Jimmy Webb – For the sake of the song
In retrospect, it seems surprising that American Express never tapped Jimmy Webb to do one of those “unknown celebrity” commercials they used to do. The catch-phrase would have practically been an encapsulated summation of his career: “You may not know me, but you know my songs…”
Indeed, Jimmy Webb is a household name in a rather bass-ackward sense. Ask the average Joe and Jane on the street if they’ve ever heard of him, and probably eight or nine times out of 10 you’d get a blank or vaguely reaching stare. But all 10 will nod in knowing affirmation when you start reeling off the songs. “Wichita Lineman”. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. “Galveston”. “MacArthur Park”. “Up, Up & Away”.
Those tunes are the most grandly auspicious tip of an iceberg that runs hundreds more titles deep. And that iceberg floats amid a veritable ocean of artists who have recorded Webb’s songs. Take, for instance: Glen Campbell, Johnny Rivers, Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Mathis, Nick Cave, Henry Mancini, Cher, Art Garfunkel, Jackie Gleason, Zumpano, Ray Price, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Urge Overkill, Amy Grant, Lowell George, Barry Manilow, Mantovani, Barbra Streisand, Wanda Jackson, Benny Goodman, Tennessee Ernie Ford, R.E.M., Perry Como, Larry Coryell, Thelma Houston, B.J. Thomas, Jim Nabors, Oscar Peterson, Scud Mountain Boys, Donna Summer, Marty Robbins, Vic Damone, Arthur Fiedler, Maria McKee, Nina Simone, Three Degrees, Four Tops, Fifth Dimension, Freedy Johnston, Lynn Anderson, Stephane Grappelli, Andy Williams, Bobbie Gentry, Smokey Robinson, Chet Atkins, Liberace, Dionne Warwick, Eddy Arnold, Roberta Flack, Kate Smith, Englebert Humperdinck, and Goober & The Peas.
Uh, sorry, guess I got a little carried away (although, to be honest, that’s not even a third of the artists who occupy the “Jimmy Webb shelf” of my record collection). And, in all seriousness, there’s a meaning to the madness of such namedropping overload. Take a good look over that last paragraph, and it’s hard not to be dumbfounded by the diversity of the performers who have found an occasion to record at least one Webb song (several in many cases) at some point in their career. Webb’s catalog is a testament to the ultimate futility of genre categorization. Venture into a used vinyl record store to comb the racks for albums that might contain Webb cuts, and you’ll soon discover you have to search through every section: rock, jazz, country, folk, soul, gospel — they’re everywhere.
In the early days, however, one might have guessed Webb’s inside track was in country. Though he had his first chart success with the Fifth Dimension’s rendition of “Up, Up And Away” in 1967, the trio of Glen Campbell hits in 1967, ’68 and ’69 — “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” — was perhaps an even greater calling card for his rising career. All three songs rose to the high end of the country charts (“Phoenix” to No. 3, “Wichita” and “Galveston” to No. 1); perhaps more importantly, they crossed over to become pop smashes as well.
That crossover accomplishment is something Webb remains proud of, and it symbolizes some of his own feelings about what country music has become over the past three decades, as opposed to what he believes it should be. ” ‘Wichita Lineman’ is country, make no mistake about it,” Webb said in a January phone interview from his office in New York. “It’s not country like this new ‘twangy guys in black hats’ country, but it was country then. So was ‘Galveston’….That was all country, at that particular time. Even though it wasn’t Ernest Tubb, which was my father’s favorite recording artist. And I know country; I grew up on it. My fingers were right there on the dial. But I don’t think that country is twang, and I don’t think that country is three chords. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a lot more subtle than that.”
To be sure, Webb’s contributions to the country landscape, or to popular music in general, rarely have been of the three-chord variety. His natural gift as a composer and arranger is nearly unparalleled among his contemporaries in the latter half of the 20th century. Like the Beatles’ irresistibly catchy pop classics, the songs sound so simple, until you sit down and try to figure out some of the progressions behind those melodies and discover this guy is often using chords you’ve never played before, working in and out of standard keys all the while. That’s the foundation of his success as a pop songwriter — and, in fact, it’s a talent that likely could have taken him into the classical realm had he chosen that avenue. Check out the 10-minute suite “Land’s End/Asleep on the Wind” from his 1974 album Land’s End for proof.
Ah yes, his own albums — the most oft-overlooked aspect of Webb’s career, even though there have been 10 of them (counting a best-of import collection on Warner in Europe). Though Webb has largely occupied himself with other projects (composing Broadway musicals, writing a book about songwriting, raising a family) in the ’80s and ’90s, he was in fact an active solo artist during the ’70s, albeit never a commercially successful one. His early-’70s albums such as Words And Music and And So: On are hidden wonders of the music world, full of uniquely adventurous material both melodically and lyrically.