Master songwriter Jimmy Webb takes viewers though his remarkable career, including his songs for Glen Campbell and his forthright views about country music and the future of songwriting.
At one telling moment during Jimmy Webb’s interview on “The Great Songwriters,” he comes close to giving away his composing secret. This revelation does not come easily, especially since he emphasizes the diligence and sense of mystery at the heart of his process. But when he mentions and sings “How Quickly” (from his “Twilight of the Renegades” album), Webb hints at his method, saying that a juxtaposition of opposites always works.
He has the smile of someone who almost can’t believe his good fortune while also discussing the rigor that made it all happen.
Webb’s demeanor during this conversation and performance also blends contrasts. He speaks about songwriting with clear assurance. That is to be expected, considering his sizable oeuvre of hits and his unprecedented trilogy of Grammys for music, lyrics and orchestration. Even with this confidence, when he sings a handful of his famous tunes, his tenor voice sounds fragile. Ultimately, Webb comes across as comfortable enough in his accomplishments to let his vulnerabilities show. As Webb narrates this account of his life, he has the smile of someone who almost can’t believe his good fortune while also discussing the rigor that made it all happen.
Long before his life in music, he grew up in rural Oklahoma and compares the work of farming to his future career, recalling that digging in hard soil is comparable to staring at a blank page. At the piano, Webb shows how he developed his sophisticated chord changes after studying a myriad of ways to interpret the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Here, too, he expresses divergent ideas as he says early days in church left him “a little more cynical than the rest of the herd.” And yet his eyes brighten as he talks about hearing Glen Campbell’s “Turn Around, Look at Me” at 14 and praying to someday work with him. That day did come and it led to enduring success, but not before more tribulations during the 1960s.
Webb says he gained much from what some may see as adversity. For a little while, he was a staffer at Motown, yet never became one of its star composers (the conversation does not cover his writing the Supremes’ somber “My Christmas Tree”). The experience taught him that every song had to have a message. Webb is also good humored regarding the songs that this company rejected. He would eventually put them to good use after spending time sweeping out recording studio floors.
An encounter with Johnny Rivers ended those jobs. While Rivers’ advocacy for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” brought the song to Campbell’s attention — and Campbell’s recording then brought it to the ears of millions — Webb’s sparse rendition of it presents a different tone. His sense of surface unease embodies its lyrics of a futile journey away from a doomed romance. The next challenge: how to follow up this hit and “Up, Up and Away,” the 5th Dimension tune.
At Campbell’s request for something “geographic,” Webb responded in 1968 with “Wichita Lineman.” As he describes creating the perspective of an ordinary working guy on a telephone pole thinking extraordinary thoughts, it’s not hard to hear the connection to its writer’s earlier struggles.
Such empathy also comes across in “Galveston,” which is Webb’s presentation of a frightened and bereft foot soldier in Vietnam, written 15 years before Bruce Springsteen conveyed similar sentiments via “Born in the U.S.A.” In the spirit of revealing some of his magic, Webb discloses the meaning of that enigmatic line in “MacArthur Park” about a cake left out in the rain. He said it symbolizes youthful ideals meeting the harshness of adulthood. Nonetheless, Webb’s career demonstrates that childhood dreams sometimes can become reality.
Aaron Cohen teaches humanities at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat and Chicago Reader. He is the author of “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press), which looks at the social and musical changes that shaped R&B in his hometown during the 1960s and 1970s. His first book, “Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury), analyzes Aretha Franklin’s soul-gospel album. Cohen has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and is a two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).