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August 12, 2010.
About fifteen years
ago, one chilly autumnal night, I was in a coffee house in Lahaska,
Pennsylvania when a young man—no more than eighteen—suddenly sat down at
an upright piano. “This is an old pop song,” he announced in an apologetic tone.
It was impossible to mistake the first few staccato notes. He launched
into a stripped down version of “Wichita Lineman,” Jimmy Webb’s
plaintive tune about a lonely line-worker trapped existentially among
the solitary telephone poles. If you never knew how beautiful and deep
a pop song could be, you’d have known it that night.
That’s the essence of the music of Jimmy Webb, one of the most
accomplished and prolific songwriters from the past 40 years. Since the
beginning of his career in the 1960s, Webb has exhibited a singular
talent for melding thoughtful, imagery-laden lyrics with sophisticated,
The foster-child of Tin Pan Alley and Sixties Singer/Songwriter, Webb
matches the emotional nuance of the Gershwins with the direct passion of
unbridled rock. On both levels, lyrically and musically, he has
remained unafraid to take abrupt left turns, to go deep, and to
challenge both the singer and the listener.
Webb’s mature songs with their often curious melodic shifts have seduced
listeners at every one of those turns. “Galveston,” “Up, Up and Away,”
“All I Know,” “I Keep It Hid,” “Didn’t We,” “Highwayman,” “The Moon’s A
Harsh Mistress,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “The Worst That Could
Happen,” “If These Walls Could Speak.” Webb deftly encapsulates entire
lifetimes in a three-minute drama (well, seven minutes in the case of
And he’s a triple threat. A member of the National Academy of Popular
Music Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Webb is the only artist to win Grammy
awards for music, lyrics and orchestrations. His passionate string
arrangements, in particular, reveal an intelligence and maturity matched
only by the late Nelson Riddle.
“A lot of the imagery in my songs is visual and based on a kind of
photographic memory,” explains Webb. “I try to place myself back in a
scene or situation. I have a very vivid grasp of those details from the
past. I was heavily influenced by a book by John Gardner called The
Art of Fiction, basically an instructive book for young writers.
talked about imagery a lot, about word choice and avoiding
clichéd ways of
describing things, searching for new ways to describe them. I paid a
lot of attention to that book.”
Over the years, some powerhouse singers have lent their talents to
Webb’s seductive tunes, among them the 5th Dimension, Linda
Ronstadt, Tony Bennett, David Crosby, Glen Campbell, the Supremes,
Rosemary Clooney, Art Garfunkel, Sinatra and James Taylor. From John
Denver to REM to Streisand, performers of myriad styles have been unable
to resist his brilliant songbook.
On his new CD Just Across the River, Webb performs 13 of his
songs, both seminal tunes and some lesser-known gems, with a notable
array of musical soul mates. Some—like Billy Joel and Jackson
Browne—have never recorded Webb songs but have spent decades admiring
his talents. Others—like Ronstadt and Campbell—share a long history of
singing Webb’s tunes in what many consider definitive versions.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this album is a marketing ploy of
any kind,” insists Webb. “The celebrities who were involved in this
project were all friends of mine who bonded with the material and wanted
to be a part of this project. It was all done out of a sense of fun and
deeper than that—a joy and love for the material and for each other.
“It’s like a family getting together to make a record,” he adds. “It
would be easy to dismiss as a commercial idea. Fortunately it’s the
real thing. We don’t feel self-conscious about what we did at all. We
think it comes from a very real place.”
Campbell’s early career was rife with Webb hits, among them the
haunting “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman”—today, considered pop
standards of the highest order. On this CD, Campbell duets with Webb on
another of his early hits, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” surprisingly
in their first time singing together.
The languid new arrangement—more Memphis than Nashville—conjures up
memories of the late Brook Benton. Considered by Sinatra to be the
greatest torch song ever written, “Phoenix” is the third most performed
song from the past 50 years.
In the 80s and 90s, Ronstadt recorded eight Webb tunes, including the
bitter “Easy for You to Say” and one of his most elegant compositions,
“Adios,” written partially for her. “I wrote ‘Adios’ when I left
California as kind of a goodbye song for a whole epic chapter of my
life,” recalls Webb. “It very rapidly became a Linda song, and she
actually helped me co-write some of the lyrics on it. We wrote things
like, ‘I’ll miss the blood-red sunset,’ which she liked very much.”
Ronstadt and Webb close Just Across the River with a pensive take
on “All I Know,” a hit for Art Garfunkel in 1973. “She worked very hard
on that,” says Webb. “You can hear it. It was only a couple of weeks
before that that she had officially retired. She held a press
conference in Berkeley and said, ‘I’m not going to be able to sing
anymore.’ There was no way in the world I was going to ask her to do
this and we ended up, without any comment whatsoever, just sending the
musical track to her.
“Being Linda, she wrote back within a couple of days, ‘Okay, I have to
try this.’ It really turned out to be one of the most singularly
beautiful performances of a career that certainly has had more than its
share of highs. If I may say so, I think her appearance on this album
is a high point.”
Joel duets with Webb on a song the Piano Man has long admired, “Wichita
Lineman.” One might expect Webb’s rough-hewn vocals to pale next to
Joel’s still ringing tenor—but even this version provides insight into
Webb’s own interpretive strength, his bold emotionalism and deep
connection to his own lyrics. “I actually find that my voice is getting
stronger,” he observes.
Jackson Browne weighs in on one of Webb’s older tunes, the wry “P.F.
Sloan.” Webb first heard Browne covering the song in the early 1970s at
a club in LA. Country stalwart Willie Nelson, who sang on Webb’s
“Highwayman,” does a driving turn with Webb on “If You See Me Getting
Smaller,” a tribute to Waylon Jennings, who had a hit with it.
Vince Gill (a fellow Oklahoman), Mark Knopfler (who also provides
sensuous lead guitar on “Phoenix”), Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther and
Lucinda Williams—adding a woman’s response to Webb’s call on
“Galveston”—round out the bill.
The newest song on the CD is “Where Words End,” a prime example of
Webb’s uncanny ability to craft imagist lyrics and seductive melodies.
Written last year at the behest of Johnny Rivers—who was an early mentor and
friend to Webb—the song describes the singer’s affection for his mother,
whose face appears in “a new constellation.” The song speaks,
ironically, to the impotence of words when emotion becomes larger than
“It’s one of my favorite moments on the album,” admits Webb. “One of the
best jobs Michael McDonald’s ever done on background. He is the best
background singer ever. He’s probably the best lead singer ever,
too. He’s like a surgeon, a doctor, when it comes to that layering of
background parts. He’s appeared on several of my albums. It was another
opportunity to be blessed with this man and his talent.”
The CD’s songs, recorded in Nashville, unite in their overall musical
approach: arrangements reveal a more folkish, country sound, replete
with dobro, mouth harp and mandolin, further emphasizing Webb’s rural
roots and natural voice. Topnotch Nashville musicians include Jerry
Douglass on dobro and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin.
“It’s home base,” confirms Webb, who is also a member of the Nashville
Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. “It’s anything but strange. It’s kind of
inevitable in a way. If you think of my background—Glen Campbell, the
Highwaymen, Waylon Jennings have recorded my material—there were
country-leaning songs since the very beginning. It’s a very natural
place for me to sing.”
this front, the album has the feel of a completed circle which
contributes to its overall emotional power. The listener also senses
that Webb—with stellar assistance—revisits his songbook in a deeply
Webb and Ronstadt’s closing “All I Know” exemplifies this effect. Her
dulcet voice not only wraps around his but adheres to it, enhancing the
sadness. Stripped of the broad grandeur of Garfunkel’s orchestrated
original, the two voices offer an intimate, mature reading reminding us
that—in the end—Webb’s music has always been about love.
“I don’t feel that love is a perishable substance,” observes Webb. “I
don’t think that it really dies. It may change over time, it may age,
but it doesn’t die. It’s like Einstein’s theory of relativity. You
can’t destroy mass—you can only turn it into something else. And you
can’t destroy energy—it only solidifies. So, I’m a believer in love
lasting forever. I think in some way or other if it was love, it lasts
forever. It becomes part of your DNA.”
The inventive nature of Webb’s lyrics, sophisticated composing, and
layered arrangements first surfaced on The Magic Garden, a
concept album he created for the 5th Dimension in 1968
(following his eight Grammy Awards for “Up, Up and Away” and “By the
Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967).
In eleven songs connected by recurring thematic passages, Webb painted the
anatomy of a relationship—moving from romantic illusion to despair. The
song-cycle reflects a plethora of styles, shifts in tempo, ornate
harmonies by the group, and Webb’s signature capacity to write rock deep
into the orchestra.
“It was a very important album for me,” notes Webb. “It was the first
album where I was given the opportunity of doing all the orchestrations,
the horns and strings, and I was working with Bones Howe, who was a
genius. To be honest about it, it was the first time that I had
complete freedom in the studio because before that I was working with
Johnny Rivers. I had always had someone looking over my shoulder.
“So that album kind of represents the first completely autonomous
project I was ever involved in where we really got to do whatever we
wanted to. It turned out that it didn’t sell really well but it hangs
on as an iconic piece. A lot of people treasure that record.”
Part of the reason for The Magic Garden’s continuing
fascination—there is even talk of turning it into a Broadway musical—is
the sheer power of Billy Davis, Jr.’s voice, breathing life into Webb’s
angst-ridden alter-ego. “On my list of favorite singers, Billy’s very
near the top—he’s extraordinary,” notes Webb. “I don’t think anybody
could touch Billy. He was an Otis Redding-class singer.”
“Webb’s lyrics were so deep,” confirms Davis. “We would have to talk to
him about the story—about what he was experiencing—just to interpret the
song.” Especially on “The Worst That Could Happen” and the cinematic
“Requiem: 820 Latham,” Davis tore emotional holes through Webb’s
“At my age now I wish just for a couple of days I could go back and feel
some of the madness that I felt when I was sixteen years old,” muses Webb,
“when I was actually writing ‘Hymns from Grant Terrace’ and ‘Requiem: 820
“I look at those songs now and I think, ‘This thing is pure emotion.’
It’s shameless—it doesn’t even say, ‘Gee, maybe I should be careful
about what I write because someone might read this some day.’ It’s
totally unselfconscious. There’s a purity to it—there’s a rough
finish, uncultured, as if it hadn’t been aged properly. But the raw
material is dynamite.”
Other milestones in pop music followed, including two critically
acclaimed albums for Irish actor-singer Richard Harris: A Tramp
Shining (1968) and The Yard Went on Forever (1969). Webb
concocted another album-full of songs for Thelma Houston in Sunshower
(1969), giving birth to “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon,” “This Is
Your Life” and “Someone Is Standing Outside,” the latter resurrected by
Patti Austin in 1988.
In 1972, Webb produced and arranged an album of mostly his own tunes for
the Supremes, with Jean Terrell on lead, merging pop, rock and soul in a
rare turn for the trio. The album proffered one of Webb’s most powerful
ballads, “5:30 Plane,” affording Terrell her finest moment on record.
On Reunion, in 1974, Webb produced an entire album of songs for
Campbell. Folk married seamlessly with orchestral music on such Webb
classics as “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” and “I Keep It Hid.” In
the 1980s Ronstadt covered these songs, along with
the Sound of My Voice”
in definitive, symphonic versions.
The following year, Webb returned to the 5th Dimension for Marilyn McCoo
and Davis’ last outing with the group on the album Earthbound.
“It was prophetic,” points out McCoo. “Jimmy was there art the
beginning with the group—Up, Up and Away—and then there again at
the end of our experience with the group—Earthbound.”
Still, the album gave birth to one of Webb's most ethereal compositions,
"When Did I Lose Your Love," featuring McCoo's mellifluous lead and some
intricate guitar work by Larry Coryell. “It’s a beautiful,
beautiful song,” affirms McCoo.
On Watermark (1978), Webb produced an entire album for
Art Garfunkel, with
songs ranging in approach from early rock and roll ballad (“Someone
Else”) to jazz (“Mr. Shuck and Jive”). The Celtic “All My Love’s
Laughter,” a lovely marriage of lyric and melody, featured a glorious
turn by the Chieftains backing Garfunkel’s angelic tenor in a wistful
song about a duplicitous maiden.
In 2003, Webb produced an album of his songs for cabaret singer Michael
Feinstein, reinforcing Webb’s connection to the Great American Songbook
in such contemporary standards as “Time Flies,” “She Moves, Eyes Follow”
and “Is There Love After You.”
Asked to comment on his evolution as an arranger, Webb claims he was
“just learning on the job. I was always interested in establishing a
good, solid basic track, so I was usually over-dubbing orchestra. I
would add instruments as they came into my purview, as I got to see them
and hear them play, and I realized the actual range of each instrument.
“It was an amalgamation of techniques that I picked up from different
arrangers, like George Martin, whom I watched work in the studio. And
of course, what good is an arrangement if it doesn’t actually make the
song sound better? It can be a very flashy arrangement, but the song
shouldn’t get lost somewhere in the muddle. For example, it was very
difficult to arrange Joni Mitchell songs for the Supremes.”
Webb adds that he believes these layered techniques “belong to another
era, really to the big band era when people really were listening to
arrangements, because a lot of big band music was orchestral. Those
people actually heard music at a deeper level. They heard counterpoint,
they heard dissonance, and they heard different voices leaping out.”
Webb alludes to the “great pop hits of the sixties” as influential
examples of fine arranging: “Tony Hatch’s work with Petula Clark and
Dusty Springfield. The Teddy Randazzo arrangements that were done for
Little Anthony and the Imperials. The Burt Bacharach arrangements for
early Dionne Warwick. A lot of the Don Costa stuff that was done in the
60s and early 70s for Sinatra. I go back even further to things like
‘A Summer Place’ by Percy
“I was just raised on that stuff, so a lot of my arranging is really an
attempt to get close to some of those sounds—with varying degrees of
success.” Still, Webb did no arranging on Just Across the River.
“To concentrate on my singing,” he explains, “to leave my heart and soul
on the microphone.” Instead, he turned the reins over to producer Fred
Mollin, who also produced the composer’s sparsely arranged Ten Easy
Pieces (1996), a favorite of Webb aficionados.
Ironically, Webb points out that—today—his first album Words and
Music (1970) sounds like a garage band. “I don’t know how we got
things to sound that small,” he says. “Meanwhile, the Beatles and
others were trying to figure out how to get things to sound bigger
and more excessive. I don’t know why we thought the sounds we were
making were big enough to compete, because they just weren’t. It’s all
part of developing your own craft.”
By Suspending Disbelief (1993), Webb had long since perfected the
larger arrangement, even for his own voice: “Those were big and they
sounded good.” He resurrects the saloon lament “It Won’t Bring Her
Back” from that album as a solo on Just Across the River, lending
it a pure country reading. “If I ever wrote a country song,” he
indicates, “that’s it.”
It would be impossible to enumerate the hundreds of songs Webb has
written, produced and arranged for myriad artists over the last four
decades—not to mention his own critically lauded albums, often
introducing fans to long-awaited new material. This year Judy Collins
released a sweeping cover of Webb’s cinematographic “Gauguin,” a
painterly portrait of the tortured Post-Impressionist as a symbol for
the underappreciated artist.
On a similar note, Webb acknowledges the difficulty well-crafted ballads
face in the contemporary music market: “The truth is it’s not a
flourishing area. It’s inversely proportionate to the number of
performers out there who don’t write their own material yet who are
interested in something that really has some traditional craft behind
it. It represents the shutting down of the emotional side of human
nature, which cannot be good.
“It’s why I called my book Tunesmith, after a science-fiction
story about a society where songs have perished and the only available
music is commercial jingles. And jingles have never been more healthy
and active than they’ve been today.”
And that may well be. But fifty years from now, in another nightclub or
café, someone else will sit down at a piano and conjure up “Wichita
Lineman.” And there will be no reason to apologize. It’s a Jimmy Webb
song—and that’s all anyone will need to know.
Mark Mussari is a
journalist and translator living in Tucson, Arizona.
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JIMMY WEBB HAD TO SAY TO US IN 1999!
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