Born and raised in Oklahoma, Jimmy Webb is perhaps the last great pure American songwriter of the pre-Arena rock era. Still thriving today with his wife Laura Savini and his creative, lovely family, by the late 1960s, the British Invasion and the Folk movement had made the once industry standard non-performing songwriters all but relics by the time 1970 arrived—about the time Webb was just hitting his stride.
Looking back, the through-line is that Webb’s songs were gifts; artists flocked to sing his breathtaking melodies. However, before anyone could unwrap those presents, like most of us, the storyteller needed a little luck.
In 1965, “My Christmas Tree” was Webb’s first commercial success. When I spent some time in Nashville I was always perplexed why songwriters were always saying: “You’ve got to have a holiday song in your back pocket ready to hand to a publisher.” I see what they mean. With this emotional record capturing the essence of holiday spirit, a legend was born.
Meeting Johnny Rivers (“Poor Side of Town,” “Swayin’ to the Music”) turned out to be Jimmy Webb’s biggest break. Rivers was looking for songs for a new band he was producing who just happened to be The Fifth Dimension. Webb contributed five songs to the 1967 release Up, Up and Away, including the Top Ten title track that won four Grammys, including Song of the Year.
Not bad for a twenty-one-year old.
When I listen to Webb’s melodies and progressions, I find the musician in me in awe. Much like Burt Bacharach, his compositions used transient key cells—which simply meant that a song didn’t have to rigidly remain in its original key throughout the song. When it might sneak out, whether to its relative minor or up a major third, when done properly it is a wonderful aural surprise. Most of the era’s songs used predictable modulations at the song’s conclusion; yes, they added a crescendo feel, but like most overused musical techniques, they could backfire just as easily.
Webb found his next hit in 1969 with a band called Brooklyn Bridge, who were actually from Long Island, New York featuring the lead vocals of Johnny Maestro, formerly of The Crests (“16 Candles”). “Worst That Could Happen” peaked at #3 on the pop charts and features a great turn of a phrase: Maybe it’s the best thing for you/But it’s the worst that could happen for me.”
When “MacArthur Park” hit the airwaves, it was received with either scathing pans or huge praise. Too long. Harris had a tin ear. Who really sang the tune? Pretentious. Lyrics about cake in the rain? Come on. Well, a decade later Disco Diva Donna Summer interpreted what I consider a courageous work of art and turned it into a smash hit. Wondering aloud: Even though razor blades, cocaine and pump shoes were involved in its promotion, did Jimmy mind the huge royalties he received?
As word spread about young Jim, his hits caught the ear of one Glen Campbell. The Country crossover superstar took this cleverly crafted and highly emotional Webb song to #26. It would be safe to assume that at the time, no one could have foreseen this plaintive portrait of regret becoming one of the most highly recorded songs, ever. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” may be one of the finest story songs ever written. Similar to The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” it was layered with specific details (note I left hanging on her door, she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringing off the wall), its subtle pull between her denial and his finality that he was indeed leaving, and then Webb breaks every rule by ending it without much fanfare; just a quick, slow fade featuring the strings playing in their highest range.
His working relationship with Campbell brought two more, including perhaps my favorite song by Webb: “Wichita Lineman.” Webb pays homage to the working man, in a way much like Woody Guthrie and other notable Folk artists did, and Springsteen when he took the reins in the mid-70s. But Webb’s chord changes are deliriously complex yet accessible to the listener. He uses 9th chords and suspensions, all creating a tension and longing—which is what this song is all about—reflecting what Webb underscores as integral to songwriting success: the technique of prosody, or the true matching of the lyric to the melody. It peaked at #3 on the Pop charts and topped the Country charts.
Then, another place-name song, “Galveston” found its way to #4. For me, this seemed more “contrived” than personal. In fact, Webb was telling a romantic story about two characters during the Spanish-American War. But who cares where a great song comes from; let’s just appreciate its greatness. They say write what you know; when you are a songwriting maestro, that all flies out the proverbial window.
Jimmy went on to produce Thelma Houston’s 1969 Dunhill release Sunshower. Jimmy produced and wrote each song (except a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”). It was critically acclaimed and hit #50 on the R & B charts. Though none of the four released singles including its title track made a dent in the Pop charts, it squarely put Webb on the elite list. Now he was a producer, who by the way, could write incredible songs as well. And that’s because Jimmy saw the writing on the wall I alluded to earlier. To be successful in the changing music business, you had to package everything, have complete control, have the right artist(s), then with the right song, you could ascend the charts.
As the ‘60s moved into the country’s rear view mirror, Webb experimented with different genres such as Broadway (His Own Dark City), and composing for film, How Sweet It Is and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. In the early part of the ‘70s, Webb released a string of solo LPs, all mostly receiving critical praise. Here are just a few select cool tunes from this period in his life: “P.F. Sloan” from Words and Music (1970), “Met Her on a Plane” from And So: On (1971) and “Song Seller” from Letters (1972). And when he signed to Asylum, from Land’s End (1974), “Lady Fits Her Blue Jeans.”
One listens to these songs and thinks, where was Jimmy on the charts alongside James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens, Dan Fogelberg and Jim Croce? I have no answer. Yet, how many can proclaim these accolades:
- 1986: National Academy of Popular Music Songwriter’s Hall of Fame
- 1990: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
- 1993: National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1999: ASCAP Board of Directors Member
- 2000: Songwriters Hall of Fame Board of Directors Member
- 2003: Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award
- 2006: ASCAP Voice of Music Award
- 2011: Chairman, Songwriters Hall of Fame
- 2013: Great American Songbook Hall of Fame Songbook Award
And the legacy lives on. His sons have a group called The Webb Brothers! Released in 2009, Cottonwood Farm is a musical collaboration between a father and his sons.
From Jimmy’s masterful book on songwriting entitled Tunesmith (Hyperion, 1998), in his preface he tries earnestly to explain why he wrote the book, and in essence why it matters to write songs:
“Oscar Hammerstein II wrote of his kindly and brilliant Notes on Craft ‘I am discontented with what I have written here,’ and my God, so am I! But I have done it out of love for songwriting and songwriters whose company I prefer above all others, though to be truthful, we are not by nature a particularly jolly crew. Mostly I have done it for those who still believe in the great power of songs and who may be attempting the delicate transition from amateur to professionals . . . Keep the faith.”
His most recent release Still Within the Sound of My Voice (2013) is a beautiful album of duets, with some of the greatest recording artists of all time sitting in with Jimmy. Those who grew up as I did during the glorious late-60s and the rise of singer-songwriters in the early ‘70s were inundated with the majesty of Jimmy Webb’s portfolio. From the radio to LPs. Covered by artists onstage. Elevators (yes, elevators). Imprint? You bet. Admire? No doubt. Mimic? No way. Hope to have his talent rub off on me through osmosis? One can dream.
Jimmy, if I choose that quintessential song—you know the kind that teleports you back to the where time stands still innocence—all I need is to hear these lyrics. I thank you for your unparalleled contributions to the world of music.
I hear you singin’ in the wires/I can hear you through all the whine/And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line . . .