The last songwriter: Jimmy Webb’s extraordinary songs to be heard in Bethlehem showcase
Hear Jimmy Webb sing “Didn’t We,” as he recounts how the song is from the second act of a never-performed college musical. Then hear Sinatra sing “Didn’t We,” with a dry as Jack Daniels vocal and Don Costa arrangement and let the chill bumps start.
Listen to Webb’s intro to “The Worst That Could Happen” as he talks about Johnny Maestro introducing 40 guys “all in maroon blazers,” former members of the Brooklyn Bridge, which took the song to No. 3 in 1969.
Pull up “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a No. 2 country song hit by Glen Campbell, who had No. 1 country hits with other Webb songs, “Wichita Lineman,” which also went to No. 3 on the pop chart, and “Galveston,” which also went to No. 4 on the pop chart.
Or how about “Up, Up and Away,” the 1967 hit that launched the career of The 5th Dimension?
And who could forget “MacArthur Park,” with its brilliant panoply of lyrics that symbolized the psychedelic ‘60s, and became the unlikeliest of hits for the unlikeliest of singers, actor Richard Harris, in 1968 when it reached No. 2 on the charts and, as if to prove its words and music resiliency, a No. 1 disco hit for Donna Summer in 1978.
Wide-ranging in music, lyrics, arrangements and subject themes, these are all songs written by Jimmy Webb, arguably the last songwriter of his generation in a tradition that stretches back through the Brill Building to Tin Pan Alley to sheet music song-pluggers playing piano in World War 1 era music stores.
You’ll have a rare opportunity to hear Jimmy Webb in his first appearance in the Lehigh Valley for a solo piano concert, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, Musikfest Cafe, SteelStacks, Bethlehem.
“It’s an anecdotal presentation,” says Webb in an Oct. 25 phone interview from Bowling Green, Ky., where he premiered his first classical piece with Orchestra Kentucky the night before.
Of the Musikfest Cafe concert, Webb says, “In a sense, it’s kind of a visit to my living room. It’s very upbeat. A lot of the music is kind of sad. In contrast to that the stories are amusing, hopefully, vignettes that take place behind the scenes between artists and labels and producers, you know, the kind of secret world that gets a song recorded and the unlikely path that a song takes before it gets to the public.”
Webb has a passel of picks for anecdotes. His songs have been recorded by, among others, Art Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, John Denver, Amy Grant, Isaac Hayes, Thelma Houston, Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt, R.E.M., Carly Simon, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick.
Webb, who turned 70 on Aug. 16, is one of the last, and perhaps the last, songwriter of his generation still writing new material.
Billy Joel tours, but hasn’t recorded new original songs; Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and James Taylor tour on the strength of their voluminous catalogs as new hits elude them, and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones tour, but recently released albums of cover tunes.
Webb is working on his next album, his 14th, planned for release in 2017. It will be all originals. “That’s all I know. That’s all I know how to do,” he says. Webb’s most recent album is 2013’s “Still Within the Sound of My Voice.”
Webb’s memoir, “The Cake in the Rain” (St. Martin’s Press), is set for publication in April 2017.
Orchestra Kentucky premiered Webb’s “Nocturne for Piano and Orchestra” (Nocturne for “Lefty”) Oct. 24 at the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, Bowling Green, Ky.
“It’s an anniversary present for my wife. I owe a lot to her and I love her dearly. We celebrated our anniversary last night. The orchestra provided a bravura performance.” Webb and his wife, Laura Savini, a PBS presenter and producer, celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary. Her nickname is “Lefty.”
His tour, with performances continuing into February 2017, includes an Oct. 29 trip to Limerick, Ireland, for the Richard Harris Film Festival, and concerts in Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Washington and California.
“My wife keeps me in line. And she knows all about heath food. Sometimes I feel a little down on the road and it’s usually because of the diet. I am 120 over 70. I don’t notice that I am losing any of my mental faculties,” he says then quips, “I suppose I’d be the last to know.”
Webb has received all kinds of accolades and achieved incredible commercial success. His Grammys include “Song of the Year” (1967) for “Up, Up and Away,” “Arrangement” (1969) for “MacArthur Park” and “Country Song” (1986) for “Highwayman.”
According to BMI, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is the third most-performed song between 1940 to 1990. Webb received the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award (2003) and the ASCAP “Voice of Music” Award (2006).
Webb was the youngest ever inducted into the National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He is the former vice chair of ASCAP, where he’s been a board member for 17 years. Webb advocates for preserving the rights of the songwriter.
“When I started out we were dealing with Napster and the threat was peer-to-peer networks,” says Webb. ‘And through the years, it’s like a hydra: You cut off one and seven come back.
“The threat is more organized. There’s an attempt to devalue copyright to deemphasize the value of the songwriter and the whole role in creating music. The emphasis is now on producers. These producers feel more or less that they have a carte blanche to use anything that takes their fancy as part of their creation, as part of their hip-hop record.
“One of my own songs from my Johnny Rivers’ days from Nina Simone was sampled and used on a Kanye West record and I didn’t know it until I heard it on the radio.”
Rivers signed Webb to a publishing deal and recorded his song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” on his 1966 album, “Changes.” In 1967, Rivers produced an album, “Up, Up and Away” for The 5th Dimension, with the title cut written by Webb.
In 1967, Rivers released “Rewind,” an album featuring seven songs by Webb, including “Do What You Gotta Do,” also recorded by Nina Simone on her 1968 album, “Nuff Said!” West sampled the song on his album, “The Life of Pablo,” released in 2016. West’s song, “Famous,” has a segue from hip-hop to samples of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” over the chord progression from Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do.”
“You correctly identify Spotify and Pandora as egregious tightwads, who absolutely do not want to pay songwriters a wage that’s anywhere close to what we’ve been paid historically for mechanical performances on records.
“And we have the same problems in our cable deals where they want to pay us less and less, and terrestrial radio. There’s a feeing of being under siege and of sort of being the last templars defending the castle while the barbarians storm the gate.”
Webb said “Famous” has had 2 million downloads “and I don’t expect to see more than a thousand dollars for that. It’s just a pitiable small amount of money.
“The end result will be, without some interdiction from the Justice Department or the Congress, the extinction of the American songwriter. I’m just not running around saying the sky is falling. That is what I do. That is where I live.
“It’s a war against creators of all kinds. It’s really a culture war. It’s a lot bigger than any single aspect. It’s a huge umbrella of oppression against creators and their efforts.
“What’s behind it is that companies like Google and AT&T, that’s what the merger [Time Warner] is all about. These huge companies want to own everything and they want to offer it to their customers without having to pay anything for it.”
Webb, the Elk City, Okla, son of a Baptist minister, studied piano and organ, and played at his father’s church services in southwestern Oklahoma and West Texas.
“I was saved when I was a little kid. I don’t think you can take that away. For awhile I was considering becoming a missionary. It was the real deal. I became busy with the music business. I still love to go to church when I can. I would say I’m a lot more spiritual than I am religious.
“I feel I do have a relationship with God. And that is very personal and it’s probably unique to each individual. It’s not dogmatic. I feel I’ve been strongly influenced by the church. I could never understand in the southern Baptist church why we were never allowed to dance. To me that’s Taliban stuff. I think religion could be a little more friendly without throwing away their core beliefs.”
A social media notice about the Jimmy Webb interview caused Judy Smith of Allentown to ask if Richard Harris contributed lyrics to “MacArthur Park.”
“He [Harris] was a great writer. His poetry was beautiful, but he really didn’t have anything to do with that [‘MacArthur Park’ lyrics]. He probably should have,” Webb laughs. “I produced it and arranged it.”
Webb discusses how he met Harris: “We were working on an anti-war rally at the Coronet Theater on La Cienega [in Los Angeles]. My boss, Johnny Rivers, sent me over to play piano. We just started going out for Guinness, and I never had one before. I had a black velvet, 50 percent Guinness and 50 percent champagne. I’d have two or three of those and I’d be laying on the floor like a rug.
“I’m the oldest in my family. He [Harris] was like the big brother I never had. He was quite the mercurial character. When things went south, they really went south in a big way.”
Webb has written some of the most amazing lyrics about some of the most amazing topics in pop music. Take “Wichita Lineman,” with these lines in the verse:
“Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.
“I hear you singin’ in the wire.”
And the chorus:
“And I need you more than want you
“And I want you for all time.”
When asked about his songwriting process, Webb says, “I don’t know where they come from. I always feel like I’m getting a little bit of help on that score. To me, it’s an instinctive process. I will have an objective. I will visualize where the song will go and some other words will be there. Sometimes I will rewrite them, sometimes not.
“The very first thing that pops into my head is not always what I want. I’ve used a rhyming dictionary. About half of what I’m doing is spiritual and the other half is sweat and blood. Just looking for the right word. James Joyce said there is only one word. That you have to find the word. I find that to be a very high bar. But I don’t find it’s bad to go into the situations to find out.”
In discussing his songwriting influences, Webb says, “My idols were Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lennon and McCartney.
“It’s very flattering to be singled out as one of the last songwriters. It’s more like a generation. Its more like the last generation of songwriters: Mac Davis, Paul Williams, Stephen Bishop, all these guys who were craftsmen on the highest level, who took as their models Harold Arlan, Yip Harburg, the Gershwins, Stephen Foster, Francis Scott Key
“Yeah, I think that there’s tremendous abyss to the present practitioners of music. There has been no mentorships. There’s been no passing along of tradition because there’s a ghastly chasm between us and them.
“This may be one of the crucial developments, that we stop thinking about songs as important. I hope that’s not what happens. Certainly, the stage is set. Events are moving with such rapidity. It would be ceasing with this craftsmanship.
“I was famous for being a songwriter and nothing else. I may have been one of the last people who was famous for being a songwriter.”