Music & Lyrics
From May 2016 edition of Tangents Magazine
Jimmy Webb. Pronounced Jimmy Freaking Webb, around my house.
Webb first rose to prominence in 1967 when his song “By The Time I Get To Pheonix” became a hit for Glen Campbell. Over the next few years, Webb wrote and arranged some of the greatest songs of that era, and in the eras that have followed since. “Up Up and Away”, “The Worst That Could Happen”, “All I Know”, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”. He also wrote and aranged “MacArthur Park”, which Campbell cited as his all-time favorite song at a show in Charlotte in 2006. But it those songs with Campbell. “Pheonix”, Wichita Lineman”, Galveston, “Where’s The Playground Susie”, and many more that will always hold a special place in the hearts of many like myself. To this day, I can be any place, and in any state of mind, and all I have to hear is, “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road,” and the world stops again for a few, beautiful minutes.
Webb is now touring with a show that is dedicated to Campbell, which comes to McGlohon Theater in Charlotte on February 6th. In 2011, Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. His final tour in 2012 was documented in the well-received film I’ll Be Me.
"I’m doing this tour as a tribute to someone who’s very dear to me,” says Webb, calling in from his current home in the northeast US. “Someone whom I spent the better part of 50 years partnering with. Someone who mentored me when I first came into the business. Someone who was singularly interested in advancing my agenda as a songwriter, and pushing my star higher. Even at the expense of his own career, he never failed to do something nice for me whenever he could. He recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 Jimmy Webb songs.
"It’s about Alzheimer’s, a litte bit. It’s about Glen, and how suddenly he was taken away from us. He was a young, stalwart guy that would’ve gone on many, many more years. There would’ve been a lot more records. There would’ve been a lot more tours. That’s the terrible thing about that disease. It takes away who you were, and who you’ve been. In that sense, it’s my heart-on-my-sleeve tribute to this sweet guy who was just unparelled in his raw talent. In his ability to musicalize, to embrace all kindsof genres, all kinds of writers. He had this whole pre-Glen Campbell life as a covert influence in the pop music business, because he played on so many different records. We’ve discovered dozens and dozens of records that he played on since we started doing this show. And we keep adding them to the show. It’s a work in progress.
"The show itself is multi-media. It has lots of tapes. A lot of things that he and I made, sitting at the piano. Photos of us just clowning. Photos of our families. Both of our families are very close. Cal, Glen’s son, is producing my daughter Camilia. She graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a degree in psychology, and promptly decided that she wanted to be a singer. (laughs) That’s how it goes in my family."
Webb has also found the show as a way of coming to grips to the decline of Campbell’s health in recent years. "It’s definitely helped me to wrestle with this conundrum of the fact that he’s alive. Sometimes I lapse into talking about him in past tense, when I really don’t mean to. I just have to pinch myself and say, Don’t do that. Because he’s still alive. He’s not performing. That’s the line of declination, if you will, for me. I would have never felt comfortable doing this show I’m doing, as long as Glen was performing. But now I feel like I’m out there, I can do some trumpeting on his behalf. Becuase for many, many years, he was undrer-rated. He was never given the credit that he truly deserved."
From the start, Webb and Campbell came from different places, but found a common ground in the music. "His politics were leaning to the right. My politics were, I’m not afraid to say this, leaning towards the left. It made it very difficult for us. In fact, the first thing that Glen ever said to me was, “When are you going to get a haircut?” But somehow, we managed to walk that fence together, and create some pretty enduring works of art together, for two guys that didn’t agree that much. I think that there’s a philosophical message that I occasionally and shamelessly point out to my audiences. Just because that we don’t share every little belief about something across the board doesn’t mean that we can’t work with other people. We’re facing a crisis in this country our ideological differences prevent us from working together and accomplishing things for the common good."
The friendship didn’t end with the songs that the two collaborated on. Campbell would introduce Webb songs to other aritsts, such as bringing Webb’s “The Highwayman” to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Webb also introduced songs from other writers to Campbell. "I played 'Southern Nights' off of Allen [Toussiant’s] record for Glen at my house, and he grabbed the record and went running out of my house with it. He didn’t even say goodbye. Then he would take it into the studio and work on it, because he always works on these hooks, if you will. As soon as you hear that, you already know it’s a hit. And he was so good at that. The beginning to 'Wichita Lineman', which we wrote with [Wrecking Crew bass player] Carol Kaye”.
Ah yes, “Wichita Lineman.” "I wrote it all in one afternoon, in about two or three hours,” recalls Webb. "It was a very intense thing, because Glen and [producer] Al De Lory were calling me every five minutes from the studio, saying, 'Is it finished yet? Is it finished yet?' And I was like, 'Hey, do you want me to write a song?' I was starting to get a little annoyed, but I’m trying to rush it along. So when I got to the end, I was like, 'Well, I’ll just hum this last verse, because I don’t have a lyric for it. And if they like it, I’ll do some more on it.' Because if they didn’t like it, then I wouldn’t have to bother to put in hours and hours on something that they wouldn’t record. It got messengered over to the studio that afternoon. And I was busy that day. I was working with somebody else in the studio, and I didn’t hear from Glen. About a week later, I walked into a session that he was in, and I said, 'I never heard anything from you guys about that song.' He says, 'You mean Wichita Lineman?' I said, ‘Yeah.' And he says, 'Oh, we cut that.' And I said, 'You cut it? But it wasn’t finished.' And he said, 'It is now!' When he got to the part that didn’t have any lyrics, he just played that big Duane Eddy guitar solo, which turned out to be the best thing in the world.”
Before Campbell found solo stardom, Campbell was part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, a collection of California session musicians that played on literally thousands of now-legendary records during the 1960s and 70s. Campbell conitnued to work with the Wrecking Crew after he found solo success. Which begs the question, did the other members of the Wrecking Crew respect Glen as one of their own that had found larger success?
"Yeah, I do," replies Webb. "But they already knew that they were special people. Nobody else got to do what they did, and play on all of those albums. They were working all the time. They lost families. They were like cops. Divorce, suicide. Things I don’t like to talk about. They knew that they had gotten hold of the Golden Dragon, and they were hanging on for all that it’s worth."
Webb also found that working with this elite group of musicians also improved his own emerging skills. "All of the sudden, you find yourself in there with the greyhounds, and you say to yourself, 'Well, am I a greyhound? I guess it’s time to find out’. More than anything else, it was having their respect. That meant more to me than anything in the world. More than money, more than fame, more than anything. I sat right beside [keyboardist] Larry Knetchel for several years, and he nad I would split the keyboards. He would play Hammond B3, and I would play piano. Or he would play Baldwin electric harpsichord, and I would play piano. And he’s switch back and forth, and he mentored me. He taught me. 'Why don’t you try this?' And believe it or not, I came out of it with a pretty good reputation as a piano player. I never tried to live on it, but I played on a lot of records."
It has been a remarkable ride for Webb. One that began when he first heard Campbell’s 1961 single “Turn Around, Look At Me.” I had to ask. Knowing what he does now, what would Webb say now to his younger self, given the chance? Or would he say anything at all?
"I wouldn’t say anything at all,” replies Webb. "I was listening to my future. I didn’t realize it, but I felt something when I heard “Turn Around, Look At Me” that caused me literally to go to my knees by my bed, in our little Baptist house in Laverne, Oklahoma, and say “Dear God, please let me someday write a song as half as good as “Turn Around Look At Me”. And Lord, if you can find the time, please let me meet somebody like Glen Campbell to sing my songs.” And that’s a fact.
"As I came through the ranks, I got a job writing songs for Motown. I got a song on the Supremes Christmas album. Motown had Paul Peterson, who was on the Donna Reed Show, at the time. He’d had a hit with the song "My Dad”. It was a ballad about how much he loved his dad. Motown was going to do a single with Paul, and they came to me and said, "You’re our white guy". They were always relally cool. "Give us your Paul Peterson song.” So I wrote "By The Time I Get To Pheonix”. I showed it to the producers, and they hated it. "Where’s the chorus? You need to write a chorus.” And I wouldn’t write a chorus. Finally, I said, "I’ll write another one, just give me back this song.” And they said, “Here, take it. Keep this one. If you feel that way about it.” I eventually wrote 45 songs for Motown, and when I left to take a job with Johnny Rivers’ publishing company, I brought “Pheonix" with me.
Johnny Rivers later told me that the first time that he heard “Pheonix”, he knew it was a hit. But he had already cut "Poor Side Of Town", so he had what amounted to a number one with "Poor Side". He knew about Glen [Campbell]. They had played together on records. He knew that Glen was coming off of “Gentle On My Mind”, and was looking for songs. Johnny called Al Del Lory, and said, “Come on over, I have something something I want to hear”. When Del Lory walked into Johnny’s office, he played a test pressing of his recordiing of “Pheonix". When it was over, Johnny said, "What do you think?” Al said, "Why are you giving us this song?” And Johnny replied, "Well, you can only have one hit at a time, Al.” And he was giving it to Al and Glen, and he did it for me. Al walked out of there, and within four or five weeks, “Phoenix" was on the radio. The first time I heard “Pheonix” on the radio, I almost ran into the divider into an 18 wheeler. I couldn’t believe it, becuse it had all come true.
Whatever it took to get me from out there in the middle of the wheat field, which was a long way from anywhere. And whatever it took to get me from there, to having me walk in the same room with Glen, and having him look up and say, 'When are you going to get a haircut?' That was some magical transformation. There’s probably an alternate universe where he didn’t cut it. But thankfully, in this universe, he did cut it. So that’s my story. I’m sticking to it.