Webb, James Layne ("Jimmy")

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WEBB, James Layne ("Jimmy")

(b. 15 August 1946 in Elk City, Oklahoma), songwriter whose compositions, including "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Up, Up and Away," and "MacArthur Park," dominated the mainstream pop music of the late 1960s.

Webb was the son of Robert Lee Webb, a Baptist minister who moved his family around the Southwest when Webb was a child. The boy showed an early interest in music, taking his first piano lesson at age six and later serving as the organist in his father's church. By age thirteen he was writing songs. In 1964 his father was appointed pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Colton, California, and the family moved there. Later, Webb began attending San Bernadino Valley College. After a year he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles to pursue songwriting. He was hired by Jobete Music, a song-publishing company associated with Motown Records, and began getting cuts on Motown albums, such as "My Christmas Tree," which appeared on the 1965 Supremes album Merry Christmas.

In 1966 Johnny Rivers became the first artist to record "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a loosely autobiographical Webb ballad in which the narrator describes his plan to leave his lover. Rivers did not release the song as a single, but he did hire Webb to his Soul City record label and had him write for a new group, the 5th Dimension. Webb wrote five songs in addition to arranging, conducting, and playing keyboard on the group's debut album, named after one of his tunes, Up, Up and Away. The effervescent song, released as a single in the spring of 1967, became the 5th Dimension's first hit, reaching the Top Ten. The group's follow-up singles "Paper Cup" and "Carpet Man," also Webb's compositions, reached the Top Forty.

Webb wrote, arranged, and conducted most of Rivers's Top Twenty 1967 album Rewind and then did the same work on the next 5th Dimension album, The Magic Garden, released at the end of the year. Although it was not as successful as its predecessor, the album featured the Webb song "Worst That Could Happen," recorded for a million-selling Top Five hit by the Brooklyn Bridge a year later. Meanwhile, Glen Campbell had recorded a remake of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which was released as a single in the fall of 1967. It became a Top Forty hit, a statistic that does not do justice to the success the song achieved over time. By the end of the century BMI, the performance rights organization, listed "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" as the third-most-performed song of the previous fifty years. Both it and "Up, Up and Away" were nominated for Grammy Awards for 1967 song of the year, with the latter winning out. Campbell became a favored singer for the songwriter, going on to record Top Five, million-selling versions of "Wichita Lineman" and the soldier's lament "Galveston" as well as a Top Forty rendition of "Where's the Playground, Susie" in 1968 and 1969.

Webb began working with the Irish actor and singer Richard Harris, producing and writing all the songs on Harris's spring 1968 album, A Tramp Shining. The album's single was the unusually long, multipart epic "MacArthur Park," which just missed topping the charts. (It finally hit number one when it was revived by Donna Summer in 1978.) The LP, which reached the Top Five and was nominated for an album of the year Grammy (while winning Webb a Grammy for arranging), also featured "Didn't We?," which went on to become a much-covered standard. Before the end of 1968 Webb had written and produced Harris's follow-up album, The Yard Went On Forever …, which reached the Top Forty.

Still only twenty-three years old by the end of the 1960s, Webb already had written a handful of pop standards. He had been embraced by an adult pop audience and had seen his songs recorded frequently by middle-of-the-road pop singers. But he longed to be taken seriously by his own generation and, in keeping with the common aspirations of songwriters his age, to achieve success as a performer of his compositions rather than as a writer for others. As early as 1968 Epic Records had acquired a collection of his demos, added overdubs, and released it without his authorization under the title Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb. His more official debut was the single "One of the Nicer Things," also released in 1968. He made his performing debut in June 1969 as an opening act for Connie Stevens at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Webb attracted favorable reviews but shunned further work in Las Vegas, fearing that it would add to his reputation as an easy-listening artist.

Rejecting the trappings of pop success and seeking legitimacy as a rock singer-songwriter, Webb formed a band and began touring clubs. In 1970 he released his first album recorded as such, Words and Music. Like its seven successors released over the next quarter century, it did not sell well enough to reach the charts, but Webb persevered in trying to establish himself as a performer. He also continued to write for others on occasion. In 1972 he produced, arranged, and wrote half the songs on the album The Supremes, made by the group after the departure of the lead singer, Diana Ross. That year he married Patsy Sullivan; they had five children.

In 1973 Art Garfunkel (who formerly had teamed with Paul Simon) scored a Top Ten hit with Webb's affecting ballad "All I Know." "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," introduced on Joe Cocker's 1974 album I Can Stand a Little Rain and also appearing that year on the Glen Campbell album Reunion (The Songs of Jimmy Webb), which Webb arranged, has earned several recordings over the years. In 1975 Webb had another reunion, this one with the 5th Dimension, for its Earthbound album, producing, arranging, and contributing five songs to the LP. Garfunkel's 1978 album Watermark was another LP dominated by Webb's songs. In the 1980s Linda Ronstadt put four of Webb's songs on her album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and his Grammy-winning song "Highwayman" topped the country charts for the quartet of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson and received the Country Music Association's award for single of the year. In the 1980s and 1990s Webb spent much of his time working on stage musicals.

Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith (1998), is a songwriting instruction book, but it contains anecdotes and reminiscences that reflect on his life. There are useful entries on Webb in Mark White, "You Must Remember This …": Popular Songwriters 1900–1980 (1985), and in Nigel Harrison, Songwriters: A Biographical Dictionary with Discographies (1998). An excellent magazine article tracing Webb's career in detail is Jeff Bleiel, "Jimmy Webb: The Song Goes On," Goldmine (20 Dec. 1996).

William Ruhlmann