Jimmy Webb

By Kim Cheshire

It’s been nearly 20 years since master songwriter Jimmy Web visited Australia promoting his book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. I caught him at Sydney’s Basement along with many of Australia’s top songwriters, music publishers and fans. The book although semi autobiographical was more a tutorial than a personal bio and I guess he figured that the best way to offer an insight into both himself, his life and his enviable skills and working methods was to sit at the piano, sing a few songs, explain his approach, offer up some illuminating anecdotes and eventually open up the floor for a Q and A, prior to a meet and greet book signing.

It was a great opportunity to get a close up on the man behind such great songs as ‘Up, Up and Away‘, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix‘, ‘Wichita Lineman‘, ‘Galveston‘, ‘The Highwayman’, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ ‘Didn’t We’, ‘MacArthur Park‘ and many more. 2017 sees him return with his new book, The Cake and the Rain, a much more personal memoir documenting his wild and crazy life as one of the era’s most in-demand songwriters for hire, as popular songwriting transitioned from the great American songbook tradition into the golden age of rock-n-roll.

From his initial introduction to the music industry, writing and arranging for Glen Campbell through to diving head first into LA’s sex and drugs fuelled singer songwriter era of the 70’s and 80’s, to the pursuit of an artistically satisfying, critically acclaimed but commercially unspectacular solo career Webb, son of an Oklahoma Baptist minister discovered that sure, you can have your cake (in the rain) and eat it too – but there is a price to pay.

In the aforementioned previous era the separation of roles between writer and performer was generally considered par for the course. Who remembers who wrote the hits for Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jnr, Ella Fitzgerald or even Elvis? The 60’s and 70’s were a special era in the world of pop music, following on from the Beatles it was generally considered de rigueur to write your own songs, which eventually developed into, “you’re probably not the real deal if you don’t”, which unfortunately led to a plethora of musical crimes that still goes on today.

Thankfully this period also gave us classic albums from James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Jackson Browne, Gerry Rafferty and thousands more great singer songwriters but it also brought us a mountain of mediocrity. Unfortunately many of the gatekeepers of the time either didn’t understand the difference between writing a song and writing a great song, or were just too stoned to tell the difference. Here we are five decades later in 2017 and the singer songwriter, good bad or indifferent, is still holding court in the “credible” alternative music scene. Sure there’s manufactured pop stars and TV talent shows with their favoured writing teams, R&B/hip hop have their backroom boys, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Brittany Spears etc all have their own guys to “assist the talent” in expressing their innermost feelings and just about everyone in country music has their favourite writers, but it’s still the singer songwriters that seem to get taken seriously and are generally treated as if they have great wisdom to impart. I very rarely do find myself pondering the lyrics of the new Rhianna album. It’s not just lyrical skill and diversity that’s lost its foothold; it is the great art of developing an enthralling and memorable melody. Jimmy Webb, writer of sublime works of both lyrical and musical endeavour for Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson) and many more, earned his legendary status mastering the art of the timeless melody, creating songs that are still the staples of radio formats worldwide more than fifty years after they were conceived and as any songwriter worth his salt will tell you, this is no small achievement.

It seems for Webb, recipient of just about every songwriting accolade known, the only composer to ever receive Grammy awards for music, lyrics and orchestration and one of pop music’s most successful songwriters, life has come full circle, once again following the Christian faith and supplying another batch of high quality songs, including the stunning and deeply poignant title track ‘Adios’ for what will be Glen Campbell’s last album. He was honoured with a special tribute show “A Celebration of the Music of Jimmy Webb: The Cake and the Rain” at Carnegie Hall on May 3rd. to celebrate his singular legacy and his timeless hit songs. The stellar line-up included many with personal ties to the songwriter: Ashley Campbell (daughter of Glen), Judy Collins, Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, Art Garfunkel, Graham Nash, Amy Grant, Toby Keith, Johnny Rivers and Dwight Yoakam appeared along with Webb himself. Proceeds from the concert will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association and the I’ll Be Me Foundation in honour of his dear friend Glen Campbell. 

To coincide with the launch of his memoir Jimmy will be in Australia for a series of major city concerts starting June 24th in Brisbane, taking in Melbourne 27th, Sydney 29th and Perth July 1st.

“… A night with Jimmy at the keys is not unlike getting to hear George Gershwin or Cole Porter live. It’s hard to believe one guy could have written all these amazing songs…if you get a chance to see him live, grab it. People ask why nobody writes songs like they used to. Fortunately for us all, Jimmy Webb still does.” – Paul Zolo.