Jimmy and Me
Jimmy Webb, 70, was honored on May 3, 2017 at Carnegie Hall for a lifetime of excellence as one of America’s greatest songwriters. Coinciding with this tribute was the recent release of his personal memoir, The Cake and the Rain, in addition to a recent presentation of his live show, Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts. To help celebrate these notable occasions, one Spotlight Central writer provided a tribute to Jimmy Webb and his timeless words and music in this very personal story…
Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid growing up at the NJ shore, one of my most important possessions was my Westinghouse solid state portable record player.
It was tan, and it had a top cover that easily separated from the base, so music lovers like me could easily play their 12-inch record albums, which were manufactured much too large for the machine’s 7-inch turntable.
It also had two knobs on it for my music listening enjoyment — “Volume” and “Tone.”
Further, it had an arm that, somehow, never seemed heavy enough to keep that oh-so-important needle from skipping over the grooves of certain musical recordings, but which could be easily fixed with a penny placed in just the right spot on the tone arm.
Along with my prized Kent 12-string guitar, I kept my Westinghouse solid state portable record player in my room. And that’s where I would go to listen to my Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful LP or my Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” 45rpm record, or to any of the half dozen Beatles albums I possessed in my limited music collection.
But there were certain records I owned that I didn’t have to listen to in my room. These discs contained songs which my whole family could enjoy together.
One of these records was the Fifth Dimension’s Up, Up and Away LP which, even at the age of 10, I somehow managed to purchase for the $2.99 it cost at our local W.T. Grant’s Department Store.
I played that record over and over on the family “hi-fi” downstairs in the den where everyone — including my parents — could listen to it.
Likewise, if I snapped in a few of those magical yellow 45 rpm record adapters, there were even a few singles I could get away with spinning on the family “hi-fi.” These included tunes like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and “Wichita Lineman,” all recorded by the famed country music singer, Glen Campbell.
Even at the age of ten — as an aspiring musician — I knew all of these “family-friendly” songs had one signifiant thing in common:
They were all written by one of the greatest songwriters of all time — Jimmy Webb.
And thanks to Mr. Webb and his music, some of my favorite childhood memories consist of sitting on the couch in that den. There, I would listen to songs with my dad like “Wichita Lineman,” especially when they were performed by Campbell on our favorite CBS-TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
Flash forward nearly four decades when — after enjoying a 40-year career in music — I start to write stories about it, covering live musical events at many of New Jersey’s premiere arts venues.
One day, I receive an invitation to meet with the folks from Toms River’s Grunin Center of the Arts in order to peruse their upcoming season’s event calendar and determine which programs I most want to cover.
In looking over the various concert listings, my eyes widen when I notice the entry for April 22, 2017: Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years.
“Is this THE Jimmy Webb?” I eagerly inquire.
“Yes, I guess so,” comes the reply.
“Put me down for that one!” I exclaim.
“Would you care to do an interview, too?” I’m asked.
“Are you KIDDING? That’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was ten years old — YES!” I excitedly respond.
And a few months later — on Thursday, April 13, 2017 — I’m literally pinching myself because today is the day I will have the privilege of interviewing “THE Jimmy Webb.”
Before we officially commence with the formal question and answer portion of our telephone conversation, I take a moment to thank Mr. Webb — not only for writing all those songs that meant so much to me as a novice musician, but especially for providing me with such priceless memories of me sitting on the couch and enjoying those compositions together with my dad.
Mr. Webb responds by telling me he feels “humbled” to have played even such a small part of my early life.
And about a week later, when I meet him at a local book signing for his new memoir, The Cake and the Rain, I’m very appreciative when, after shaking my hand, Mr. Webb looks me squarely in the eye and says, “That was a good interview.”
Rushing home — looking forward to his concert at the Grunin Center that evening — I go on to read several chapters of his new book while, at the same time, listening to cuts from his outstanding CD, Still Within the Sound of My Voice, featuring collaborations with such other notable artists as Joe Cocker and Brian Wilson.
I’m finally ready to experience Jimmy Webb live in concert in Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years!
Seated in the cozy auditorium of Toms River’s Grunin Center, located on the campus of Ocean County College, I look around at the audience and notice a sense of community — a bringing together of several generations of music lovers.
Soon, Mr. Webb enters the stage to rousing applause.
“How great it is to be in Toms River!” he states. “I love New Jersey! I used to live in New Jersey,” going on to explain, “I raised a bunch of kids in Montclair.”
Taking a seat at the grand piano, Webb begins his concert with his 1969 hit for Glen Campbell, “Galveston,” sung by Jimmy as images of sunsets flash on the big screen behind him. Playing the piano as if it is an entire orchestra, Webb gracefully interprets his song, making each listener acutely aware of every lyric, and eliciting enthusiastic applause at the end.
“That’s a song from when I was signed to Motown,” reveals Webb, commenting, “I wrote it for a friend who did not return from the war.”
Going on to add, “Glen’s version of ‘Galveston’ was very country,” Webb discloses that both he and Campbell are “both from the country — Glen from Arkansas and me from Oklahoma.”
“I did come from a salt of the earth family,” Webb continues, detailing how his father was a church pastor and how his mom wanted him to be a church pianist. As a result, his mom found a piano teacher for young Jimmy who taught him what he refers to as “transformational elements” on the piano, a term which he compares to “improvisation — the DNA of composition.”
To demonstrate what he means to the rapt audience, Webb plays a version of “Amazing Grace” the way it would sound straight out of any hymnal. But then he transforms it — re-harmonizing the chord structure and deftly adding arpeggios to the accompaniment — turning it into a veritable symphony right before the appreciative audience’s eyes and ears.
Explaining to the crowd that, as a youngster, he wasn’t permitted to listen to rock and roll, he managed to do so anyway thanks to a “subversive instrument” he had in his possession — his transistor radio. Webb recalls tuning in to hear the likes of Elvis Presley and Little Richard, in addition to songs like Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” an anthem about California, a state which promised “two girls for every boy.”
Noting that Glen Campbell played guitar on that record, Webb explains to the audience how Campbell was really one of the “great secret influences” on pop music, performing on countless recordings as one of the world’s most sought-after studio musicians.
In addition to being an expert instrumentalist, according to Webb, Campbell was also an excellent singer with an extraordinary range.
One day, a young Jimmy Webb happened to hear Glen Campbell’s rendition of the song, “Turn Around, Look at Me,” and swore to himself, “Someday, I’ll write songs for Glen Campbell.”
Webb’s family moved to San Bernardino, California, but following the loss of his beloved mom, his father made a decision to leave town. At the tender age of 17, Jimmy decided to stay and pursue his dream of writing songs in Hollywood.
Working at a diner, Webb wrote his first song specifically for Glen Campbell, “Honey Come Back.” And as the lyrics to the song flash on the screen behind him, the audience sings along with Jimmy on this delightful Webb concoction.
Going on to chat about his first job as a songwriter at Motown Records, Webb declares, “I got the college education I needed there” — the company releasing his first-ever recording — a song called “My Christmas Tree,” by The Supremes.
At Motown, Webb wrote a number of songs, including one for Paul Peterson, the teen idol from The Donna Reed Show TV, who was looking to break into a career in music.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
Peterson didn’t use the number but, luckily, when he left Motown, Webb was given permission to keep it, along with all of the other songs he had written for them.
Webb soon started working with Johnny Rivers, famous for the 1966 hit, “Secret Agent Man.” Rivers made a recording of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” which, coincidentally, was heard on the radio by Glen Campbell, who reportedly exclaimed, “I can make a hit out of that!”
At this point, the Grunin Center audience is treated to a virtual duet featuring Webb on the piano and Glen Campbell on the screen singing and playing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the music enveloping the audience in a nostalgic wave of good feeling.
According to Webb, Johnny Rivers put Webb in touch with the Fifth Dimension, a up-and-coming five-part vocal group featuring Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
After experiencing an exhilarating balloon ride, Webb wrote “Up, Up and Away” — a song the Fifth Dimension liked and recorded — and one which Webb performs live with the Grunin Center audience singing along, notably on the tune’s highest note and on it’s catchy tag ending.
Webb contends that all was going perfectly for him at this point in his life, until he learned that one of the premiere radio stations in the United States — KOMA from Oklahoma — was going to ban “Up, Up and Away,” mistakenly thinking it was a song about drug use.
Jimmy called his dad in Oklahoma who, as he explains, “saved the record” by driving down to KOMA “with a Bible and his .45,” and talking with the station manager, convincing him not to take it off the air.
Thanks to Jimmy’s dad, the song went on to win Jimmy a 1968 Grammy for Song of the Year, prompting Webb to emphatically remind the audience to never forget “just what fathers do” for their children.
Going on to explain more about Glen Campbell’s work as a session guitarist, Webb exclaims, “Glen could play anything with strings on it!” Here, he provides a tribute to Campbell with one of the highlight performances of the evening — a virtual duet with Campbell of their 1963 smash, “Wichita Lineman” — the duo bringing tears to the eyes of audience members with the sheer beauty of the song’s melody line, it’s harmonies, and it’s storied lyrics.
Following appreciative applause, Webb tells the audience about an album which he and Campbell recorded together, 1974’s Reunion, which he explains, “didn’t do that well because it didn’t have a single.” According to Webb, however, other artists who followed Campbell liked it and went on to record some of the LP’s songs themselves, notably Judy Collins who, in 1975, recorded “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.”
Here, Webb performs a beautiful, haunting rendition of this composition, his voice soaring in time to his expert orchestral piano accompaniment.
Talking about how the country supergroup, The Highwaymen — Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson — recorded another song he’d written which was done by Glen Campbell, Webb launches into another Grammy winning number of his — “The Highwayman.”
After tremendous applause, and with some audience members already honoring him with a standing ovation, Webb reveals how when Mr. Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, Glen’s response was, “I’m not quitting.”
Here, he performs the last Jimmy Webb song which Glen ever recorded, a lovely composition entitled “Postcards from Paris.”
Reminiscing about their many live performances together, Webb introduces a number which he says Campbell — truly one of the world’s most gifted guitarists — loved to “stretch out on.”
Launching into a solo piano version of “MacArthur Park,” Webb pours his heart out as he sings and plays this contemporary masterpiece of a classical composition disguised as a pop song.
Once the piece arrives at it’s famous “allegro” instrumental movement, we hear a full accompaniment and see Campbell as he appears onscreen playing a wild rock guitar solo, one an audience might expect to hear by a guitarist more like Eddie Van Halen!
Moving back into the coda, as Webb sings and plays, the audience can’t help but admire this interpretation of one of America’s greatest songs — direct from its creator — who turns this performance into a moment in time that couldn’t possibly be replicated by anyone else.
The entire crowd on its feet, Mr. Webb takes a well-deserved bow.
As we exit the Grunin Center auditorium, we take a moment to chat with several members of the audience who share their feelings about the Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years performance we’ve all just experienced.
Mike from Howell says, “I’m a musician myself and I’ve always admired Webb’s writing,” going on to note, “I expected a writer who could perform, and I certainly was not disappointed.”
Mike’s wife, Isabelle, agrees and adds, “This show was not only interesting but enjoyable. I appreciated the insight into the songs and, especially, into Mr. Webb’s relationship with Glen Campbell.”
Eileen from Toms River reveals, “I’ve had Jimmy Webb’s songs in my head since I was a kid, so it was wonderful getting to hear him perform them again live,” confessing, “some of them are very emotional music for me — when I hear certain chord changes, I can’t help but start to tear up.”
Carol from Pine Beach contends, “It was like being at a concert by Rachmaninoff,” going on to add, “My father and I used to listen to Jimmy Webb’s songs together — it was music we both could relate to.”
Likewise, Patrick, 19, from Whiting, tells us he grew up listening to Jimmy Webb’s music with his own father — such a long-time fan of Webb’s music that Patrick even purchased tickets for him for tonight’s concert as a Christmas present.
Acknowledging his favorite Webb composition is “Wichita Lineman,” Patrick admits it was “interesting to hear the history behind all of Webb’s songs tonight. ”
Patrick’s dad Terry agrees, disclosing he’s been a fan of Webb’s music for 50 years now, especially of the songs he wrote for Glen Campbell.
According to Terry, for both himself and his son, the highlight of the show was when Jimmy and Glen performed their “virtual duet” of “Wichita Lineman” with “Jimmy playing the piano and Glen playing guitar and singing.”
Similarly, for this writer, hearing that nostalgic pairing of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell once again brought me back to a simpler time, sitting on the couch with my dad watching The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and hearing Glen perform his latest Jimmy Webb hit, “Wichita Lineman.”
At that moment, in my mind, I’m still ten years old and we’re still together as Campbell sings Webb’s heartfelt lyric, “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time.”
To learn more about Jimmy Webb — including information about his new memoir, The Cake and the Rain — please go to jimmywebb.com. For further info on upcoming programming at the Grunin Center of the Arts, please go to grunincenter.org.