WEBB 2.0

Forty years on, legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb finds his voice


he AOL Music website describes Jimmy Webb as “that rarity in Rock music, a professional songwriter who achieved stardom in that capacity,” pointing out that almost all of Rock’s other great songwriters became well-known for their own versions of their material.

The truth of that has long seemed self-evident. After starting to write professionally in his teens, Webb was just over 20 when he wrote a series of enduring Pop classics in the late 1960s — “Up, Up and Away” for The 5th Dimension, “MacArthur Park” for Richard Harris, “The Worst That Could Happen” for Brooklyn Bridge and, especially, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” for Glen Campbell. While that was his zeitgeist moment, he has continued to pen hits for others — “Highwayman” for Country supergroup The Highwaymen, “All I Know” for Art Garfunkel and Donna Summers’ Disco-era revival of “MacArthur Park.”

But an interesting thing has happened in just the past year or two, as Webb passed age 60. He’s now become recognized as a singer/songwriter, too, as a result of the sales success of his 2010 album Just Across the River. And he’s increased his touring and public appearances to accommodate the newfound recognition — Webb will be singing and playing piano at St. Xavier High School on Saturday night as part of the Greater Cincinnati Performing Arts Society’s schedule. 

Just Across the River mostly features versions of Webb’s older material, some with a pronounced Country/Americana presence, with such duet partners as Campbell, Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams. He’s an equal partner as a vocalist, with a voice that’s earnest and expressive.

“For me it’s an unbelievable stroke of luck and great work by my record company,” Webb says by phone from his Long Island home. “So here I am still working and getting away with making my living around music, which is all I wanted to do anyway.”

Born in Oklahoma and an early fan of Country, Webb came to Los Angeles with his family as a teen. He fell in love with the ambitious Jazz/Classical-tinged arrangements and mature lyrics of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s early- and mid-1960s Rock and Soul songs for Dionne Warwick (“Walk on By”) and others. 

And Webb was satisfied to quickly find his place at the top of the world of professional songwriting. At first, because of his initial hits, he was known as a writer of place-name songs. 

“It’s part of placing the listener in a certain physical setting — it’s a fascinating psychological technique to use on someone,” he says. “(But) when people start saying, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who writes songs about towns,’ then you know it’s time to stop.”

But that started to change with the arrival of Folk-influenced, formally untrained singer/songwriters of the late 1960s/early 1970s (Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and others). Carole King, who had come out of the “old school” of professional songwriting as an early-1960s Brill Building writer of teen-oriented hits, stunned everyone by transforming into an introspective singer/songwriter whose Tapestry album sold millions.

“At first, when I started, this community of ‘pure’ songwriters and ‘pure’ singers was alive and well,” Webb recalls. “On one side you had David and Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller and the Brill Building, and then you had singers like Andy Williams, Mr. Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Perry Como. By 1971 (or) 1972, if you were songwriter and weren’t recording, you knew the sun was setting on your career one way or another. You’d look at an album like Tapestry and say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to start recording.’ Change began to come fast and relentlessly.”

Webb tried to be a singer/songwriter beginning in the early 1970s — his first legitimate album, Words and Music, predates Tapestry. But the seven albums of contemporary material he put out through 1993’s Suspending Disbelief (his favorite) just never caught favor. Finally, starting with 1996’s Ten Easy Pieces, Webb began the process of revisiting and reinterpreting his most famous songs, which seems to have paid off for him.

One problem Webb may have had earlier was that, to the public-at-large, he already had a “voice” — Glen Campbell. Ten years older than Webb, Campbell already had a wealth of session-work and recording experience when they met. Campbell knew how to popularize the raw material of a good song. 

“We were a good partnership,” Webb says. “He was to me what Dionne Warwick was to Burt and Hal. When I was more or less muted by my complete lack of experience as a singer and couldn’t really communicate my own music to people, Glen was my voice. I was fortunate to be there with some songs that were admirably suited for him — there was a great deal of luck in that.

“He was also a fantastic arranger,” Webb continues. “When we made records together, he was arranging the rhythm tracks and coming up with little riffs and leitmotifs — like the intro to ‘Wichita Lineman’ (Webb pauses to voice it) that created listeners out of people because they were sucked into the experience.”

Webb is acutely aware that Campbell, now 75, has announced he has Alzheimer’s and has launched an extended “Goodbye” tour. Webb’s songs are among each show’s highlights.

“I think a lot of people will benefit from the forthright position he’s taken,” Webb says of the way Campbell is dealing with the disease. “And he’s proven that someone with Alzheimer’s can still go out and do creative work and contribute to society. I’m very proud of him. To me, he’s my hero.

“He’s a very happy guy — that’s a message I love to spread to the public. For the most part, he’s cheerful and looks forward to going out on stage.”

Meanwhile, Webb also looks forward to going on stage, himself, singing his famous songs to a growing audience. He’s become one of our key living singer/songwriters. Finally. 

“So here we are, many of us like Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony,” he says. “This is what we know how to do and we’re still doing it. And thank God there’s still some kind of audience out there.”

JIMMY WEBB performs at St. Xavier High School on Saturday. Click here more details.

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