Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


WEBB, Jimmy

(b 5 August 1946, Elk City OK) Songwriter, singer. His father was a Baptist preacher; his mother died young. He wrote a musical while still in high school, and at San Bernardino State College wrote another, Dancing Girl, for his girlfriend; the drama department turned it down (many years later Frank Sinatra and others recorded 'Didn't We'). He started a jingle company and was a millionaire by age 21. He wrote for Motown's Jobete Music, but his big successes '67-8 were for Fifth Dimension ('Up, Up And Away'), Glen Campbell ('By The Time I Get To Phoenix', 'Wichita Lineman', 'Galveston'), Richard Harris ('MacArthur Park'. At the recording session there was a problem: Harris kept singing 'MacArthur's Park'.) Webb was one of the first to write, arrange and produce complete albums for other artists: Fifth Dimension's Magic Garden, Thelma Houston's Sunshower, Harris's A Tramp Shining and The Yard Went On Forever.

He wrote 'Wichita Lineman' in a few hours when he was 21, at Campbell's request; it was a good example of the harmonic sophistication which saw him described as 'the Cole Porter of the Sixties'. But he was too rich too young; he later said, 'When you’re in your early 20s, nobody can tell you anything. You’re burning through this money, and you think you’re always going to be able to write hit songs, and that the world is always going to be the way you want it to be.' And image-wise, he fell between two stools: the big rock acts sang their own songs, and if you performed in Las Vegas you must be pro-Vietnam.

His own singing was first recorded '67 on Strawberry Children's 'Love Years Coming'. Still associated with others (Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Joe Cocker, the Supremes), he began to make his own albums as well, his voice not remarkable but a sensitive interpreter of his own songs, with excellent West Coast backing musicians: Letters '72 on Reprise, El Mirage '77 on Atlantic were his most consistent LPs. Songs were covered by artists as diverse as Sinatra, Waylon Jennings, Judy Collins, Donna Summer, Arlo Guthrie, Lowell George; simple and direct in commercial material ('Didn't We', 'The Moon's A Harsh Mistress'), more adventurous in both words and music in songs like 'MacArthur Park', 'Watermark', 'Requiem'. One of his biggest fans was Linda Ronstadt, who recorded six of his songs on two albums. Other LPs were Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb '68 (Columbia); Words And Music '70, And So: On '71 (Reprise); Land's End '74 (Asylum), Angel Heart '82 (Columbia).

He was finally happily married, licked a cocaine problem, later a drinking problem. He never stopped writing; moved to the East Coast '80, kept an office in NYC and still wanted to write a Broadway show. He had a no. 1 'Highwayman' '85, originally written for Campbell, then the title cut from an album by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson; came back with album Suspending Disbelief '93 on Elektra, eleven new songs co-produced by Ronstadt. Ten Easy Pieces '97 on Guardian was unplugged, with guests such as Shawn Colvin, reviving his old songs ('Phoenix', 'Galveston') but lacked grandiose production, so that his road-weary voice still found depths in songs that had become MOR fodder.

Still at the top of his game, his 'Time Flies' was written for a musical based on Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine; Rosemary Clooney and Michael Feinstein turned it into a cabaret standard. Judy Collins recorded his biographical 'Paul Gauguin In The South Seas' on her new album Paradise on Wildflower. A new Webb album, Just Across The River 2010 on E1 Records, had many of the same songs as on Ten Easy Pieces but with more in the way of arrangements, both albums produced by Fred Mollin, who first worked with Webb on Angel Heart. The new record had guest harmony vocals by the likes of Ronstadt, Nelson, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill and Michael McDonald.

His book The Cake And The Rain (2017) was described by Dominic Green in the Wall Street Journal as 'possibly the best pop-star autobiography yet written...a dream of sin and redemption, told with contrapuntal rigor.' And, Green wrote, 'Mr. Webb explains the lyrics of MacArthur Park, too.'