Behind the song: Jimmy Webb

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Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb is without a doubt one of the greatest songwriters ever in the history of country and pop having written several platinum selling hit-singles for various artists and being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame back in 86. However, the songwriter who is an artist in his own right, is returning to the UK in June after his original plans to tour were derailed by the pandemic. He holds fond memories of the UK after spending a lot of time here throughout his life. “I’m especially looking forward to completing my UK tour, which is something that was booked two years ago in 2020. I came off the road in March and all of a sudden, everything just fell apart. I love coming to the UK, it’s an addiction with me. I’ve been coming there since I was a boy.” 

As he prepares to come back to the UK, Webb reflects, not only on some of his biggest hits, but where it all began for him as a songwriter and it all began in church. “My father was a Baptist minister and also an ex Marine, which was a rather difficult combination for me to grow up with,” Webb begins. It was his Mother mainly that encouraged and nurtured him into music, “She was quite insistent that I become the church pianist and because of her, I was able to join the church staff at age 12. I used to do recitals with my father who would do evangelistic work. It was an early form of show business for me.”  

This was the moment that Webb learned how to create and improvise. “I used to play very long offertories while they passed the plate and I’d have to improvise things. When I was 12 years old living in Oklahoma City, I made up a song called ‘Someone Else’ and about two decades later, that song was recorded by Art Garfunkel on one of his albums. So it’s something I sort of fell into – I can’t remember when I wasn’t doing it.” Webb was unsure of Garfunkel’s choice of song but he loved it and insisted on recording it. So Webb asked for the year it was written to be put in parentheses after the song title.  

“Some of my early songs were just ghastly,” he laughs. “I call them turkeys, I wrote a lot of turkeys. I would listen to the radio and see what they were writing for that artist and I’d try to write a song for Brenda Lee or someone like that. Sometimes I felt like my songs were competitive, maybe I could do this. It was a dream but it wasn’t an impossible dream. It was something that I thought maybe I had the tools to do,” He reflects but upon hearing Art Garfunkel’s version of the childhood tune, Webb was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out.  

During his career, Webb had several hits with Glen Campbell, songs such as ‘MacArthur Park’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Galveston’ to name a few, and the pair struck up a great friendship. One of the most notable songs of both men’s careers was ‘Wichita Lineman’ released in  1968. Webb reflects upon the early beginnings of the song. “In 1968 We both got Grammy Awards, he got one for ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ for Best Male Vocalist and I got one for ‘Up, Up and Away’ for Song of the Year. He called me up one day and said, ‘I’m down here at Western Records with Al De Lory. We’re going through all these records and it’s a bunch of crap. Can you write me something geographical?’ I didn’t want to write but I wanted to help him if I could,” Webb reflects.  

The idea began as he pondered on a childhood memory. “I started thinking about this image from my childhood where my father and I used to drive in the panhandle, which is very flat. I see these telephone poles and every once in a while I see a guy on one, he’s up there in the wires, talking on the phones. They’re up there in the worst of the weather, fixing things after the storms. It was a romantic figure to me. Then I started thinking about the way the wires would sing. If you walked up to them, you could hear this pinging, this scintillating echo of something else. It was actually the sound of the electricity moving through the wires. So this line, I hear you singing in the wires, came into my head.” That was the beginning of the chart topping song.   

“I remember getting calls from Glen all afternoon, every half hour saying are you working? Is it finished yet? No. It’s not. And if you guys keep calling me it’s never going to be finished, I replied. About five o’clock that afternoon, I’d written a couple of verses and I was wondering if I was going to put a bridge into it. I said, to hell with it. I took a card and I wrote on it, ‘Dear Glen, this is not finished, tell me what you think – Jimmy.’ I put it in a pouch and had it messengered over to gold star Western where they were and didn’t hear anything from them.”  

Webb had given up on the song and having heard nothing back from Campbell or De Lory, he assumed the pair didn’t like it. “I ran into him about a week later at another session, we were actually doing the commercial for Chevrolet and I said, ‘I guess you guys didn’t like that Wichita Lineman thing. I just couldn’t finish it.’ He said, ‘Wichita Lineman? We cut that’. I said ‘Glen, it wasn’t finished’. He said ‘It is now’ and so Glen had recorded it just the way I sent it over, which was in an unfinished state.”  

Not only did it top the charts and become one of Campbell’s and Webb’s most notable hits, it was also selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. “It’s in the Recording Registry of the United States of America. It’s in a nuclear bomb proof, underground facility where they keep records from different eras. For a song that I really didn’t finish, I guess it did pretty well. I wish that Glen had been alive, because he passed before it was honoured. I think he would have been very impressed with the idea that it’s underground in this special place, this room where they’re going to keep all this stuff forever.” 

Another of Webb’s hits was helped along the way by his good friend Campbell and though it was recorded by him, it wasn’t made famous by the man known as the Rhinestone Cowboy. ‘Highwayman’ inspired the name of the super-group made up of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and it was their version that topped the charts and earned Webb a Grammy Award. Webb reflects upon where the idea first came from all those years before, “I wrote it in England, after a dream I had of being a highwayman, like a Dick Turpin type character and being chased by the scarlet coated grenadiers. I was very sure I was about to be hanged – it was really a night terror, I woke up in a sweat and luckily I woke up about 10 feet from my piano. I just rolled out of bed, onto the piano bench and wrote the first verse. I was excited about the way it turned out, the whole concept of living more than one life and and the idea that we’re Stardust, we’re always here in some form or another, or I may simply be a single drop of rain.”  

It was his good friend Campbell who he turned to first to get some feedback. “I had to play everything for Glen,” he says with a smile. “He said he was going to take it over to Capitol Records. ‘I’m going to cut this, it’s going to be a number one record’ he said. So he went over to Capitol the next day and played it for them. There were some younger guys in there, there’s nothing wrong with being young, but there was some guys in there thought they knew a lot about records who didn’t really know that much about records. They said, we think it sounds a little bit too much like Jimmy Webb. Glen said, it is Jimmy Webb. They said maybe you should try this and they played ‘My Sharona’. They wanted him to cover that, I always loved that record, I want to make that very clear. But it probably wasn’t the best song pitched to Glen Campbell because he left Capitol after 12 years and never went back.”  

Campbell was a part of a session that was taking place in Nashville for Johnny Cash, “They were doing an album for Johnny, he was ill and everybody had sort of closed ranks around him; Marty Stuart and Bobby Bare and all these old timers, Glen and Kris Kristofferson. Glen Campbell ended up playing it for them and teaching it to them. It turned out, there were four of them and there were four verses. It was like a marriage made in heaven, it’s magic,” Webb reflects, he refers to his faith as he speaks of how things fell into place like a dream. “So the record went absolutely nuts. It was so successful that the the four guys began touring as The Highway Men. They had a bus, I’ve seen it go by a dozen times, so it was quite thrilling in 1986. I sort of got my career handed back to me. Glen was absolutely right when he said it was a hit.” 

There are many different versions of the song out there but in 2019, an all female super-group formed, The Highwomen and reinvented the song, bringing a female interpretation to the lyric. “One of the girls from The Highwomen called my wife one day and said, Would Jimmy like to write a new Lyric with us? Or would he mind if we just wrote a new Lyric for it? It was one of those moments in my life where something said to me, so strongly, leave it alone, let them do it, keep your ego out of it, and just let it happen. So the ladies got a message from me saying, go ahead.”  

Webb trusted the girls with his song and was intrigued to see what a group of younger, female creatives would do with a song such as that. “I remember the day that Laura and I got it back. We listened to it for the first time and I cried like a baby. Because the story, the lyric that they wrote about a woman who actually dies trying to get her infant, her baby across the border into the United States, is just so powerful, so strong and so compassionate. The only thing I could have done is mess that up. The purity of it being an absolutely feminine product. God bless them for writing that lyric!” 

As Webb makes the trip to the UK once again he is keen to revisit these many hits in his live set whilst sharing the new material he has recently been working on and will aim to strike up a balance. “I try to keep the public happy so my bread and butter are the hits. But I also like to offer something new and I have a lot of new songs coming out on an album this year. 75 year old Jimmy Webb has new songs!”  

UK Tour Dates:

May 27th – London

May 28th – Milton Keynes

May 31st – Leeds

June 1st – Bury St Edmunds

June 3rd – Edinburgh

June 5th – Manchester

June 7th – Bristol

June 8th – Birmingham

June 10th – Dublin

June 11th – Dublin

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