August 15 – From Sinatra To Summer, Webb’s Songs Have Star Fans

If you can write songs that are loved by singers ranging from the Sinatras to Waylon Jennings to R.E.M., you probably have a gift! Happy 75th birthday to a very gifted songwriter, Jimmy Webb, who was born this day in 1946. Webb put Galveston, Phoenix and Wichita on the musical map…and a lot more!

Webb’s upbringing was far from the spotlight. He grew up in rural western Oklahoma, the son of a minister. Jimmy played piano at church by age 12, and with his parents beliefs listened to mainly Gospel music as a child, with perhaps a little country mixed in now and again. That started to change though when he became a teen and began being exposed to the likes of Elvis, whom he adored. And a very young Glen Campbell.

When I was 14 years old, I got down on my knees beside the bed, because I’d heard a Glen Campbell record called ‘Turn Around, Look At Me.’ I found out very quickly that there was hardly anyone who could stand on the same level as he could as a guitarist,” he has said. He decided music was his future, and soon left for California to go to college – and write songs.

Surprisingly, given his race, background and location around L.A., his first step towards making his dream come true came by signing to a branch of Motown as a writer. The first song he had published and recorded was a Christmas tune done by The Supremes (who would later score a hit with his song “Didn’t We”). Not long after he met Johnny Rivers who was working producing a record for the then-new 5th Dimension. He got them to sing Webb’s “Up, Up and Away” which described his career after that. The song was a huge hit, won Webb a Grammy for Song of the Year and opened a number of doors for him. One of which was his idol’s, Glen Campbell.

Campbell complained about Webb’s long hair but didn’t let it stop him recording a number of his songs, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the signature song for both writer and artist, “Wichita Lineman.” That one, Webb recalls, like many of his songs, came from a mix of real life and imagination. He says in the ’60s, telephone lines were often maintained by the county, not the phone company and driving through a deserted stretch of Oklahoma, he saw “a sillohuette of a solitary lineman atop a pole…it was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted” to create the tune the BBC’s Stuart Maconie called “the greatest pop song ever composed.”

Possibly not inspired by his real life was another of his major hits, “MacArthur Park” made into a surprise hit by actor Richard Harris and later, Donna Summer. Before long he’d also written hits like Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know”, Campbell’s “Galveston” and the 5th Dimension’s “The Worst That Could Happen.” In time, his songs would be recorded by artists including Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Nilsson, Dusty Springfield, America and R.E.M. to name a few. On the latter, Michael Stipe has listed Webb as one of his all-time favorite songwriters and often performed “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” in their concerts.

Although he has put his hand at recording his own songs, with a number of albums since 1970, his success at that’s been limited. In fact, he’s arguably had more success as an author, penning best-selling books about writing (Tunesmith) and a memoir (The Cake and the Rain.) Little matter that though. As songwriters go, Webb is clearly one of the elite. He’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and been given an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award.

9 thoughts on “August 15 – From Sinatra To Summer, Webb’s Songs Have Star Fans

  1. A great eye for the inspiration and a real good ear for a song. Just as pop music was moving on fro moon/June/ I love you- Me too triteness he started to put the first flourishes of Americana into pop.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice job telling his story. A couple of years ago, Webb came here and did a free concert and talk at a library. I still can’t believe my bad luck that I had a schedule conflict that day and couldn’t attend. I don’t know if he makes regular appearances like that, but I really hope to get another chance sometime.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Right! I know I once got a chance to go & chat with Douglas Coupland (author) so I went out of town to see him & talk for, maybe 3 minutes…but it was worth it. BUT also missed a lot of chances like these, alas…working. Feel too tired. Can’t spare the $12 for atrain ticket into the city. Those I regret

        Liked by 3 people

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