Sunday, May 10, 2015

Songwriters: Jimmy Webb

The Sixties were a different time in the music industry. Radio play was still the only way artists became widely known. Top 40 stations still played music from a variety of genres. You could hear pop, commercial rock, Rhythm and Blues, and Middle of the Road artists one after another on the same station although some genres, like Country and Western, weren’t there yet.

I remember two songs in particular, both from one-hit-wonder bands, three years apart. I don’t suppose I shared this with anyone at the time as they are both rather sappy pop songs. One was a silly folky tune called Red Rubber Ball by The Cyrcle. The other was an overblown ballad called The Worst That Could Happen and it was recorded by Brooklyn Bridge. It's worth watching even a bit of the later song just for the outfits.

While doing some song writing study last week I discovered that The Worst That Could Happen was written by Jimmy Webb and was, in fact, a cover of a Fifth Dimension song. Incidentally, Red Rubber Ball was written by none other than Paul Simon with Bruce Woodly of The Seekers. The Seekers recorded Georgy Girl, the theme song from the British movie which made Lynn Redgrave a star.

I already knew and liked songs by Webb and Simon and, it seems, I was able to identify songs that I didn't know were theirs, recorded by relatively obscure artists.

In 2012, Webb was named President of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, recognition, by his peers, of a long and notable career. He replaced Hal David, Burt Bacharach’s lyricist. (If you don’t know who they are let me know; I’ll get to them in another post.)

Webb grew up in the rural South, son of a church pastor. By the time he was twelve he was playing piano in his father’s church where his mother played accordion and his father guitar. The only music allowed on their radio at home were Country and Western and White Gospel. When he was fifteen he bought his first record, Turn Around, Look at Me by his favourite singer, Glen Campbell.

His parents recognized his extraordinary talent and, when it was time for him to study music at college, his entire family relocated to Los Angeles. When his mother died, his father moved back to Arkansas but Jimmy Webb stayed in LA, eventually signing a song-writing contract with Johnny Rivers. Rivers, himself, recorded By the Time I Get to Phoenix in 1966.

Rivers was producing a vocal group, The 5th Dimension, for his own label. Five of Webb’s songs were included in their debut album Up, Up and Away including the title track. Guitarist Rivers and pianist Webb both played on the recording. Up, Up and Away is the exemplar of the sub-genre Sunshine Pop and won Grammys for Best Song and Recording of the Year in 1968.

Glen Campbell recorded By the Time I Get to Phoenix in 1967. It was an enormous Country Music hit and crossed over to the pop charts. It is among the most often recorded songs of the late 20th century. Even Frank Sinatra had a go at it.

When you see Campbell in some of the television clips, it’s easy to be dismissive of the fancy cowboy get-up and overblown musical arrangements. But he was a legitimate musician and originally made his living as a session guitarist. He played on dozens of recordings in the late 50s and early 60s. He was on all the Jan and Dean surf songs. He toured with the Beach Boys (playing bass and singing the high harmonies). He’s even on Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night.
He also had his own TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, as a result of his success on the Smothers Brothers show.

Jimmy Webb went on to have a long professional relationship with Glen Campbell who, you will remember, was already Webb’s favourite singer when Webb was at teen. Webb himself has since recorded more than a half dozen albums, some of which feature as guests many famous County Music artists.

As his early success with The 5th Dimension illustrates he was able to write successfully in other genres as well.

The wonderfully quirky MacArthur Park is perhaps the best example of this. It is an over-the-top crazy song with multiple sections and a psychedelic lyric in the chorus. It’s bombastic. The most famous recording featured actor Richard Harris, who wasn't a singer, reminding one of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. It was also recorded by Disco Queen Donna Summer.

In this Nashville Network talk show recording, Campbell sings it better than Harris and you get to hear him play guitar and not in his familiar Country and Western Style. I heard Campbell refer to it as "the greatest song ever written" on another clip, but it isn't even in the running IMHO and hasn't stood the test of time. The song may sound like a joke now, but it is well to remember that the past is a foreign land, and a strange place if you didn't live there. This applies to music and songwriter as well as anything else.

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