Sunday morning coming down

We’ve been taking an appreciative look back at songwriter Jimmy Webb, who celebrates his birthday this week. Webb is a winner of numerous Grammy awards and a member of the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. He first achieved fame as an incredibly precocious songwriter in the ’60s — the composer of the shlock epic “MacArthur Park” as well as of several hits for the Fifth Dimension and, perhaps most notably, Glen Campbell.

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (number 2, 1967) and “Wichita Lineman” (number 3, 1968) were of course the songs that launched Webb’s partnership with Campbell. The songs announced the arrival of a major new writer with a voice of his own. Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” to order for Campbell as a follow-up to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He was all of about 20 at the time.

Webb’s partnership with Campbell remained productive in the ’70s and ’80s as they continued to work together (work documented on the bountiful Raven compilation Reunited with Jimmy Webb: 1974-1988), although without the chart success of their earlier hits. Among the peaks of their later work is Webb’s haunting “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” a song also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Nanci Griffith, Renee Fleming and many others.

I don’t think any performance of this song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (video above, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Campbell briefly introduces the song: “Here’s one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs. It’s called ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.’ As you can tell, I’m partial to Jimmy Webb.”

Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is a man’s lament over a fickle woman. Webb’s old flame “Susan” inspired much of his work — see, for example, this Los Angeles Times article on “MacArthur Park” — and she may have been the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metaphor in the song’s title, but that’s pure speculation. By contrast, we can make an educated guess that she has something to do with the song Webb and Campbell perform together in the video below. Campbell has also introduced this song in concert as “one of my favorite Jimmy Webb songs.” He’s got a few of them.

Stephen Holden profiled Webb for the New York Times in 2010. The occasion of Holden’s profile was the release of Webb’s Just Across the River, a wonderful recording in which Webb revisited some of the highlights of his catalogue together with Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Nights”), Billy Joel (“Wichita Lineman”), Willie Nelson (“If You See Me Getting Smaller”), Lucinda Williams (“Galveston”), Jackson Browne (“P. F. Sloan”), Michael McDonald (“Where Words End”), Mark Knopfler {“Highwayman”), and Linda Ronstadt (“All I Know,” which I posted here two weeks ago).

Webb also teamed up with Campbell on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (video below). In the liner notes Webb writes that he has been a fan of Campbell since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He says that he considers Campbell “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.”

“I used to literally pray that God would let me grow up and be a songwriter and be lucky enough to have Glen Campbell record one of my songs,” Webb writes. “I rest my case for the existence of God.”

Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. He went public with the diagnosis and embarked on the farewell tour featured in the documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me. The 2011 album Ghost On the Canvas was to be his final recording, but he revisited a few of the highlights of his career during the recording of Ghost On the Canvas. His producers added a spare backing to the tracks and released See You There in 2013. Five of the album’s 12 songs are written by Webb, including the lesser known “Postcard From Paris.”

It’s hard to get a handle on Campbell’s career. See You There is something like Campbell’s sixty-fifth album. Webb’s work is nevertheless at the heart of See You There and an enduring motif in Campbell’s recorded legacy.


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