(Photo courtesy: The Press Office)
When composer Jimmy Webb first met singer Glen Campbell, things weren’t harmonious. “He asked me when I was going to cut my hair,” Webb remembers. Soon, the two were helping to change the landscape of popular music with iconic recordings like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”
Webb, known as “America’s Songwriter,” is slated to appear at the Henrico Theatre on June 18, a solo performance that will cover his rich and expansive catalog, including the much-celebrated work with Campbell. He's enjoyed some of the biggest chart hits in the modern era, but even after 50 years in the business, he still has no idea what tunes will capture the public's ear. "I have to stick to what I think is good and hope that the marketplace follows me along."
When we talk, the 69-year-old songsmith is in London, where he’s been attending a memorial service for Sir George Martin, a good friend who produced Webb’s 1977 solo album, “El Mirage.” He’s also been participating in a BBC documentary about the late Joe Cocker, who covered several of Webb’s songs over the years. And, he says, he’s “preparing the ground” for a show that he will tour abroad in September called “The Glen Campbell Years.” The multimedia performances will not only spotlight an amazing musical partnership, but pay tribute to Campbell’s multi-faceted musical career as singer, guitar player and session man. “He was a real power behind the industry when you think about his impact on the pop music of the 1960s,” Webb says. "He participated in some of the great records of the rock era."
Campbell’s music made an early impression on Webb when he was a 14-year-old farm boy growing up in Enid, Oklahoma. “I had a transistor radio tied to an umbrella on my tractor,” he says, “and I heard this record, Glen’s first record, ‘Turn Around, Look at Me’ in 1961. I went to the record store, bought it and literally wore it out ... And I prayed to God that I could write a song as good as that, and that I could meet this guy Glen Campbell. The odds of that happening were astronomical.”
Webb knew at an early age that he had an aptitude for songwriting. “My mother put me on a piano bench when I was 6 years old. Her dream was that I would be the church pianist.” He was inspired by a music teacher, Susan Goddard, to improvise and come up with his own songs. “I wrote two or three songs and I compared my songs to those on the radio. I thought mine were almost as good. And finally I thought some of mine were better.” He loved the classic songwriters of the '40s and '50s — Howard Arlen, Richard Rodgers — but was also inspired by the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Hank Williams and, when they emerged, the Beatles.
In the mid-’60s, Webb left Oklahoma and snagged a job with Jobete Music, Motown’s publishing arm. “I wrote 45 songs for them,” he recalls. “I wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ for Paul Petersen, who was a child actor. But he hated the song; everyone hated it.” Webb left to work with singer Johnny Rivers, who was the first to cut the forlorn end-of-the-relationship ballad. “Glen heard Johnny’s version [of ‘Phoenix’] and that’s when he wanted to record the song.”
Webb and Campbell finally hooked up on the set of a TV commercial. "I came in wearing very long hair, blue jeans, a yak's vest I got from the Monterey Pop Festival. And I stuck my hand out and said, 'Mr. Campbell, I'm Jimmy Webb.' ” Campbell's response about Webb’s long hair, he says, "was a real shot across my bow, because I was kind of a hippie."
On the surface, they had little in common. “[Campbell] was definitely a right-leaning guy and I was a left-leaning guy. But somewhere in the middle we met, came together and made music. Glen and I are a good example of how we can put our philosophical and political views aside and accomplish great things.” Eventually, he says, they were inseparable, like brothers.
When “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” — which Frank Sinatra once offered up as the greatest torch song ever written — became one of 1967’s biggest hits, Campbell asked Webb to write another. So he penned “Wichita Lineman,” another worldwide smash and arguably, according to some critics, the world’s first existential country song. (Glen would pluck a third city ode, "Galveston," out of Webb's catalog for another big hit in 1969).
Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, remained close to Webb; one final tour saw the duo team up to sing together for the first time. "I wish I had some interesting story about a big memorable fight, but it never happened. He used to irritate me because he never had me on his [TV] show. Even when we were having top 10 hits together, he never had me on. I think he didn't want to have a hippie on his show."
Webb’s magic touch brought forth the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away,” as well as “Highwayman,” the song that birthed the country supergroup, The Highwaymen. He also composed “MacArthur Park,” covered memorably in the disco era by Donna Summer and originally made famous by the late Irish actor Richard Harris, known for his role in Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.”
"He was a mad hatter on one level," Webb says of Harris. "But he was so clever. He took a liking to me, he always called me 'Jimmywebb.' Not Jimmy, not Webb, but Jimmywebb. I put my arm around him one night in a bromance moment and I said, 'Hey Richard, let's make a record.' " Two weeks later, Webb got a telegram. It read: “Dear Jimmywebb, Come to London. Make Record. Love, Richard."
The resulting "A Tramp Abroad" album was a landmark in many ways. "MacArthur Park," timed at 7:21, was the big hit. "I didn't expect it," Webb says of the song's success. "It was so outside the paradigm of what hit records were. I used to get paid three times every time it aired because of its length."
"MacArthur Park's" vivid imagery — of striped pairs of pants, yellow cotton dresses and a cake left out in the rain — were distinctive and original. In one way, Webb says, he's like a sponge. "I don't touch anything without taking a little bit away with me." But he also craves originality above all else. "I'm very discontent to recycle some tune I've heard — to 'write sideways' as they say in the business. Even from an early age, I was looking for poetic elements to lyric writing."
Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt and Johnny Cash (and let's not forget Isaac Hayes) have covered Webb’s songs, and he’s captured multiple Grammys for music, lyrics and arranging. He’s also the man behind “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting,” a must-read tome on melody making. He’s currently writing a career memoir for St. Martin’s Press. The first draft was 300,000 words. “It needs to edited,” he says.
Webb came to live performance late in his career, but it’s something that energizes him. “I love interacting with the fans,” he says, “and I think my voice is getting better.” He likens the show he’s bringing to the Henrico Theatre to a cabaret. “I do hits and requests. It’s an evening of entertainment, anecdotes, humor, hits and some misses. People can yell out requests.” America’s songwriter laughs. “Sometimes it gets out of hand.”