Some of his recent compositions include Biblical verses and Christian messages. Don’t be surprised if you hear a Jimmy Webb composition at a worship service…
Jimmy’s impact on American Popular Song is yet to be fully understood. He’s been compared to George Gershwin because of his classical influences, but that isn’t totally accurate. It could be said that Webb’s time at the top was brief, but that isn’t accurate either; his time on the charts may have passed but he has definitely remained at the top as a composer and active force in the music we hear.
It is indeed impossible to summarize Jimmy Webb’s influence in a few paragraphs. But we do know one thing for sure…somebody ought to bring that darn cake in out of the rain!