Sunday, 18 May 2014
ELDER MUSIC: Songs of Jimmy Webb
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Although he's recorded a whole bunch of albums over the years, JIMMY WEBB is best known for writing songs for other people. I first heard of him in the sixties when Glen Campbell had a string of hits that Jimmy had written. I imagine it was the same for most of you who know his work.
Jimmy was from Oklahoma where his father was a minister who wandered around that state and west Texas presiding over rural churches in the area. Young Jimmy learnt piano and organ early and accompanied dad in his services along with mum on accordion and dad himself on guitar.
Dad was a bit of a crank and restricted Jim's radio listening to country music and white gospel. Hmm. He obviously hadn't listened to the words of country songs.
After a time Jimmy discovered other music and was taken by Glenn Campbell's voice when he first heard him. It was around then he started writing songs.
You're going to hear only a fraction of those he's written over the years. Jimmy is the master of regretful or resigned songs. Songs of philosophical acceptance I guess you could call them. There will certainly be some of those.
Naturally, I'll start with GLEN CAMPBELL.
The inspiration for the song was when Jimmy was driving through Oklahoma, a long stretch of road through Washita County. He noticed the power lines stretching on to the horizon with an occasional workman up a pole with a phone in his hand.
He thought that would make a good song and so it proved. He changed the name to Wichita Lineman as it sang better than Washita.
A song, and a version, that resonates with me. More to do with my life than the intrinsic qualities of the song and that's all I'm going to say on that matter.
It is MacArthur Park, the singer is RICHARD HARRIS, the actor and famous drinker.
Another song with which Richard had a hit was Didn't We. However, I'm going with Jimmy's version.
It turned up on his fine CD called "Ten Easy Pieces" where he recorded some of his most famous songs, mostly just accompanying himself on piano.
One of my favorite soul tracks was written by Jimmy and recorded by AL WILSON.
That's the soul singer Al Wilson, not the guitarist from Canned Heat, and the song is Do What You Gotta Do. Linda Ronstadt did a pretty good version which Norma, the Assistant Musicologist, prefers.
She said that it's one of those great songs that sounds good no matter who performs it. I agree, but for me it's Al's version that's the pick of the bunch.
Another song that was a big hit for Glenn Campbell is Honey Come Back. Here is Jimmy's version of the song helped along by KRIS KRISTOFFERSON.
To say that Kris's voice sounds lived in these days would be a gross understatement, although given the life he's led it's probably an apt description.
This one had to be present as it's been recorded by many people and is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Given all those others, I still like JUDY COLLINS' version best, which is why I'm playing it.
It came from her album, "Judith," which is an odd, but interesting nonetheless, mix of pop tunes, art songs and several of her own compositions.
P.F. Sloan was a singer/songwriter in the sixties who wanted to be the next Bob Dylan, or perhaps he wanted to be Jimmy Webb. He didn't succeed at either of those.
He did have one song he wrote that was a huge hit for Barry McGuire, and that was Eve of Destruction. Jimmy wrote a song about P.F. called P.F. Sloan that he (Jimmy) recorded quite some time ago. Here it is.
ROBERTA FLACK recorded See You Then on her third album, "Quiet Fire.”
That album didn't get much critical acclaim when it was released and even now it's dismissed somewhat. It does contain Jimmy's song though, and it's worth it for that alone.
I contemplated playing Isaac Hayes' version of By the Time I Get to Phoenix but it does go on a bit, even longer than MacArthur Park, close to 19 minutes which is just a tad too long, so I gave it a miss. Instead I've gone for Jimmy performing it.
There were two groups over the years called THE HIGHWAYMEN. One was a folk style one from the early sixties, the other was much later and it was a quartet consisting of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, a handy bunch of performers.
Yes, that really is a beardless Willie on the right. I don't know if they were inspired by Jimmy's song, Highwayman, to name their group, but they certainly performed it. Here it is.