With songs like “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park,” Jimmy Webb has proven himself to be one of the greatest American songwriters of the past half-century. Some of his most memorable songs, however — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” and more — have come about as a result of his musical affiliation with legendary singer Glen Campbell.
On Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 8pm, Webb will bring his multi-media show, Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years, to the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River, NJ. Here, he will give fans a unique connection to the classic songs he created with Campbell. In this very personal concert, Webb will pay homage to his friend with performances featuring virtual duets, new music videos, and stories of how these very iconic songs came to be.
Moreover, on April 18, 2017, St. Martin’s Press will release Webb’s new literary memoir, The Cake and the Rain. As a result, on the day of Webb’s Grunin Center appearance in Toms River, NJ, Webb will sign copies of his new book at the Barnes & Noble store located in nearby Brick, NJ, from 1–3pm.
Spotlight Central recently had a chance to chat with Webb, who talked to us about his musical roots, his fascination with all different types of music, his new memoir, and his upcoming tribute to Glen Campbell.
Spotlight Central: We understand you grew up listening to country music and Southern gospel music. And as a youngster, you played piano and organ for your dad’s church choir. Is that right?
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Jimmy Webb: Actually, when I first started out, getting involved with music was my mother’s idea — she got me lessons and got me on the piano by the time I was twelve. And gradually, I started playing organ and going out with my father on his evangelical missions in the summers — it was my first taste of show business.
Spotlight Central: We hear you used to improvise and re-arrange the hymns that you would play. How did your parents and the congregations enjoy that creative expression of yours?
Jimmy Webb: Sometimes that came in very handy during the offertory where there can be some improvisation. And on different occasions — at funerals or weddings — or just for different moments in the service, I began to work out a repertoire and sometimes it was appreciated, but sometimes I would get a little blowback from the music committee. I remember one morning I snuck the love theme from Ben-Hur into the offertory and I got called on the carpet. The music committee complained and I’ll never forget what my father told me. He said, “Jimmy, you’re just holding on to that piano bench by your fingernails.”
Spotlight Central: So as a young teenager who happened to be very involved with religion and church music, did you start out writing religious songs?
Jimmy Webb: Well, that’s not exactly right — I always wanted to write rock and roll songs. I came from a very strict religion where dancing wasn’t permitted. I really wasn’t supposed to listen to rock and roll, but I did, because I had a transistor radio. So like everybody else in my generation, I would go off by myself and listen to my radio, which was the equivalent of today’s internet.
And I began playing in rudimentary rock and roll bands — with one or two guys — and we would get together and make up rock and roll songs. And when I was thirteen years old, in Oklahoma City, I wrote a song called “Someone Else” which was eventually recorded — believe it or not, decades later — by Art Garfunkel. So, really, I transitioned out of religious music as a teenager.
Spotlight Central: Were you influenced by Elvis Presley’s songs or by other songs you heard on the radio?
Jimmy Webb: I listened to Elvis Presley a lot. And as a teenager, I was enchanted and hypnotized by Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songs, so I followed them and what they did with Dionne Warwick. I listened to Tony Hatch and, also, to Teddy Randazzo, who wrote “Hurt So Bad” and “Goin’ Out of My Head” for Little Anthony. That was always the thing for me — the big orchestral ballad — my weak spot. So I would imitate those guys when I could and I always had dreams of using an orchestra on my records. And as fate would have it, I was able to do that. I was eventually able to teach myself orchestration on the job, so to speak.
Spotlight Central: Didn’t you study music at San Bernardino Valley College?
Jimmy Webb: Well, I was a music major there, but to say I studied there would be an exaggeration beyond anything you could possibly imagine! I remember what the Dean of Music — Russell C. Baldwin — told me. “Mr. Webb, we don’t enjoy having you here at the college any more than you enjoy being here.” He said, “If you wanna be a damn songwriter, why don’t you go to Hollywood and be a damn songwriter?” And they used to put a sign on the practice room that said, “No songwriting in the practice room. This means you, Jimmy Webb.”
Spotlight Central: (Laughs) We have to ask you about one of our all-time favorite songs and your first big hit, The Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” How did you get the idea for that song?
Jimmy Webb: A friend of mine had taken me for a ride in a hot air balloon and I was just immediately captivated by it. He was a disc jockey and he said, “I wanna do a movie — a beach blanket movie — but I wanna do it about balloons out in the desert. Maybe if you write the song, I’ll write the screenplay.” I was easily manipulated (laughs) and I think I probably wrote the song that day or the next day.
Spotlight Central: And in addition to the lyrics, you also wrote that melody and that great chord progression. Even for an expert, analyzing that chord progression is a challenge!
Jimmy Webb: I was always interested in chords. To me, it wasn’t music if it didn’t have chord structure, which is something that’s really kind of gone out of fashion. But I was a great jazz fan and I even had a jazz quartet for awhile. We used to do a lot of Dave Brubeck material. Brubeck’s brother, Howard, had transcriptions of all of Dave’s songs — “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” — and I used to play all of that.
Also, I loved classical music. I loved sweeping cinematic themes and gradually I realized that what I was really attracted to was classical music. So I ended up taking a lot of classical techniques and stuff that I imitated — stuff that I learned from the masters — into the pop world. And it manifested itself in a song like “MacArthur Park,” which won a Grammy for orchestration.
But it was a gradual osmosis. Even today, my business is pop music. My concerts are exclusively pop music. My friends are pop musicians and songwriters. But my love is classical music. In fact, I just wrote a nocturne for piano — a commissioned piece that was played with the Kentucky Orchestra and with the South Bay Symphony on Long Island.
Spotlight Central: In the mid- to late-1960s, you developed a musical relationship with Glen Campbell, who had so many hits with your songs. Tell us about your upcoming show at the Grunin Center where you’ll focus on your relationship with Glen Campbell. What can audience members expect to see and hear at this show?
Jimmy Webb: It’s an entertainment — I mean, I come to praise Glen not to bury him — he’s still very much alive, despite the Alzheimer’s. So the show is about what a great musician he was and how he was an obscured influence on so much of the music of the ’60s because of all of the records he played on — thousands of them.
Spotlight Central: You mean with that group of LA session musicians they called “The Wrecking Crew?”
Jimmy Webb: Yes — with and without The Wrecking Crew. He was an innate arranger. Most of the time when he went to the studio he was looking at a chord chart scribbled out by hand on a piece of notebook paper. And he would make a record out of that — he would tell everybody what to play and what to do.
Spotlight Central: In addition to your show, The Glen Campbell Years, we understand you have a new book coming out entitled The Cake and The Rain. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Jimmy Webb: It’s a memoir. It covers about fifteen years. But in it, I talk a little bit about my origins. And speaking of origins, Glen and I were both born in small communities — he was a righty and I was a lefty. We were on opposite sides of the fence and that’s, to some degree, what the book is about.
It’s about the polarization of music in the ‘60s and how you had to either be a left-leaner or a right-leaner and the two didn’t really commingle much. And one of the things you could barely find was someone in the liberal world of music playing Las Vegas, but that was one of the things I did. I went to Las Vegas and played a double bill with Connie Stevens at the Desert Inn at a time when Howard Hughes was living on the top floor.
So the book is sort of a songwriter’s view of the ’60s and it includes some of the great things that happened and some of the not-so-great things that happened — which included cocaine and alcohol, to be honest about it. I’m very open and I do not obfuscate or try to enhance my role in the ’60s at all. I just happened to be there. For instance, I knew The Beatles. I knew Elvis pretty well. But a lot of people I knew better than that; Harry Nilsson was one of my best friends.
And the London scene — the LA scene — were places where it was really happening in the 1960s. And I happened to be there for a lot of historic things. Like I was in the studio with The Beatles when they were cutting The White Album — at least, for a very brief episode. So the book is quite fast-moving. It’s like a jet plane ride in the ‘60s.
Spotlight Central: We’re looking forward to reading it when it comes out! In the meantime, we understand you live on Long Island?
Jimmy Webb: Yes, I live on the North Shore of Long Island.
Spotlight Central: So do you get to perform here in New Jersey on occasion?
Jimmy Webb: I play in New Jersey all the time! New Jersey is a great state for me. There’s a cadre of very very loyal people there who always show up to my concerts. They always bring some new fans along and it’s a very good experience for me — and it always has been, really.
Spotlight Central: We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Grunin Center on April 22! In the meantime, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Jimmy Webb: I’m looking forward to being there, too, and doing the Glen Campbell Years show. Like I said, it’s a tribute to Glen, but it’s not morose — there’s a lot of funny stuff. And it’s for the whole family — it’s not age-specific — so parents can bring their children. It’s also aimed right straight at the baby boomer crowd — it’s melodic and it’s familiar and it’s something I think everyone can enjoy and remember.
For more information about Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years at The Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River, NJ, on April 22, 2017 at 8pm, please go to www.grunincenter.org. To learn more about Jimmy Webb’s book signing at the Barnes and Noble book store in Brick, NJ on April 22, 2017 from 1–3 pm, please go to barnesandnoble.com. For more info on Jimmy Webb, please go to www.jimmywebb.com.
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