January 28, 2016
Jimmy Webb first rose to prominence in 1967 when his song “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” became a hit for Glen Campbell. Over the next few years, Webb wrote and arranged some of the greatest songs of that era, and in the ones that have followed since: “Up Up and Away,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” “All I Know,” “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.” He also wrote and arranged “MacArthur Park,” which Campbell cited as his all-time favorite song at a show in Charlotte in 2006. Those songs with Campbell (“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Where’s The Playground, Susie,” and many more that will always hold a special place in the hearts of many like myself. To this day, I can be in any place and in any state of mind, and all I have to hear is “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road,” and the world stops for a few, beautiful moments..
Webb is now touring with a show dedicated to his work with Campbell and it comes to Charlotte’s McGlohon Theater on February 6. Campbell announced in 2011 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and has since stopped touring, or performing.
“I’m doing this tour as a tribute to someone who’s very dear to me,” said Webb, who called in from his current home in the northeast U.S. “Someone whom I spent the better part of 50 years partnering with. Someone who was singularly interested in advancing my agenda as a songwriter, and pushing my star higher. Even at the expense of his own career, he never failed to do something nice for me whenever he could.” He recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 Jimmy Webb songs.
“It’s about Alzheimer’s, a little bit. It’s about Glen, and how suddenly he was taken away from us. He was a young, stalwart guy that would’ve gone on many, many more years. That’s the terrible thing about that disease. It takes away who you were, and who you’ve been. In that sense, it’s my heart-on-my-sleeve tribute to this sweet guy who was just unparalleled in his raw talent. In his ability to musicalize, to embrace all kinds of genres, all kinds of writers. He had this whole pre-Glen Campbell life as a covert influence in the pop music business, because he played on so many different records. We’ve discovered dozens and dozens of records that he played on since we started doing this show. And we keep adding them to the show.”
Webb has also found the show as a way of coming to grips to the decline of Campbell’s health in recent years. “It’s definitely helped me to wrestle with this conundrum of the fact that he’s alive. Sometimes I lapse into talking about him in past tense, when I really don’t mean to. I just have to pinch myself and say, “don’t do that” because he’s still alive. He’s not performing. That’s the line of declination, if you will, for me. I would have never felt comfortable doing this show I’m doing, as long as Glen was performing. But now I feel like I’m out there, I can do some trumpeting on his behalf. Because for many, many years, he was underrated. He was never given the credit that he truly deserved.”
From the start, Webb and Campbell came from different places, but found a common ground in music. “His politics were leaning to the right. My politics were, I’m not afraid to say this, leaning towards the left. It made it very difficult for us. In fact, the first thing that Glen ever said to me was, ‘When are you going to get a haircut?’ But somehow, we managed to walk that fence together, and create some pretty enduring works of art together, for two guys that didn’t agree that much. I think that there’s a philosophical message that I occasionally and shamelessly point out to my audiences. Just because that we don’t share every little belief about something across the board doesn’t mean that we can’t work with other people.”
The friendship didn’t end with the songs the two collaborated on. Campbell would introduce Webb’s songs to other artists, like “The Highwayman” to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Webb also introduced songs from other writers to Campbell. “I played ‘Southern Nights’ off of Allen [Toussaint’s] record for Glen at my house, and he grabbed the record and went running out of my house with it. He didn’t even say goodbye. Then he would take it into the studio and work on it, because he always works on these hooks, if you will. As soon as you hear that, you already know it’s a hit. And he was so good at that. The beginning to ‘Wichita Lineman,’ which we wrote with [Wrecking Crew bass player] Carol Kaye.”
Ah yes, “Wichita Lineman.” “I wrote it all in one afternoon, in about two or three hours,” recalled Webb. “It was a very intense thing, because Glen and [producer] Al De Lory were calling me every five minutes from the studio, saying, ‘Is it finished yet? Is it finished yet?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, do you want me to write a song?’ I was starting to get a little annoyed, but I’m trying to rush it along. So when I got to the end, I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just hum this last verse, because I don’t have a lyric for it. And if they like it, I’ll do some more on it.’ Because if they didn’t like it, then I wouldn’t have to bother to put in hours and hours on something that they wouldn’t record. It got messengered over to the studio that afternoon. And I was busy that day. I was working with somebody else in the studio, and I didn’t hear from Glen. About a week later, I walked into a session that he was in, and I said, ‘I never heard anything from you guys about that song.’ He says, ‘You mean ‘Wichita Lineman?’’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he says, ‘Oh, we cut that.’ And I said, ‘You cut it? But it wasn’t finished.’ And he said, ‘It is now!’ When he got to the part that didn’t have any lyrics, he just played that big Duane Eddy guitar solo, which turned out to be the best thing in the world.”
It has been a remarkable ride for Webb. One that began when he first heard Campbell’s 1961 single “Turn Around, Look At Me.” I had to ask: Knowing what he knows now, what would Webb say now to his younger self, given the chance? Would he say anything at all?
“I wouldn’t say anything at all,” replied Webb. “I was listening to my future. I didn’t realize it, but I felt something when I heard ‘Turn Around, Look At Me’ that caused me literally to go to my knees by my bed, in our little Baptist house in Laverne, Oklahoma and say, ‘Dear God, please let me someday write a song as half as good as ‘Turn Around Look At Me.’ And Lord, if you can find the time, please let me meet somebody like Glen Campbell to sing my songs.” And that’s a fact.
“The first time I heard ‘Phoenix’ on the radio, I almost ran into the divider into an 18 wheeler,” Webb said. “I couldn’t believe it, because it had all come true.”
Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years comes to Charlotte on February 6.