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Jimmy Webb


The man behind some of America’s most evocative and enduring songs, WEBB’s place in music biz history is assured even if he’s never actually been a household name. A master of the songwriting art, Jimmy penned some of the 60s’ biggest, most ornate hits before emerging from the anonymity of label credits to forge a low-key performing career in his own right. As adept at epic balladry as soaring, BACHARACH-esque pop, WEBB was famously a millionaire by the time he was 21, furnishing hugely successful material for GLEN CAMPBELL, The 5th DIMENSION, RICHARD HARRIS, and a plethora of others.
Born August 15, 1946, Elk City, Oklahoma; the son of a Baptist preacher/minister, WEBB had learned piano as a kid and, inspired by the California surf boom, had already begun writing songs by the time he signed up for a course at San Bernardino College in 1963. Jacking it in shortly afterwards to ply his trade as a songwriter, Jim soon found himself working for Jobete Music, the publishing wing of Tamla Motown. A subsequent move to L.A. eventually led to a job with a similar company set up by JOHNNY RIVERS, the singer unsuccessfully covering WEBB’s haunting `By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. A classic example of this farmer turned songwriter’s orchestral L.A. sound, the track was later given a definitive hit reading by easy-rocking country celeb GLEN CAMPBELL; it was also a Top 40 hit in ’69 for ISAAC HAYES.
WEBB’s first real success had actually come around the same time when black soul-pop outfit, 5TH DIMENSION took his `Up, Up And Away’ into the Top 10; airline TWA subsequently used the track on a commercial and the man’s career went stratospheric almost overnight. A keen student of the PHIL SPECTOR/BRIAN WILSON school of production technique, WEBB’s highly distinctive, expansive arrangements were indelibly marked with the desolation and panoramic melancholy of his native Oklahoma. You could hear it in `Wichita Lineman’, another JW weepie transformed by the golden tonsils of GLEN CAMPBELL; the singer completing his hat-trick in ‘69 when he carried the groovy `Galveston’ into the Top 5. The previous year, actor RICHARD HARRIS had narrowly missed the top of the charts with WEBB’s `MacArthur Park’, the most deliciously overwrought composition of his songwriting career and a song subsequently covered by artists as diverse as DIANA ROSS and WAYLON JENNINGS.
As for WEBB’s own recording career (not including a one-one 45, `Love Years Coming’ with bubblegum trio: Strawberry Children), Epic Records kick-started it without telling him on JIM WEBB SINGS JIM WEBB (1968) {*3}, a collection of early demos.
Yet despite the highly lucrative and Grammy-winning nature of his trade, WEBB longed for the recognition and kudos of the stars he was writing to please. In tandem with the beginnings of his own solo career among the burgeoning, L.A. based singer-songwriter set, he began composing for films, a natural enough move given the often highly elaborate, atmospheric sweep of his pen. While WEBB had previously worked on the theme music for romantic comedy, How Sweet It Is! (1968), his first full commission was an unreleased score for Frank Perry’s analytical western, Doc (1971). Following the rise of the singer-songwriter cult in the early 70s, the craftsman was quite understandably tempted to cut himself a piece of the action as the role of the traditional songwriter diminished. Signed to L.A. powerhouse label, Reprise, the singer finally released his debut album proper, WORDS AND MUSIC (1970) {*6}, billed on the sleeve as Jimmy L. Webb. Markedly more lo-fi than the grandiose pieces that had made him famous, the album made little impact. Dedicating one song in particular to fellow scriber, `P.F. Sloan’, and a 3-way covers medley courtesy of The EVERLY BROTHERS `Let It Be Me’, The ASSOCIATION’s `Never My Love’ and Boyce & Hart’s MONKEES tune `I Wanna Be Free’, WEBB’s other mini-gems, `Sleepin’ In The Daytime’ and the caustic `Music For An Unmade Movie’ (a suite in three parts), were almost swept under the red carpet by L.A. critics.
Put on the musical conveyor-belt once again, the rush-released AND SO: ON (1971) {*6} – with half the songs collated from a few years back! – was again almost immediately cherry-picked by other artists; ROBERTA FLACK for `See You Then’, IAN MATTHEWS taking on `Met Her On A Plane’ and SCOTT WALKER re-vamping `If Ships Were Made To Sail’.
LETTERS (1972) {*5} saw Jimmy transforming his classic `Galveston’ (cut here to skeletal acoustic fare), while covering Boudleaux Bryant’s `Love Hurts’, and showing he could almost wig-out on the rockier `Song Seller’. However, the record was similarly overlooked and ultimately WEBB failed to make the transition from backroom to centerstage undertaken so successfully by his former East Coast contemporary, CAROLE KING.
Jimmy nevertheless enjoyed at least some sporadic chart grace as ART GARFUNKEL hit paydirt in ‘73 with `All I Know’ (one of three JW-penned tracks on his accompanying “Angel Clare” debut); no doubt helping to ease the pressure of being dropped by Reprise. Incidentally, GARFUNKEL extended his WEBB liaison – and then some – by spreading out all but a few non-JW songs on his 1977 “Watermark” LP.
The man’s budding celluloid career wasn’t boosted any with his involvement in a critically lambasted adaptation of Desmond Morris’s best-selling potted-anthropology classic, THE NAKED APE (1973) {*3}, despite a brave effort to complement the film’s skewed humour. The 1970s were indeed difficult for JIMMY WEBB, but there can have been few lower points than this soundtrack. More than five years after the phenomenal string of hits that secured his reputation as a great American songwriter, the Oklahoman was increasingly frustrated by an audience indifferent to his performing talents. Having scored the 1971 western, Doc, and soon to oversee a new SUPREMES set, he snapped up this Hugh Hefner project like a man hell-bent on finding out whether Playboy turned out music any more successfully than JIMMY WEBB sold top-shelf magazines. The bulk of the soundtrack featured the instrumental genre pastiches that underscored the movie’s tiresome ironic lectures, while debutant director Donald Driver (who also wrote the screenplay, and was clearly intent on showcasing all his limitations at once) contributed hapless vocals on two unfunny ragtime songs.
WEBB’s own performances sounded like they were recorded at the bottom of the pool in the Playboy mansion without managing to obscure the singer’s shortcomings. Another of WEBB’s songs, `Saturday Suit’, would subsequently brush itself down and appear looking quite respectable on that 1977 GARFUNKEL album, while its writer probably gave thanks that this movie’s greatest virtue had been its anonymity.
Briefly taken under the wing of David Geffen’s Asylum Records for 1974’s LAND’S END {*6}, WEBB’s recording fortunes failed to improve, and even his production forays fell by the wayside as an attempted 5TH DIMENSION reunion project stiffed in the mid-70s. Of the album itself, recorded as it was in England, with JONI MITCHELL, RINGO STARR, and ELTON JOHN’s backing band, the plaintive and schmaltzy songs (`Ocean In His Eyes’, `Crying In My Sleep’ and `Feet In The Sunshine’ among them) were far too derivative of a time when everything in the music business seemed rosy.
In stark contrast, Atlantic Records commissioned producer/arranger/conductor George Martin to find a magic-wand solution for WEBB’s seventh set, EL MIRAGE (1977) {*7}. Having just turned 30, but a seasoned campaigner before his time, Jimmy and the cream of L.A.’s session squaddies (including stalwart guitarist Fred Tackett) were in fine fettle on the country-tinged `If You See Me Getting Smaller I’m Leaving’, `Christiaan No’ and `The Highwayman’. And while the latter track found solace with C&W all-stars CASH, JENNINGS, KRISTOFFERSON and NELSON, `The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’, was taken under the respective wings of music legends GLEN CAMPBELL, JOE COCKER and JUDY COLLINS.
It’d be 1979 before Jimmy worked in film again, scoring Robert Markowitz’s little-celebrated weepie, VOICES {*4}. One of those gifted writers – think BACHARACH, KRISTOFFERSON, et al – whose success gave them a regrettable license to sing, WEBB thankfully passed the mic here to BURTON CUMMINGS. And the Canadian singer’s syrupy rendering of `I Will Always Wait For You’ (“The future surrounds me/The moment has found me”) may come as some surprise to those who remember him bawling out “American Woman” with The GUESS WHO – though he does get to growl a bit on the truly terrible `Drunk As A Punk’, whose rocky bluster was as wide of the mark as its title. The tired story didn’t bring the best out of WEBB; hard-hearted listeners would struggle to keep a straight face during the quavery `Children’s Song’, and though the incidental music was polished pop-jazz, the resulting mess was probably only of interest to those whose kleenex were still damp from a night in with the movie.
Three years later, Jimmy collaborated with AMERICA on the soundtrack to much loved kids animation, “The Last Unicorn” . With the meandering folk-rockers (better known for their early 70s hit, “A Horse With No Name”) having previously contributed to the songwriter’s unreleased 1976 album, “Jim, The World’s Greatest Lover”, WEBB returned the favour by composing and arranging the film’s haunting score.
Although he continued to write for film and television, WEBB’s profile was almost non-existent for the bulk of the decade following 1982’s ANGEL HEART {*6} album. While his songs were still high in-demand for the likes of soft-rockers: ART GARFUNKEL (check out three on his 1981 set, “Scissors Cut”), FIREFALL and of course, GLEN CAMPBELL, it was all too easy to call-up a priceless set of musicians (e.g. most of TOTO) and all-star backing singers in GRAHAM NASH, MICHAEL McDONALD, STEPHEN BISHOP, DARYL HALL, KENNY LOGGINS and AMERICA’s Gerry Beckley, to create that misty-eyed balance of rock and pop.
Having threatened retirement before its release, WEBB finally succumbed to calling it a day on his solo career. Or had he? Was it that he sounded very WARREN ZEVON or RANDY NEWMAN?
His subsequent music for Vietnam POW drama, The Hanoi Hilton (1987) remained unreleased, as did his score to low budget road movie, The Clean And The Narrow (2000), with WEBB tending to concentrate on intermittent, critically acclaimed solo recordings and theatre work over this period in time. It was more than a decade before he released another album of songs through 1993’s well received SUSPENDING DISBELIEF {*6}. Emerging on Elektra Records, having been given another foot-up by LINDA RONSTADT (he’d worked on her “Cry Like A Rainstorm…” set in ’89), WEBB was in his glory on the smooth and sophisticated minor classics `Too Young To Die’, `Elvis And Me’ and `It Won’t Bring Her Back’.
Celebrating his 50th year on the planet, the man thought it poignant and relevant to display his own re-interpretations of classic “Jimmy Webb Sings…” on TEN EASY PIECES (1996) {*7}. From `Galveston’ to `MacArthur Park’, via `Wichita Lineman’ and `By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, maybe with this well-placed album he could be proud once again of his greatest works.
Having still toured on occasion and even played some rare UK dates in ‘98, performing these timeless songs and others to an ageing audience, Jimmy looked to be content with life raking in the royalties.
But choosing not to live on his laurels, while taking in the odd production duties (he’d just worked with CARLY SIMON and Michael Feinstein, respectively), WEBB delivered his umpteenth set, TWILIGHT OF THE RENEGADES (2005) {*6}. Often described as a storybook version of BURT BACHARACH, the singer-songwriter performed some of his most touching pieces here in `Class Clown’ (one won’t spoil the sad end), `Why Did I Have To…’ and the nostalgic `Paul Gauguin In The South Seas’, defining and deciphering characteristics of the common man.
Bypassing a retrospective look at his career through up-to-date concert-set (recorded in ’05), LIVE AND AT LARGE: JIMMY WEBB IN THE U.K. (2007) {*6} was him paying homage to the stars who inspired him: all previously mentioned ‘cept for NILSSON, Frank Sinatra and Irving Berlin.
It was inevitable that the team of JIMMY WEBB and The WEBB BROTHERS (aka his sons Christiaan, Justin, James and Cornelius) would combine forces for the UK-only-released COTTONWOOD FARM (2009) {*7}. A place too on the back-porch session for 86-year-old father Bob Webb and Jimmy’s daughter Camilla, the generation gap were perfectly suited to fuse history and melody on the 12-minute title track, while there was a place at the musical dining table for `Highwayman’, some of the Brothers’ lesser-known tracks and a closing cover of `Red Sails In The Sunset’.
2010’s solo set, JUST ACROSS THE RIVER {*6} was also a collaborative piece, and set-up with Jimmy’s admirers and compadres by stalwart producer, Fred Molin. Featuring 13 classic WEBB works sung with VINCE GILL, WILLIE NELSON, LUCINDA WILLIAMS, GLEN CAMPBELL, JACKSON BROWNE, BILLY JOEL, MICHAEL McDONALD, J.D. SOUTHER and MARK KNOPFLER, this all-star brigade gave another aspect to the melancholy and intimate jewels of pensmith Jim. Thinking this was a formula worth sticking to, a bookend type of set, STILL WITHIN THE SOUND OF MY VOICE {*6} was released three years later; Nashville sessioners and stars that added a shine to his sophisti-songs this time around, stemming from and matched to LYLE LOVETT, CARLY SIMON, The Jordanaires (appropriately for `Elvis And Me’), KEITH URBAN, CROSBY & NASH, JOE COCKER, MARC COHN, DEL AMITRI’s Justin Currie, AMERICA, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, AMY GRANT, BRIAN WILSON and ART GARFUNKEL – phew!
© MC Strong 2000-2008/BG/ND/MCS // rev-up MCS Nov2013

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