Songwriter Jimmy Webb Scored Big Hits -- For Glen Campbell, That Is
Jimmy Webb on the cover of Letters, his 1972 release for Reprise Records.
By the time he gets to Phoenix, Jimmy Webb expects to be over the flu that's been dogging him recently. The consummate songwriter of such iconic hits as "MacArthur Park," Up, Up and Away," "Galveston," Wichita Lineman," and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," is excited to bring his intimate solo show to the Musical Instrument Museum.
Webb admits there is some added expectation and anticipation whenever he performs in the Valley as popular Phoenix-resident Glen Campbell scored some of his biggest hits with Webb-composed compositions.
"Honestly, it's a good kind of anticipation or anxiety," the affable Webb says by phone from New York. "I come into Phoenix with a tail wind because there's a natural curiosity. I think it would be strange if people weren't a little curious about the guy who wrote the songs."
Though every song Webb will perform will be familiar, it won't be the typical version the audience hears. Instead Webb performs the songs alone at the piano as he initially intended them to be played--before musicians and producers rearranged them.
"The audience gets to hear both sides," Webb explains. "They'll recognize the song and say, 'So that's how Jimmy Webb hears it.' I think that's interesting for an audience. It's another perspective and not the same old song they've heard a million times. I've heard it a million times, so I'm always looking to try and do something with the song to push it over the line, make it special."
Take for example, "Galveston," a song about a disenfranchised Vietnam Vet. Webb wrote the song to be slow, aching and painful. Campbell scored a huge hit by speeding up the song.
"Glen could take a song and say, 'I know how to make a hit out of that.' He could take that guitar of his into another realm. No sour grapes here ... [but] he probably cut Galveston two or three times faster than I wrote it,' Webb says, singing the chorus into the phone. "The song is so aching and lonely ... but he made a hit record out of it."
Before artists like Campbell, Art Garfunkel, and The Fifth Dimension were earning Grammys with Webb's songs, Webb was just another struggling songwriter. Only 17 years old, Webb went to Los Angeles from West Texas. He wrote "songwriter" on job application forms and spent his "days trying to get a song recorded." Motown gave him a first chance, and he responded with "My Christmas Tree," recorded by the Supremes.
"The Supremes -- not bad right?" he says with a laugh. "I remember calling my father and saying 'you were wrong. I just got a check for $300.' I conquered the world; proved the old man wrong. But there are a lot of ups and downs in this game. For a few minutes I thought I had it by the tail."
Overly humble in his reminisce, Webb did have the music world by the tail, particularly in the 1960s as his compositions highlighted numerous gold and platinum selling albums. In 1968 alone he carried home Grammy Awards for three different songs. His solo recording career was much less rewarding, garnering critical acclaim without commercial success. However, 2010's Just Across the River, featuring a number of guest artists including Lucinda Williams, Billy Joel, Mark Knopfler, and Campbell dueting on Webb classics, fared surprisingly well. A follow up is expected in April.
"They are certainly the most beautiful records I have ever made and maybe the most beautiful anyone has ever made," Webb says, adding, "if I can be so bold."
Given Webb's compositional success, he may know what he's talking about.
Jimmy Webb is scheduled to perform Friday, February 1, and Saturday, February 2, at the Musical Instrument Museum. Both shows are sold-out.
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