Songwriter Jimmy Webb might not be a household name, but his work has been on radio playlists for decades: "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," "Up, Up and Away," and "MacArthur Park" are just four of Webb's compositions, covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Art Garfunkel, Waylon Jennings, Donna Summer, Urge Overkill, and Richard Harris.
According to Webb, the biggest thrill comes when another songwriter records one of his songs. "I was so fresh off the farm that I didn't realize at the time who Mr. Sinatra was," Webb says. "When Barry Manilow cut 'Once and For All,' it absolutely knocked me out. John Denver cut 'Postcard From Paris,' and once Dylan sang one of my songs at Madison Square Garden. Those are the kicky things!"
Of course, Webb occasionally winces when he hears a musician massacre one of his songs. "I was shocked the first time I heard Isaac Hayes' version of 'By the Time I Get To Phoenix,'" he says. "He tells this 20-minute story, and I'm wondering when's the song gonna start? Then the guy finds his wife in bed with another woman, and the drummer's doing rim shots. I think it's hysterical, but I intended something a little less flamboyant.
"Then there's Don Novello's cover of 'MacArthur Park,' done as Father Guido Sarducci," Webb continues. "And Waylon cut three versions of it. He got so hung up that he did that song to death."
Webb admits that he's sometimes disappointed if a cover doesn't meet his expectations. "But if most songwriters are honest with themselves, they'd say 'I don't give a damn. I'll hand it over to anyone if I can make a buck on it,' because it's so hard to make a living at this," Webb says.
His start came at the First Baptist Church in rural Oklahoma, where his father was a pastor. "It was my mother's dream to see me on the piano bench," Webb says. "The hymn arrangements are so prosaic, just block chords, so I began goofing around almost immediately.
"I started writing songs on the sly that my father wasn't supposed to hear or approve of, and he didn't," Webb says. "So my piano and me were banished to the garage. Because of the Baptist culture, I was insulated from girls and rock-and-roll music. I had to live this secret life, sneaking out to go to dances. The problem was solved in a very pragmatic way when my mother died, and the family fragmented."
By age 17, Webb was a professional songwriter. "I was on the streets with no other way to make a living. But I got a job at Motown, where I wrote 'My Christmas Tree' for the Supremes. Then I landed a song with the Everly Brothers. I thought I was king of the business. I didn't realize how long a road it really was."
Webb struck gold when he penned songs for the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Rivers, and Glen Campbell. He racked up dozens of Grammys and gold and platinum RIAA Awards throughout the 1960s. Yet, he claims, he didn't hit his stride until he met Joni Mitchell at the end of the decade.
"When I first met Joni, my writing was pretty stilted and formalized. I'd been influenced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil -- the whole Brill Building scene. Once I got to peek over Joni's shoulder and get a feeling for how she worked, I became aware of the conversational tone -- the way everyday lyrics can flow into a song. It completely changed my songwriting," says Webb.
In 1998, Webb wrote Tunesmith, geared toward aspiring songwriters. "You can learn how to write a damn good song just by paying attention," he says, "but there's some kind of intangible magic when you hear a Hank Williams tune or a Randy Newman tune, and I don't know whether you can develop that or not.
"With Tunesmith, I lay down a sequence of tasks. The rest is up to you -- the way you see the world and take your everyday experiences. The really good songs," he muses, "are made of the stuff that happens every day."
Take "Wichita Lineman," which he penned for Campbell in 1968. "I got a call from the producer saying he wanted something like 'Phoenix.' I started messing around with some images in my head from the Oklahoma panhandle, where the roads are so long that it seems like you can see the telephone lines for 50 miles. I got the idea of an ordinary working guy, and the song went over to the studio that afternoon," Webb says.
When asked about the origins of "MacArthur Park," however, Webb clams up: "To be honest, I don't want to talk about it. I tell songwriters to be careful, because you can create a monster that will follow you around for the rest of your life."
Jimmy Webb at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, Friday, November 19th, at 8 p.m., $15. For more information, go to BPACC.org.