For almost 30 years, Jimmy Webb has been a master of the art of writing love songs. Few composers’ songs have burst on the scene with the impact Webb’s creations made in the years from 1966 to 1969. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “MacArthur Park” spearheaded a string of hits so enduring that the Webb catalogue ranks second in total airplay only to the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles. More important than that commercial success, however, Jimmy Webb stands tall among the handful of writers who have significantly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary popular song.
Jimmy Layne Webb was born on August 15, 1946, in Elk City, Oklahoma. His father, Robert Lee Webb, was a Baptist minister, and young Jimmy learned piano and organ to accompany the choir in the elder Webb’s rural churches in southwestern Oklahoma and west Texas. Later discussing his 1990 composition “Elvis and Me,” Webb explained in Song Talk how he had come to discover to the music of the King of Rock, Elvis Presley: “When I was a kid growing up I wasn’t allowed to listen to Elvis. My father always controlled the radio very empirically and it was always either country music or white gospel music, quartet music. And we weren’t allowed to touch that dial because if we did we would get smacked.”
Part of the reason for Webb’s strict adherence to certain music types was religious, and part was simply his own taste. Still, after hearing Presley’s music, he found himself bitten by the music bug. He began slipping his own arrangement variations into the Sunday services, much to the displeasure of the straight-laced church elders. Or, he would organize clandestine combos at school to play the music that was forbidden at home. Webb also began writing songs of his own. Hearing something in a stolen moment listening to the radio, he would try to write a follow-up to it.
Webb’s family moved to southern California in 1964, and Jimmy entered San Benardino Valley College. When his mother died and the family returned to Oklahoma the following year, he elected to remain in California. Though a music major at the college, Webb was hearing his own music; it wasn’t long before he decided to see how far his songs would take him in Los Angeles.
Webb’s first job was transcribing other people’s music for a small music publisher on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. But within a year he had secured a contract with Jobete Music, the publishing arm of increasingly
For the Record…
Born Jimmy Layne Webb, August 15, 1946, in Elk City, OK; married Patsy Sullivan c. 1972; children: five sons. Education: Attended San Bernardino Valley College.
Singer, songwriter, composer, arranger, and producer. Signed briefly to Motown Records’ Jobete Publishing, 1965; signed a publishing contract with Johnny Rivers, 1966, and penned hits “Up, up and Away” and “By the Time 1 Get to Phoenix”; created production and publishing company, Canopy; released first album, Words and Music, on Reprise, 1970; composed scores for film and television projects and produced and arranged numerous albums for other artists.
Selected awards: Grammy awards for song of the year for “Up, up and Away,” and record of the year, both 1967, and for country song of the year, 1985, for “The Highwayman”; several Grammy Award nominations; Country Music Association award for single of the year, 1985, for “The Highwayman”; elected to National Academy of Songwriters (NAS) Hall of Fame; received NAS Lifetime Achievement Award.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
westward-looking Motown Records. The result of this brief liaison was Webb’s first royalty check—for a song on a Supremes Christmas album—and his first hit tune, “Honey Come Back,” which Glenn Campbell would re-release in 1970.
Webb’s big break came in meeting Johnny Rivers the following year. Rivers, as shrewd a music businessman as he was a successful recording artist, signed Webb to a publishing deal and put one of Jimmy’s new songs, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” on his late 1966 album, Changes. Rivers also enlisted Webb’s help in finding material for a group on Rivers’s own Soul City Records called the Fifth Dimension.
Webb subsequently penned “Up, up and Away,” the title track of the debut Fifth Dimension album. Released as a single in May of 1967, it leaped into the Top Ten and battled the Doors’ “Light My Fire” for chart supremacy throughout that summer. Glen Campbell, meanwhile, had covered Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which, though only reaching Number 26, became an immediate pop standard.
At the 1967 Grammy Award ceremonies “Up, Up and Away” was named record of the year and song of the year. Altogether, “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” collected a staggering eight Grammys. Such acclaim was unprecedented for a rookie songwriter, but it also presented what would be the central dilemma in Webb’s career. Only 21, his melodic sophistication and orchestral sensibility was embraced by an older, more traditional pop audience. While his peers were dropping out and going underground, their parents were swaying to the melodies of Jimmy Webb. He was a man out of sync. But so explosive was his momentum, that it overwhelmed any other considerations.
The year 1968 was a blur of continuing success for Webb songs. The Fifth Dimension hit the Top 40 with both “Paper Cup” and “Carpet Man.” Glen Campbell came back with the million-selling “Wichita Lineman,” which Creem magazine once called “one of the most perfect pop records ever made.” Also in 1968, Brooklyn Bridge, the group led by former Crests vocalist Johnny Maestro, scored a gold record for “The Worst That Could Happen.”
Webb soon formed his own production and publishing company, Canopy, and his first project was an unlikely album pairing with Irish actor Richard Harris, then coming off a starring role in the film version of Camelot. Among the tracks cut was an extended piece with multiple movements that the group Association had originally commissioned Webb to compose. When asked to edit it for Top 40 airplay, Jimmy refused. Such was Webb’s commercial clout that radio stations played all seven minutes and twenty-one seconds of “MacArthur Park.” It reached Number Two on the singles chart, while the album, A Tramp Shining, stayed on the charts for almost a year. Before the year was out, a second Harris-Webb album, The Yard Went on Forever, was also on the charts.
“MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” all won 1968 Grammys. Glen Campbell started 1969 with a gold record with Webb’s “Galveston,” considered one of the most effective antiwar songs ever written, and hit later in the year with another Webb composition, “Where’s the Playground Susie.” “Didn’t We” was included on the first Richard Harris album and became a standard despite only rising to Number 63. Perhaps more interestingly, two Webb songs became hits for the second time. Isaac Hayes’s soul interpretation of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and Waylon Jennings’s Grammy-winning country version of “MacArthur Park” showed how deeply Webb’s songs influence many facets of the music world.
Even as the popularity of his material was cresting in 1969, Webb was withdrawing from his instant empire. The title of a semiautobiographical Broadway musical he was working on around this time, His Own Dark City, seemed to indicate that the emotional displacement of his success was weighing heavily. He contributed music to the films How Sweet It Is and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here in 1969, but no new Webb songs were blazing up the charts.
Words and Music, Webb’s debut album as the performer of his own songs, was released in late 1970. The songwriter “had exhausted one avenue of musical expression,” wrote Jon Landau in Rolling Stone, “and he has now shifted into a context that allows him more personal freedom. It’s unlikely that he will achieve comparable popularity in his new surroundings, but his music has never sounded better than it does on Words and Music.” Landau singled out the track “P. F. Sloan,” calling it a “masterpiece” that “could not be improved upon.”
Unfortunately, Landau’s comment about Webb’s commercial success proved prescient. “P. F. Sloan” set the tone for Webb’s career as a performer; he was critically lauded, frequently covered, but not nearly as successful as he was as a songsmith. The numbers, however, told only part of the story. Though a singer of modest gifts, each of his albums as a performer became noted for their inventive, satisfying music and memorable lyrics.
Rolling Stone called Webb’s 1971 album And So: On “another impressive step in the conspiracy to recover his identity from the housewives of America and rightfully install him at the forefront of contemporary composers/performers.” Upon the release of Letters in 1972, Peter Reilly of Stereo Review wrote, “Jimmy Webb is the most important pop music figure to emerge since Bob Dylan.” Similar praise met the release of 1974’s Land’s End, 1977’s El Mirage, and 1982’s Angel Heart.
Webb’s albums may not have been chart climbers, but they did not go completely unnoticed. Having become known as a “singer’s songwriter,” Webb saw the best crooners in the business plunder his albums for the many gems they contained. Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Lowell George, Joan Baez, and Amy Grant are just a few of the artists who have made Webb material a staple of their repertoires.
Webb still had his share of commercial hits. “All I Know,” for example, remains Garfunkel’s only Top Ten solo hit. Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristoffer-son, and Willie Nelson topped the charts in 1985 with “The Highwayman,” earning Webb yet another Grammy for best country song of the year and a Country Music Association citation for single of the year. In addition, “MacArthur Park” continued to earn notice when the Four Tops recorded it in 1970 and Donna Summer’s disco rendition of the tune stayed at Number One for almost a month in the fall of 1978.
Webb moved to New York City in the mid-1980s to try his hand at Broadway musicals, prompting collaborations with Peter Stone on Love Me, Love My Dog and with science fiction writer Ray Bradbury on Dandelion Wine. In 1986 CBS Records issued an album of the Webb cantata The Animals’ Christmas, featuring Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Webb continued contributing music to films—including Doc, The Last Unicorn, The Hanoi Hilton, and Fern Gulley: The Last Rain Forest— and wrote scores for television projects headed by such stars as Olivia Newton-John, Ringo Starr, and Steven Spielberg.
Linda Ronstadt, who has consistently championed Webb’s songwriting, coaxed him back into the recording studio for the 1993 release of Suspending Disbelief. Coproduced by Ronstadt and George Massenburg, it was referred to by Time as “an important record of an American tale teller, our best raveler of the blind spots of the heart.”
Given his 1960s mega-success as a songwriter and the enduring appeal of his songs for both singers and pop music fans, it seems safe to say that Jimmy Webb’s position in pop music history is secure. In fact, his stature is sure to increase as future song connoisseurs discover the depth of inspiration that lies beneath the surface sheen of Webb’s chart hits and pop standards.
Words and Music, Reprise, 1970.
And So: On, Reprise, 1971.
Letters, Reprise, 1972.
Land’s End, Asylum, 1974.
El Mirage, Atlantic 1977.
Angel Heart, Columbia, 1982.
The Animals’ Christmas, Columbia, 1986.
Suspending Disbelief, Elektra, 1993.
Billboard, October 2, 1993.
Creem, October 1972; November 1974.
Newsweek, December 23, 1968; June 13, 1977.
New Yorker, January 9, 1971.
New York Times, September 29, 1993.
Rolling Stone, March 4, 1971; September 2, 1971; October 14, 1993; April 21, 1994.
SongTalk, winter 1989; spring 1994.
Stereo Review, November 1972
Time, May 24, 1968; October 18, 1993.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records publicity materials, 1982, and Elektra Records publicity materials, 1993.
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