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Jimmy Webb is that rarity in rock music, a professional songwriter who achieved stardom in that capacity. Rock music has its share of great songwriters, but most of them — Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Gene Clark, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend — became best known for their own recordings of their best work. Webb has also performed live, and recorded fairly extensively, but his performing career never approached his success as a composer. His songwriting was sufficiently distinctive to make him one of the few stars of that profession outside of the Broadway stage during the '60s. Between 1966 and 1969 alone, he was responsible for writing such platinum-selling classics as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," "Up, Up and Away," "MacArthur Park," and "Didn't We," producing and arranging the hit versions of several of those songs. Webb, in fact, may well have kept the craft of the songwriter in popular music alive and kicking in a new generation of popular music, saving the songwriting profession from being ghettoized on the Broadway stage and the world of the commercial jingle.
Along with his personal idol Burt Bacharach, Webb is one of the few non-performing artists of the '60s to achieve public stardom as well as professional acclaim, which has endured across decades and dozens of stylistic trends in popular music. With his success — marked by gold and platinum records — as a composer, arranger, and producer, and his periodic recordings of his own, Webb is possibly the closest figure that the post-pop music generation has produced to approximate Hoagy Carmichael.
Jimmy Webb was born the son of a Baptist minister in Elk City, Oklahoma, on August 15, 1946. An avid music enthusiast as a boy, he made his first public appearance as a performer playing the organ at his father's church, and even then, he improvised, rearranged, and re-harmonized the hymns. In his teens, he began his composing career with religious songs, and later led his own rock & roll band. His interest in music intersected with his love of literature and writing, and even in his teens, Webb was able to dissect the popular songs around him, and began turning his attention to writing informal "follow-up" efforts. He quickly realized that his songs were sometimes superior to the originals, and set his sights on a career as a songwriter.
Webb soon took off for Los Angeles, where his first job in music was transcribing other people's songs. During this period, as he made the rounds of publishing houses, he wrote a bittersweet romantic ballad entitled "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which languished for two years. Finally, in 1966, Johnny Rivers recorded the song, which became a modest hit; Glen Campbell later cut it as well, and scored a gold record. Meanwhile, Webb was put in charge of the songs for the first album of a fledgling pop group called the Fifth Dimension; the result was a chart-topping, million-selling single, "Up, Up and Away." Between them, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Up, Up and Away" won eight Grammy Awards the following year, and turned Jimmy Webb into the most prominent songwriter of his generation.
Like many of his peers, Webb had begun thinking of longer compositions and more coherent bodies of songs, and soon wrote "MacArthur Park," which fit into the new spirit of the era. The lyrics, although not truly psychedelic, were as rich and ornate as anything the Beatles or the Beach Boys were experimenting with; Webb saw the arrangement of the song as a vast sonic canvas, filled with the combined sounds of a rock combo — comprised of such top L.A. sessionmen as Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, and Hal Blaine, among others — and a full orchestra and choir. He originally offered the song to the Association, who rejected it. Undaunted, Webb decided to record the piece on his own, and persuaded his friend, the actor Richard Harris, to sing "MacArthur Park"; after Webb recorded the orchestral part in Los Angeles, Harris' voice was added on at a studio in Dublin.
Webb tried selling "MacArthur Park" to several major labels, including Columbia Records, and was rejected; nobody felt that a seven-plus-minute single by an actor scarcely known as a singer had any chance of being played, much less becoming a hit. Luckily, Lou Adler's Dunhill Records, a Los Angeles-based independent outfit associated with ABC Records, felt differently, and bought the single and the accompanying album, A Tramp Shining. "MacArthur Park" climbed to number two on the American pop charts over a period of 13 weeks, and in the process shattered every preconception of air-time restrictions on AM radio. As Webb later recalled, even stations that didn't want to play the entire single complete were forced to, because their competitors were doing it, and it was too big a hit to ignore. A Tramp Shining also became a hit album, rising as high as number four in July of 1968 and becoming one of the bigger LP successes in Dunhill's '60s output.
Jimmy Webb became as big a music star as Richard Harris did off of "MacArthur Park" and A Tramp Shining. He was credited and his photo appeared on the picture sleeve of the singles, as big as Harris' name and image. Those were the days when concept albums were becoming the rage, and not just from rock artists; Rod McKuen was recording them himself and writing them for others, and Frank Sinatra, who'd been doing albums built around conceptual ideas since the early '50s, grew even more ambitious (and would later hook up with Webb). And the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and dozens of other artists were successfully selling popular music ideas that took up whole sides, or both sides of LPs. And Jimmy Webb was suddenly in their ranks, as visible as any of them, and with a hit to his credit as big as anything that George Martin as a producer or Nelson Riddle as an arranger had signed their names to, respectively. Webb and Harris' second album together, The Yard Went on Forever, was an even more impressive work, with Harris in better voice and Webb writing some of the most haunting lyrics and melodies of his career. The album, lacking a single to match the caliber of "MacArthur Park," never sold as well, but it was an even more prodigious musical achievement.
In the meantime, Glen Campbell's version of Webb's "Wichita Lineman" became a gold record and one of the biggest singles of his career; other Webb-penned hits that followed included "Galveston," "The Worst That Could Happen," "Carpet Man," and "Paper Cup." He also wrote and arranged Thelma Houston's 1969 album Sunshower, and in 1970 wrote his first feature film score, for Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. When a number of intended theatrical projects failed to come to fruition, Webb decided to use the unexpected hiatus to his advantage to mount a solo career. He'd previously only been represented on record by an early album of unfinished demos issued by Columbia Records against his wishes, and his first serious ventures into public performance were conducted almost as an underground effort, without much publicity or fanfare. His fans did attend and enjoy them, but his club performances were an acquired taste, marred by his somewhat ragged singing and piano playing. Webb was perhaps closer in spirit to a Leonard Cohen (or, perhaps, Bob Dylan back in his folk club days), presenting his hit songs as much more personal expressions.
An elaborately produced and recorded 1970 official debut album, Words & Music, was followed a year later by the more basic, stripped-down And So On, which included a contribution from jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. Released in 1972, Letters was highlighted by Webb's own rendition of "Galveston," as well as his Righteous Brothers' homage "Just One Time," and featured a cameo appearance by Joni Mitchell, who returned for 1974's Land's End. Webb continued to write and produce throughout the decade, including 1973's The Supremes Arranged and Produced by Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell's 1974 Reunion; 1975's Earthbound put him back with the Fifth Dimension, and he also wrote and produced for Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, and Frank Sinatra, the latter going out of his way to mention Webb during live performances on more than one occasion. Both Glen Campbell and Judy Collins cut the haunting Webb tune "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." And Art Garfunkel's 1978 Watermark — in large part a Webb songwriting showcase — was another huge success for all concerned.
Webb's own 1977 album, El Mirage, produced by George Martin, included a new song called "The Highwayman," which was later turned into a hit by a quartet of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. In 1983, Webb ventured into a new field of music, writing the cantata "The Animals' Christmas," a telling of the Christmas story from the point of view of animals, which had its premiere at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, conducted by the composer and featuring Garfunkel among the performers. In 1988, Webb returned to doing live concerts, accompanied by Coryell, and in 1996 he released the solo recording Ten Easy Pieces, featuring new interpretations of some of his best-known songs. In 1998, Webb's first book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, was published by Hyperion Press. And in 1999, Australia's Raven Records, which had previously released The Webb Sessions 1968-1969, issued Reunited with Jimmy Webb, a collection of Glen Campbell's recordings of Webb's music from the '70s onward.
England's Debutante Records has also issued a multi-artist tribute compilation to Webb, And Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain..., featuring performances of his music by Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, the Four Tops, Judy Collins, the Johnny Mann Singers, and others. A concert set, Live and at Large, appeared in 2008. In 2009, Webb teamed up with his three sons — Christiaan, Justin, and James, aka the touring and recording outfit the Webb Brothers — to record Cottonwood Farm, released that same year on Proper Records (the U.S. release came two years later in 2011). He released Just Across the River in 2010 on E1 Music. The set features some of his best-known songs, with contributions from fellow artists including Glen Campbell, Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt, and others. A second album of duets, Still Within the Sound of My Voice, again produced by Fred Molin and recorded in Nashville, and featuring contributions from Lyle Lovett, Carly Simon, and Keith Urban, among others, appeared in 2013.
James Layne Webb
15 August 1946 in Elk City, OK
'60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s