WHAT: Jimmy Webb
WHERE: Thrasher Opera House, Green Lake WI
WHEN: 7:30 PM Saturday, June 11, 2016
Acclaimed songwriter, composer, and singer Jimmy Webb’s successful career has spanned over four decades. His best known works include platinum-selling classics like “Up, Up and Away,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “The Worst that Could Happen,” “All I Know,” and “MacArthur Park.” He received the Grammy Award for Song of the Year (“Up, Up and Away”) in 1997.
Webb is the only artist to ever receive Grammy awards for music, orchestration, and lyrics. His songs have been performed or recorded by numerous artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Elvis Presley, Art Garfunkel, Judy Collins, and Frank Sinatra.
These days Webb is touring extensively and will be putting out a new album in the near future. He just finished his memoir, titled “The Cake in the Rain” after the lyrics from his hit “MacArthur Park.” The book is to be released in 2017. He states that he is as busy now as when he was 19.
I recently reached Jimmy at his home on Long Island.
Jane Spietz: How much of an influence was the church atmosphere where your father served as pastor on your early songwriting?
Jimmy Webb: I don’t think you can overestimate it really. My mother decided I was going to be church pianist when I was six years old. That’s where music came into my life in a very forceful way. We had a contract. I would play the piano half an hour a day and she wouldn’t hit me with a stick. So, with that kind of a regimen behind me, by the time I was 12 years old, I was church pianist. I used to go out with my father on evangelical missions in the summertime and tent revivals and open air revivals. He would show me off because I could play pretty good for a kid. I really got my first taste of show business with my dad. I made the connection with the offering plate. I’m not trying to be disrespectful but there is an element of religion that is definitely show business. It has some of the same dynamics. You are performing in front of crowds. You have to do well. If you do well, then you’re rewarded.
JS: What was it like to meet Glen Campbell for the first time?
JW: It was a little bit strange. I heard my first Glen Campbell record when I was 14, which was “Turn Around.” My fondest wish, and I used to pray about it, was to be allowed to write a song that’s good enough and let me one of these days, if you can work it in Lord, let me meet Glen Campbell. By the time I was 18, we had a hit on the radio called “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Somebody came up with this idea for us to do a commercial for General Motors. I wrote a jingle, kind of a song. Glen agreed to the terms of his contract. All I wanted was their offer of three free Corvettes in row. We met in the studio the day of that recording session. He looked me over. I had recently been to the Monterey Pop Festival. My hair was down to my armpits. I was like a complete hippie. He was coiffed, and he wore tight jeans. He was a boy toy. I walked up in front of him, stuck out my hand, and said “Hi Mr. Campbell, I’m Jimmy Webb.” For a while he pretended that I wasn’t there. Finally he looked up at me and said, “when you gonna to get a haircut?” (Laughs)
JS: As late as 2012, you and Glen were doing concerts together.
JW: In 2012, we played a concert hall in Indianapolis. We also played the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville that year. In 2013, he recorded his last Jimmy Webb song which was a song called “Wish You Were Here” (“Postcard from Paris”). That was on an album that was produced by someone else. That was a song that we had wanted to do for the best part of 20 years, we’d wanted to cut it. Seemed like something would always come up and get in the way. Finally he was able to do it. Glen did a beautiful job. It’s kinda sad that there has to be a last time, but at least it was the last song that we did together. That makes me happy. We went out the same way we came in.
JS: One of your most famous compositions, “Galveston,” was a huge hit for Glen Campbell. What is your interpretation of the meaning behind the song?
JW: The song was written during the Vietnamese conflict. It’s about a soldier who is thinking about home, cleaning his weapon, going about the mundane activities that soldiers engage in most of the time and dreaming of this woman that he loves. He is profoundly wishing and hoping that he is able to get back to her in one piece. It’s just a universal message. A lot of people who have done their military service in Vietnam know exactly what the song means. A fellow came up to me and said, “I want to thank you for writing that song. That helped me get through a traumatic time in my life.” It happens all the time. It’s always touching; it’s always a little bit heartbreaking. I put everything I could into that song because I was so opposed to the war. I thought it was ridiculous war, I still do. I don’t think it accomplished anything. And you have that awesome black wall in Washington with all those names on it. To me, it’s always been one of the saddest things in life. I didn’t go. I was deferred because of medical issues. But I could’ve easily ended up there. It could’ve been me. So when one of those guys comes up and says something like that, it’s really hard to choke back the tears. Because here’s the person who lived that experience and held onto something that I created that seems rather unsubstantial. The song is three minutes long, it’s got a few words, a few notes. In many, many ways it’s sort of a triviality, but these songs meant so much to these guys. It makes me feel a lot better about what I do for a living. To have some redeeming social value.
JS: You and Richard Harris had a wonderful partnership in the creation of the huge hit “MacArthur Park.” What was it like to work with Richard?
JW: The first time I met him he was directing an antiwar pageant. There were a bunch of Hollywood movie stars there like Edward G. Robinson, Walter Pigeon, Bob Mitchum, Jean Simmons, so many, including Mia Farrow and some of the younger kids. They are doing readings, poetry, and little scenes. They were all taken from literature dealing with war and the unpleasantness of war, the tragedy of war. I was sent over there to provide backing music. Richard was the director. He was just this mad Irishman re-creating the origin of mankind and swinging around on ropes from platform to platform like Tarzan. After the gig, he would say (using a Richard Harris voice), “Ah, Jimmy Webb, tonight we need to go out and have some black velvets.” I had no idea what a black velvet was. We go out in and an hour later I was lying on the floor seeing the galaxy spinning. A black velvet is half Guinness and half champagne. It just clobbers you and puts you away for the night. One night out I said, “Richard, we should make a record.” And he said, “Ah, Jimmy Webb, you’re right! We should make a record!” I got a telegram from him a few weeks later from London saying, “Dear Jimmy Webb – come to London to make a record. Richard.” That was it. He sent tickets, I got on the 707, took the polar flight to London. The next thing I knew we are making a record and other things. We toured Ireland. We set out to have a drink in every county in Ireland. I think we made seven counties before that fell apart of its own immensity. We became the best pals you could ever imagine. For many years we were very close. We made two excellent records together and then he began to branch out on his own. In my catalog of unforgettable characters, Richard is very close to the top! When he left us, he left this gigantic, vacant void.
JS: Jimmy, you will be performing at the historic Thrasher opera house in Green Lake, Wisconsin on Saturday, June 11.
JW: It will be an evening of entertainment. It’s for everybody. It’s for all colors, all religions, all ages. It’s a fun show. It’s basically about fun. It’s anecdotal – I tell a lot of stories. Most of them are very funny, I like to think. I guarantee an hour and a half of hits. And it’s the background behind those hits. It’s how those songs came to be and how they influenced certain artists that I’ve worked with. It’s meant to entertain. I remember the Thrasher very well. It’s a beautiful little jewel. I’m very excited about coming back.