October 04, 2006

Jimmy Webb: Out Of The Rain

The short list of the greatest American composers invariably include Jimmy Webb, along with the likes of Bacharach, Gershwin and Cole Porter. But Webb wasn't expecting the overwhelming fame he garnered and he soon grew tired of the commercial success.

The boy from Elk City, Oklahoma began writing songs when he was 13. His road to the top of the charts was a confluence of events not unlike the weather patterns preceding the Perfect Storm. The compositions were out there, percolating in publishing houses, hummed by country-western performers, passed from guitar player to guitar player, the melodies - always lush and almost painfully beautiful - simply unforgettable.

All of a sudden, as if the forces of Mother Nature exploded, so too did Jimmy Webb's career. His songs, magical compositions that spoke not just to a generation but all music lovers, were everywhere.

"I was maybe 20 . . . I was signed to a seven year deal with a publishing company, kind of an 'indentured servant' kind of thing," Webb recalled. "They put me together with a group called The Versatiles." Webb used to play piano for the group during practice sessions, "and I slipped in one of my songs."

The Versatiles became The Fifth Dimension, and the song, "Up Up and Away," eventually earned the Record Of The Year Grammy in 1968. (Webb had written it as a student at San Bernardino College in 35 minutes while noodling in the college's practice room.) By then the train was already out of control, speeding downhill. Johnny Rivers, who was red hot at the time, heard Webb's rendition of "By The Time I get To Phoenix."

"I want to meet this guy," he said of Webb. The song was included in Rivers' Top Ten Changes album in 1966, but that was just the beginning of its odyssey. Glen Campbell made it a mega hit the following year, and it has since been recorded by hundreds of artists, becoming one of the most recorded songs of all time. Frank Sinatra called it "the greatest torch song ever written." In the next 20 months five more songs hit the top of the charts.

Campbell rode Webb for the rest of the decade with hits like "Galveston" and "Wichita Linemen." A measure of Webb's greatness are the accolades reserved for him: Blender magazine voted "Wichita" the greatest song ever in 2001.

"Glen is one of the most talented individuals I've known. He can pick up a bagpipe, a banjo, a mandolin and play. He has a phenomenal American voice," Webb said. "And today at 70 he's as good as he ever was."

Webb's compositions were everywhere. The Irish actor Richard Harris, known for his stage presence and his proclivity for partying, sent Webb a simple telegram: "Dear Jimmy, Come London, Make Record." Webb had written a long 22-minute opus For The Association (of "Along Comes Mary" fame). The Association passed, and the last 7:47 became the single "MacArthur Park" for Harris, the longest (up to that time) and arguably the most talked about single ever released, its lyrics ("someone left the cake out in the rain") still a source of constant interpretation.

Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel, Sinatra, Diana Ross and Joe Cocker are just a few of the hundreds of performers who have recorded Webb's songs. He even wrote, "The Worst That Could Happen" for Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge.

Maestro, in fact, recently was in touch with Webb. "He asked me to induct him in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. I said I'd do it - I live in Oyster Bay."

Just as the tornado began to twist completely out of control, Webb extricated himself. "I was frustrated. I broke with the whole middle of the road industry. I formed a band and went on the road. I was in a real danger of being pigeonholed - it was a life and death kind of thing."

He blamed the record companies and radio execs for the pigeonholing. Before 1970, radio had been "democratic, interracial, esoteric. It was a good thing to have all these different kinds of music rubbing shoulders."

He spoke fondly of Lowell George, the departed Little Feat founder who recorded with Webb. "I knew Lowell really, really well. In the inner circles where musicians speak, his is a sacred name. He was one of the brightest in the class." Webb noted George died from a drug overdose.

"Drugs were liberating, opening people up to new ideas. We have to be adults and admit they had a role in the creative process." However, he doesn't use any. "I saw too many people go off the edge."

Webb loved working with Hal Blaine, one of the world's best drummers. In fact, he played at the Monterrey Pop Festival with Blaine and Larry Knechtel.

Blaine, Webb pointed out, holds a record that will never be broken: he was the drummer on six consecutive Grammy Record Of The Year winners, including "Up Up and Away."

Webb is happy to be off the merry-go-round, and he's still writing terrific songs, as evidenced by his latest album Twilight Of The Renegades. "I'm still writing . . . I haven't forgotten how."

Nowadays, "I perform a lot of songs people don't know I wrote," he said. One might be "The Highwayman," a Grammy winner and Country Music Award for Single Of The Year winner in 1985. As legend has it, Webb's agent called and said, "Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson want you write them songs."

Webb reportedly replied, "All of them?" They were, in fact, recording as a foursome, The Highwaymen.

The accolades are dizzying. Webb is the only artist to ever receive Grammy awards for music, lyrics and orchestration - "Up Up And Away" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" won a combined eight. He is a member of the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He has scored movies, TV specials, commercials, and written the best-selling Tunesmith, a book about songwriting.

He is currently working on "Oklahoma Rising," an orchestration piece with Vince Gill that will debut in 2007.

He will be performing solo, on grand piano, Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I do old stuff and new stuff. I tell stories about people, like Sinatra. I try to explain everyone is just human."

For tickets to the show, call the WHBPAC at 288-1500.

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