The songs of Jimmy Webb occupy an indelible place in popular music. From the ones that everybody knows — “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “MacArthur Park” among them — to such standout performances as “Up, Up And Away” (The Fifth Dimension), “The Worst That Could Happen” (The Brooklyn Bridge), “All I Know” (Art Garfunkel), and “The Highwayman” (The Highwaymen), they’ve traversed genres and generations for nearly the past half century.
“There are these curious twists and turns to my repertoire,” adds Mr. Webb, “and the ways it’s interacted with both the kind of traditional world of songwriting where I was very well recorded by the likes of Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli — the traditional warhorses of pop music — but I’m equally well represented by Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton and Pat Metheny and a whole group of jazz musicians.”
In addition to his achievements as a songwriter, Mr. Webb has maintained a respectable career as a recording artist in his own right, with albums like Letters, Suspending Disbelief, and Ten Easy Pieces revealing yet another dimension of his talent. On his latest, Just Across The River, he collaborates with guests including Billy Joel, Lucinda Williams, and Mark Knopfler while revisiting selections from his own back catalog.
The only artist in history to have won GRAMMY® awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration, Mr. Webb resides on the Board of Directors of ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
What originally drew you to the craft of songwriting? There’s always been a serious aesthetic underscoring your work.
I always took it pretty seriously. I think that, first of all, you’ve got to be a fan. If you love it and if you love hearing the things that other people are doing… We learn by imitating. I was a great fan of John Gardner, who wrote the book The Art of Fiction. It was actually a book written for prose writers. One of the great quotes in it was, “In a sense, all great writing is an imitation of great writing.” I really got my blood up as a teenager — 13, 14, 15 years old — listening to Burt Bacharach and Hal David, some of the more semi-serious composers like Rodgers and Hart — Larry Hart was a great favorite of mine — Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King. All of the Brill Building writers I knew intimately. I knew well. I knew their work note for note, word for word. I had a lot of piano lessons when I was a kid, but I could always play by ear. When I say “intimate,” I mean that I actually felt like I was part of those songs. I felt like I knew something about the origins of those songs. I used to listen to Teddy Randazzo’s wonderful records that he did with Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Hurts So Bad,” “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Tony Hatch, all his stuff with Petula Clark, “Downtown,” and [with] Dusty Springfield. These were all the legit writers — that’s the expression I would use anyway — and they were pure writers. They just wrote songs; they didn’t perform.
Then on the other hand the performers, the singers, were not in any sense songwriters. They were just talent, not just talent in the diminutive, but they were discreetly talent as opposed to writers. That’s the sort of ancient music business that I grew up in, where the roles were very clearly defined. Then you had singer/songwriters like Woody Guthrie and then his disciples like Bob Dylan, who is clearly a singer/songwriter, but the singer/songwriter as performer didn’t really come to the fore and come into its golden age until Lennon and McCartney. At that point, it was clear that everybody would have to write and sing and perform. And so the stage was kind of set for the ‘70s and the whole singer/songwriter phenomenon.