By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I love what he writes about, because that's where my soul is as far as music goes," says Campbell, whose versions of "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" remain the best and best-known takes. "It's in the real beautiful chord progressions with a great melody--that satisfies the musician part of me. And then the lyrics he writes are just sheer, sheer poetry, and it expresses everything so incredibly."
Or, as Yoakam puts it, gushing with a fan's admiration, "If there is a category for pop songwriting genius, Jimmy Webb belongs there. Genius can ebb and flow and come and go, but boy! This is a guy who was obviously a genius!"
Jimmy Webb says that his music was born in his father's church, where young Jimmy Layne Webb played piano and organ and heard his mother squeezing her accordion for God. He insists that at the heart of his songs lies that "inner child"--"as corny as it may sound," he half apologizes--who was raised in the sanctuary and who began writing songs barely into his teens.
"It's God," he says. "I started to say it's my G-spot. It's my God spot, the place where things get to me. That's all I can say, and I think we've all got one, and I pity the man who's never been drivin' down the road and heard a record and had it hit so hard that he had to pull his car over and stop. If that's never happened to you, I feel sorry for you, because that just means you've missed one of life's deepest, most emotional and moving experiences."
In 1965 Webb moved from his native Oklahoma to L.A. to live Brian Wilson and Phil Spector's dreams--surfing that Wall of Sound into a beach filled with golden sand and golden blondes. He had grown up in Oklahoma, spent some time in Texas (his father attended seminary in Fort Worth), and lived briefly in Phoenix, but he knew his destiny lay in California, where teen dreams took root in the desert. He wound up going to work for Jobete, Motown's publishing arm, and found the Supremes recording his "My Christmas Tree." But it was Johnny Rivers--the man whose name became synonymous with the Whisky A Go Go during its go-go discotheque days in the early '60s--who gave Webb his first break, recording "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" in 1966.
Rivers brought Webb to work at his Soul City record label, where he paired the quiet Okie with the Fifth Dimension, giving them their first big hit with "Up, Up and Away." The song shot to the No. 7 slot on the Billboard charts 30 years ago, became the TWA jingle, and went into outer space with the astronauts. A few months later, Campbell heard Rivers' "Phoenix" and turned it into his own hit single. Webb was all of 20.
All too quickly, this young man became attached to such names as Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, Campbell, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., the Four Tops, Andy Williams, Lena Horne, Waylon Jennings, and, of all people, Richard Harris, who croaked the magnificently overwrought "MacArthur Park" all the way into infamy. (Columnist Dave Barry recently dubbed it the worst song of all time, as though he could tell.) Even the Boston Pops recorded his songs. If Bacharach and Hal David, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller--his inspirations, his idols, all of whom he interviewed for his book--put words and melodies into the hearts and minds of the youths who brought on the rock and roll revolution, then this kid was writing songs for the parents who told them to turn it down.
He had become a man out of time, and Jimmy Webb, a millionaire before the age of 21, couldn't buy his way into the "in" crowd. By the early 1970s, in fact, he felt as though he had already become a relic, an old man pushed aside by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and the rest of the L.A. singer-songwriters who were becoming popular--and so very rich--by singing intimate, poetic songs about themselves. He was at once jealous of their ability to write so personally and angry that a man in his late 20s could be so easily dismissed as just another pro hanging around the scene. He wanted to be us, only to find he was them. And so he turned down Vegas, finally, and sought redemption and relief by writing grandly small records such as Words and Music (released in 1970), And So: On ('71), Land's End ('74), and El Mirage ('77).
In 1982 he released Angel Heart, a record so drenched in studio sugar it was almost sticky; featuring the likes of Daryl Hall and Stephen Bishop and Michael McDonald and Lee Sklar, it sounded like so many records that came out of L.A.--in 1976. But contained within its odes to lost childhood ("In Cars") and lost lovers was one song that laid bare his internal conflict. Titled "Work for a Dollar," it offered a vague apology and a clear explanation for all those hit songs written more than a decade earlier.