As his main muse, Glen Campbell, delivers a final album, songwriter Jimmy Webb looks back at his own career in which he delivered some of American popular music’s best-loved songs. By Dave Faulkner.
Songwriter Jimmy Webb on his partnership with Glen Campbell
Jimmy Webb was driving a tractor when he first heard Glen Campbell’s voice. It was 1961 and Webb was a young country boy in Laverne, Oklahoma, helping to plough a neighbour’s field. Campbell’s single, “Turn Around, Look at Me”, came on the radio and Webb was so transfixed by the sound that he turned the tractor the wrong way and the plough caught on a graded roadway, stripping the lift mechanism. He careened for another six metres, destroying a garden bed, a duck pond and finally the tractor itself. Webb lost the ploughing job but that was a defining moment of his career. That night he prayed he would write a song as good as the one he heard, and that one day Glen Campbell would sing it. It would take six years for that prayer to be answered.
Last month legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb published his autobiography, The Cake and the Rain. The title comes from his famous song “MacArthur Park” – Someone left the cake out in the rain – though there were many other equally famous songs to choose from: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Galveston”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman”, to name just a few. Three of those were hits for Glen Campbell, with whom he developed a hugely successful musical partnership, but his songs have also been recorded by Isaac Hayes, Barbra Streisand, Nick Cave, Amy Grant, Joe Cocker, Frank Sinatra, The Four Tops, Linda Ronstadt, Henry Mancini and countless others.
I talked to Webb two weeks ago, ahead of his tour here in June, and remarked that some of The Cake and the Rain reminded me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “I was probably influenced by Hunter S. Thompson to some degree,” he conceded, “but my book is more humane and a lot more emotional than he would ever allow himself to get.”
A few years after the tractor episode, the Webb family relocated to Los Angeles and the teenage Jimmy immediately began looking for songwriting opportunities. He wrote and produced a 7" single for a girl group at his high school, trying to get them all a break in the music business. He also wanted to impress one particular girl in the group – Susan Horton. Suzy may have captured his heart but, unfortunately for Jimmy, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Nonetheless, she became the inspiration for most of his early songs, including “Didn’t We”, “The Worst That Could Happen”, “MacArthur Park” and “Where’s The Playground Susie”. Suzy Horton did Jimmy Webb and the world of music an enormous favour when she rejected him.
It’s taken a lifetime for Webb to recognise the importance of another upheaval in his life around this time. In 1964, not long after arriving in Los Angeles, Webb’s mother started to suffer eye pain and sensitivity to light. Just two months later she was critically ill. In his book, Webb describes visiting her in a darkened hospital room: “After an exploratory surgery the following day our mother died of complications resulting from an inoperable brain tumour. She was thirty-six years old.” His flat description is an insight into how much he had shut down emotionally afterwards. Webb’s grief-stricken father decided to move the family back to the Midwest, but at the last minute, 17-year-old Jimmy refused to get in the car. He remained behind in LA, oblivious to the additional pain he might be causing his father. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was sublimating a lot of grief and just sort of sailing on as though nothing had happened. In fact something pretty terrible had happened.”
Webb’s failed attempt at giving Suzy Horton a hit single may not have won her heart but it helped him get a foot in the door at Motown. He spent almost two years in their West Coast office perfecting his craft, writing more than 45 songs for the label. Motown was the perfect finishing school for the budding songwriter but, ultimately, both he and the company realised that his style wasn’t suited to their roster of artists. In 1966, Johnny Rivers bought out Webb’s contract and, amazingly, his Motown boss let him take all his unused songs with him. One year later, two of those songs had made Webb a millionaire. “Up, Up and Away” by The 5th Dimension and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell both became smash hits, and they went on to win six Grammys between them at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards the following February. Webb’s prayer had been answered by the time he was 21 years old.
His autobiography chronicles his many successes in life, but inevitably there were some failures. “I mistrust people who say that they wouldn’t change a thing in their life,” Webb told me. “I find that hard to believe after the experience I just went through writing this book. I think these are the hard things to deal with as you really watch yourself doing something that’s not very kind, and who doesn’t wanna change those things? Come on, you know?” In The Cake and the Rain, there are stories about girlfriends and wives – his own and others’ – being picked up, sometimes cheated on, then dropped. Drugs were playing a big role in his life, too, though thankfully his book is not another tired homily about addiction and recovery.
Webb owning up to so many bad decisions and even worse behaviour is commendable but it’s also quite confronting. The way he treated his early mentor, Johnny Rivers, is a case in point. It was Rivers who sent “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to Glen Campbell and who teamed Webb with The 5th Dimension so it is rather shocking when Webb reveals how he wriggled out of his contract with Rivers Music. With Webb’s connivance, a trusted staffer decided to “forget” to remind his boss to renew Webb’s contract until it was too late. “It was my first unethical act, and it’s one of those things that, like I said, I would change. I don’t know exactly how I’d go about it but I’d find another way to do it.” Rivers still retained the publishing on the hits they’d already had, worth a small fortune in itself, but Webb acknowledges it was an act of treachery. “He’d taken me in off the street – I mean, I’d lived in his home. What I had done was pretty terrible.”
When “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” became a hit, Webb hadn’t even met Glen Campbell. Campbell was a country boy like him, raised in dirt-poor Delight, Arkansas, but in many ways the two were chalk and cheese. Webb described his impression of the musician at their first meeting. “Very spiffy, you know? Nicely attired. Tight-fitting jeans, white cowboy shirt with silver, pearl buttons, coiffed hairdo… He just looked like a movie star.” Webb, on the other hand, had been mixing with a very different crowd. “I was a long-haired hippie with a bandana, a yak vest on and some Indian moccasins,” he said, with a laugh. “And I looked like I had just come from the Monterey Pop Festival – which I had.” Campbell’s first words to him were, “When ya’ gonna get a haircut?” – the ultimate ’60s put-down. “His politics ran to the right. We would call him the Orange County Republican. He hung out with John Wayne and Bob Hope and all those guys, and played golf. I mean, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a golf club in my hand.”
Nevertheless, Campbell and Webb had an uncanny ability to connect musically. “We were so completely different and yet there was an area between us. There was a flat sort of space we both ventured on called a recording studio, and we would walk in there together and wonderful things would happen.” It was Campbell who suggested Webb write another song with a city’s name in the title and Webb immediately came up with “Wichita Lineman”, one of the few occasions when he successfully wrote a song to order. It became another huge hit for them both and for many people it’s their favourite Jimmy Webb song.
Success as a songwriter didn’t satisfy Webb’s increasing desire to perform his own songs, but he found it difficult to make the transition. Burt Bacharach has never been known for his singing but even he had more of a solo career than Webb for many years. It was Carole King who heralded the advent of the singer-songwriter. “Once I heard Carole King’s Tapestry,” Webb told me, “I realised that pure songwriters were gonna fade, and the pure singers were gonna fade, and this was gonna be the new thing. I mean, I knew that.” It took him nearly 20 years and many failed albums but by the ’90s Webb was finally being taken seriously as a solo artist. “That’s one thing I wouldn’t do differently. That’s one decision that I would make again, and I would make it with a lot of confidence knowing that it was gonna lead me into a whole world of musical diversity, and that eventually I would be able to cut my own albums and that people would come to see me in concert, and I would be able to write a book about it.”
Despite Webb’s acceptance as a performer, Campbell remains the greatest single exponent of his songs, recording more than 40 during his career. Sadly, that miraculous musical partnership has now ended. Campbell performed his final concert in November 2012 in Napa, California. Before his last tour he disclosed he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years, a decline that was documented in the extraordinary 2014 film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. The movie showed that Campbell’s musical gifts remained largely intact even while his other mental abilities degenerated. “Well, he is a one-in-a-generation talent,” Webb said. “I miss not being able to sit around and make songs together because, in my mind, he made all of my songs sound great, you know? He made them sound twice as good.”
A few weeks ago, a Jimmy Webb tribute concert was held at New York’s Carnegie Hall and all of the proceeds went towards Alzheimer’s research. Appearing on the bill were celebrities such as Toby Keith, Amy Grant, Graham Nash and Michael Douglas, along with two other very notable performers. The first was Ashley Campbell, Glen’s daughter, who is an exceptional banjo player and singer in her own right. The second was Johnny Rivers, who sang his version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. Webb said that seeing Rivers up there that night, knowing he was now forgiven, was his “proudest moment”.
The world will get one last chance to hear brand new studio recordings of Glen Campbell performing Jimmy Webb songs. On June 9 the singer’s final album, Adiós, is being released. It was put together very slowly, in absolute secrecy, by close family friend Carl Jackson.
Webb wrote four of the songs, including the title track, and described how he felt when he heard Campbell’s recording. “My wife, Lauren, and I were sitting in a hotel room and we were both crying, just holding on to each other. I’d been coming to terms with myself. It’s over now and I’ll never be able to hear [him sing] certain things. All of a sudden, Carl steps out of the shadows with this inestimable gift, you know, this one last go-around. One last perfect Glen Campbell album. And I was bowled over, to say the least.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Wichita lines man".
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