A Conversation with Songwriter Jimmy Webb

The artist discusses highlights from his life in music, from collaborating with Glen Campbell to hugging his favorite U.S. president.

jimmy webb
Jimmy Webb Courtesy of Jimmy Webb/Rockstars and Babies

An Evening with Jimmy Webb takes place Saturday, October 23, 2021, at Kean Stage’s Enlow Recital Hall in Union. The original event, slated for April 2020, was postponed due to the pandemic.

It’s a simple, incontrovertible statement: Jimmy Webb is one of the most successful songwriters of all time. The youngest person ever inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Webb is also the only artist to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration.

Born in Elk City, Oklahoma, Webb set his sights on a songwriting career and moved to Southern California. He was just 21 when country-pop star Glen Campbell’s recording of Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” went to number 26 on the Billboard singles chart. It was Webb’s breakthrough hit and began a string of successful collaborations with Campbell, whose classic recordings of Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” reached numbers 3 and 4 on the chart, respectively.

Webb’s biggest songwriting hit, “MacArthur Park,” originally written as the final seven minutes of a 22-minute cantata, was a surprise number 2 hit for the Irish actor Richard Harris in 1968. Ten years later, a disco version by Donna Summer gave Webb his only number 1 song on the U.S. pop chart. Among his other big hits: “Up, Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension and “Worst That Could Happen” by the Brooklyn Bridge.

[RELATED: 10 Jersey Contributions to Popular Music]

Now 73, Webb—who lived in Montclair from 1987 to 1993—continues to write, record and tour. His most recent album release, SlipCover, is a collection of songs by his contemporaries, including Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Paul Simon. In 2017, St. Martin’s Press published Webb’s memoir, The Cake and the Rain.

Below are highlights of Webb’s recent conversation with New Jersey Monthly editor Ken Schlager.

KS: You were still a teenager when you wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” How did such an expression of melancholy spring from someone so young?
That’s an easy question. I think youngsters feel these things on a much more intense scale than so-called grown-ups. The first emotional experiences you have with the opposite sex are pretty intense. Even today, children are regrettably becoming involved romantically in their teens and going out and committing suicide. I mean, there’s nothing about it that doesn’t feel real to a teenager. In the music of the ’50s and ’60s, I think you find a lot of unbridled emotionalism and romanticism.

KS: Were “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” both written for Glen Campbell?
“Wichita Lineman” was written as a follow-up to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and I’m pleased to say that I hit the target. Over its lifetime it sold over 44 million records globally. It’s still being played on the radio and still being recorded by young artists all the time.

KS: And then did you also write “Galveston” for Glen?
Not really. I had that one on the table for a while. It was a kind of subtle antiwar comment, and Glen wasn’t into antiwar comments at all. When his version came out, it sounded more like a patriotic song. You should listen to my version and then listen to his version, and you can understand how much interpretation has to do with how you perceive the music that you hear. It was a very sad song, and when Glen’s version came out it was a sort of call to arms, if you will. He knew what he was doing. It was a hit.

KS: “MacArthur Park” was an unusual pop hit for the Irish actor Richard Harris. How did that come about?
When Richard and I first started making the album [A Tramp Shining], it was more of a hobby than a cause. I was in London, visiting him. I had no problems at all. I was young, I was 20-ish. The money was rolling in. I was living at his house, and we were going to this recording studio when we felt like it, basically. The rest of the time we spent stalking through the beer halls of London—the White Star and the Sun Inn, and all these fabulous old pubs. Richard loved to fight. He loved to confront the English elite in their own environment and tell them that they were screwing up in Ireland. They were very adventurous evenings. Sometimes they’d end with broken glass and sirens.

The idea that “MacArthur Park” would come out of that and become a hit, it just never flitted through our skulls. I was lamenting one night. I said, “Nobody will do this because it’s too long.” I wrote it for another group called the Association. Richard said, “Play it for me.” So I did and he almost smashed the piano lid down with this huge ham-sized fist of his and he said [gruff voice]: “I’ll make a hit out of that. I’ll be a pop star.”

KS: “MacArthur Park” was more than seven minutes long at a time when pop radio didn’t play long songs. How did it reach number 2 on the national pop charts?
“MacArthur Park” was not played on AM radio. It started on FM. At the time, FM was called underground radio because they played long records. So a 7-minute-20-second song was basically nothing to them. It was like, all right, it’s long, let’s put it on, because that’s what we do. We play long records.

With no promotion—zero promotion—it started making the jump between FM and AM. So now there’s some AM stations [playing] it. And the AM stations were doing a very surprising thing. They were playing it in its entirety. Whenever it was played, I got paid for three songs. Cause it was three songs long.

KS: So you started getting airplay on AM without providing a shorter edit, and eventually it reached number 2 on the national pop charts. How exciting was that?
JW: It was just one of those breakout records that wanted to be a hit, and you couldn’t have stopped it with an 18-wheeler.

KS: That was 1968. The following year, Waylon Jennings won a country Grammy with his version of “MacArthur Park.” And in 1978, Donna Summer recorded a disco version. Did that take you by surprise?
It was the era of disco, which wasn’t really my favorite thing. I wasn’t a clubbing, “Staying Alive” kind of guy. I never learned to dance, because dancing wasn’t allowed in my Baptist home. It was way over my peripheral vision, that there was this disco thing happening. And all of a sudden there’s “MacArthur Park” again, and there’s Donna Summer, and she has the most amazing voice. She just blasted the thing. It was my first number 1 record in the United States.

KS: Were the Beatles a big influence on you as a songwriter?
Me and everybody else. I started following the Beatles when the Rubber Soul album came out. “Norwegian Wood” really turned my head around. I thought, These guys are really different. There’s a sophistication here. It’s hard to hear in some of their earlier records. But all of a sudden there was Rubber Soul and there was Revolver. George Martin was beginning to get into his stride as an arranger, and the band was smart enough to realize that he could be a real asset.

KS: What was it like working with George Martin on your 1977 album, Mirage?
It was a dream come true. Here I am sitting in the studio and I have the 100-percent, unadulterated attention of this iconic figure. He was more than a symbol to me. He really had stirred me deeply on an emotional level with his arranging and with his air of impeccable good manners. I always called him George Martin, RAF, because he reminded me of that age of chivalry and the Battle of Britain and the bravery and dignity.

He was altogether an impressive man. He was just the most splendid example to follow. At the time, I was straying into a world that included a lot of drugs and things, and without a word he pushed me back toward sanity. He just did it by example.

He came in one day, quite shy and modest, and sat down and said, “Jimmy, I just wanted to ask you, if you wouldn’t mind terribly if I did the arrangements.” I said, “George, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I was afraid to ask you.” And he ended up doing the arrangements, which were just brilliant.

KS: Do you regret that you never had a top-40 hit as a recording artist?
Well, I’ve certainly tried. I’ve put out 10 albums and, to be honest, they haven’t done that well. But they have acted as promotional materials. I’ve gotten a lot of covers—other artists covering the material. And I have sort of a core following of people who do buy my records and come to my concerts. I’m still touring.

KS: What keeps you going on the road?
It’s those fans, those faithful ones who really know the albums. Who know the backstreets of Jimmy Webb’s repertoire. It keeps me young, it keeps me functioning, it keeps me thinking. I enjoy it. I love it. As long as I can do it well—and I feel like I’m doing it very well, right now. I feel that my voice is better than maybe it’s ever been. It’s a little bit lower, but I think it was too high. I had a kind of high nasally sound.

KS: You lived in New Jersey from 1987–1993. How did you and your family enjoy your time in Montclair?
It was a short commute [to Manhattan], and Montclair was like another world. It was a beautiful city, and the kids were all very happy in their schools.

KS: We look forward to you coming back to New Jersey when your show at Kean Stage is rescheduled. What’s the repertoire like on your recent tours?
I play a lot of the hits, because that’s what people come for. But right now I’m [also] playing a lot of excerpts from a totally instrumental album I made, called SlipCover. On that album I recorded, just for example, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. That’s my new project and it’s been doing extremely well. Next, I’m doing a solo album of all brand-new material. And I’m touring until the wheels fall off.

KS: Bruce Springsteen credits your music as the inspiration for his latest album, Western Stars. Have you had an opportunity to talk with him about that?
I’m not really on a conversational level with Bruce. I’ve met him a couple of times. I certainly admire him, and that was a feather in my cap—to have that kind of support and that kind of endorsement. I think that’s golden. I enjoyed [the album] and I can hear the influences in it. I accept the endorsement on behalf of my friend Glen Campbell, who was really the genius behind all of those crossover country records. He pretty much paved the way for Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers and people like that. Glen had an amazing career. He played virtually for all the crowned heads of Europe. He had the career. I was content to contribute to that, to be his friend. I’ve been at a loss, frankly, since we lost him.

KS: Do you have a favorite career moment?
There’s some moments that happen [and] you know they’re probably never going to happen again. One of those would be at the 10th Grammy Awards in 1968, when the 5th Dimension won five Grammy Awards with “Up, Up and Away,” Glen won a Grammy Award for best male vocal on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and I won a Grammy for “Up, Up and Away” for Song of the Year.

We were just a bunch of kids. I mean, we’d never done anything in the world. It was just a stunning night. We had summited Everest. We were standing there trying to hold on to all these trophies. I remember thinking at the time: Well, it’s all downhill from here.

That was one really remarkable moment. There have been others. Recently, I had been invited out to the Carter Center and I did a concert down there, and they liked me and they invited me to the President’s summer seminar. I played outdoors on a concert grand for a lot of fresh-faced young people who were looking forward to making the world a better place. And looking around … there’s my favorite president, Jimmy Carter. I came off the stage after I played. He ran up to me and threw his arms around me. That was like, awesome.

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