ANDREW JOHNSTON reviews the autobiography of one of the most extraordinary songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
‘Didn’t We’ came to Jimmy Webb while he was out driving. It was the only time a song came to him unbidden and fully formed. He rushed home, transcribed it and started shopping it around. Aging pop star Tony Martin expressed an interest and called him in for a meeting at a theatre. Webb was told to wait in the Green Room. He took a chair and sat quietly so as not to disturb the elderly man asleep on a sofa.
The old man opened an eye and, looking at the portfolio Webb was cradling, asked him what he had there. Webb handed it over and the man pulled out ‘Didn’t We’, and after a quick read-through began humming it. Then he took a trumpet from a case and played it through. Louis Armstrong to Webb: “You got a special gift, kid”.
It was Sinatra who turned it into a standard. “So you’re the kid who writes them like they used to?” he said to a startled Webb at their first meeting. Webb was granted regular access to ‘’The Chairman”, who would listen while Webb played. Sinatra wanted first dibs on anything special. Webb: “He didn’t say so but you knew when the meeting was over.”
Webb’s mum and dad had hauled the kids to California in search of opportunity, but after the sudden death of his wife, Webb senior lost heart and decided to return to Oklahoma. The 17 year old decided to stay and write songs. Dad was unconvinced but gave him 40 dollars: “It’s all I have.”
Webb was a musically literate grafter. He searched them out, wrote them down and knocked on doors. He got to know the right people and his songs were passed about.
Glen Campbell was LA’s busiest sideman, and was ambitious for a bigger career. ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ provided him with the breakout hit Webb needed. A melancholic song about a restless love affair, it’s astonishing for its emotional maturity (Webb was barely 18 when he wrote it). Campbell worked it up with legendary session band The Wrecking Crew and the result is so perfectly complete that none of the dozens of versions that followed have come close to achieving Campbell’s clarity of vision.
“Write me a song with a name in it,” demanded Campbell, perhaps thinking that place names were going to be his thing. ‘Wichita Lineman’ took a few days and was missing a third verse, but Campbell was so convinced he took it as was and detuned his guitar in order to mimic the vocal. The third verse became the home to one of MOR’s most revered guitar lines.
Webb pumped out one more place name for Campbell, anti-Vietnamese War song ‘Galveston’. It was a sensation and cemented Campbell into superstardom, but it was their last major hit together. Next Webb/Campbell single ‘Where’s The Playground Susie’ broke the placename rule, and the result was middling.
At the end of Webb’s book is a partial list of the artists that have recorded his songs. The list is 12 pages long, and among them is the unlikely figure of Irish actor Richard Harris.
“You got any songs for me Jimmywebb?” said Harris. Webb played him a few and Harris hummed and hawed until Webb played him a new one that had been written on commission for, then rejected by, The Association.
Harris demanded Webb play it over and over – 12 times in all. By this point, Webb’s fingers were bleeding and Harris was weeping uncontrollably. “I’ll turn it into a number one for ya Jimmywebb,” he sobbed. “A bloody number one!” He did. It was a genuine all-purpose international sensation, the kind that makes people very rich.
Webb was on the phone to Paul McCartney a few weeks later when he let slip that the song’s unconventionally long length meant that he was receiving three times the standard airplay royalties.
McCartney dropped the phone. “Paul, Paul, are you there?” But he was gone and on his way to Abbey Road, where he set about tweaking the length of new Beatles single ‘Hey Jude’ so it could be suitably hitched to this wondrous new gravy train.
It was Webb’s only number one, a feat it managed twice when Donna Summer’s version took the international top spot in 1978.
Webb was a genuine all purpose Wunderkind who wrote the kind of songs that made stars of singers and paid for a jet-setting lifestyle – ‘Up, Up And Away’ as he explains in his most famous song. Mansions, fast cars, cocaine and women (the latter being the source of the angst in his music) followed. A lot of it is outrageous and some of it is crazed. Buddies Harry Nilsson and John Lennon come out of this looking a little demented, Webb less so, just wide-eyed and hanging on for dear life. He regrets none of it.
Of all his work, most underrated are the songs he wrote for vocal group The 5th Dimension. “They were black but didn’t make ‘black’ music. They were more show-tune style and while they were open to suggestions you could only go so far as producer. They were a team and knew what they were doing.”
The record company were unenthusiastic about ‘Up, Up And Away’ and let it loose without any promo or backup. It caught on regardless, and by mid-1967 was sitting at number 7 in the US pop charts. The money poured in and Webb could write his own ticket.
A month after The Beatles released their album-as-art-statement, the ground-breaking Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The 5th Dimension released the Webb-written and produced concept ‘art’ album The Magic Garden. And yes, it has a sitar, and a Beatles song (Ticket To Ride as show tune) but as Webb explains, The Magic Garden is mostly inspired by Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds from the year before.
His words run swift and lean and his tales about ‘60s pop stardom fill out some lesser know details of a much mythologised time and place. There is no judgement, recrimination or agenda, just an honest memoir about the first three decades of a man’s life. Webb is now 70 and has lived a whole lot of life since then. Of that he says nothing.
One of the more significant songwriters, producers and arrangers of the 20th Century, Webb’s memoir is made of readable prose whose invention does not get in the way of a good time. Music and shenanigans aside, Webb comes across as a centred mid-western boy who has revelled in the fruits of his ambition.