Jimmy WebbWhy you should know Jimmy Webb
By Naughty Mickie

No matter your age, you have probably heard or even sang along with a song written by Jimmy Webb. He is one of the most prolific and significant songwriters in America living today. Webb has won a number of awards, including several Grammys, and made his mark with tunes, like ďMacArthur Park,Ē ďWitchita LinemanĒ and ďUp, Up and Away.Ē Most recently he collaborated on Glen Campbellís final album, ďAdios.Ē The Long Island, New York resident is touring, performing his material in concert and also touting his new memoir, ďThe Cake and the RainĒ (St. Martinís Press, $27).

I'll admit, I was a little nervous as I dialed the number to chat with this living legend, but his warm voice, easy laugh and openess soon made me feel like I was just catching up with an old friend. We began, as is my wont, by discussing Webb's childhood and how he came to music.

"As any good Baptist will tell you, music is an integral part of the Southern Baptist church that I was raised in," Webb starts. "When I was 6 years old my mother put me on the piano bench and we had an agreement, a contract if you will, that I would play the piano every day for half and hour and she wouldnít hit me with a stick. That resulted in a musical education that culminated around age 12 with me being hired as the church pianist - my father was a minister - so at 12 I was a church pianist and kind of a musical director and worked with the choir and worked with soloists and went out on evangelism with my father in the summers and he liked to show me off. I had gained some mastery over the keyboard, but when I was about 13 years old I really made the breakthrough into composing my own tunes. I did my first songs in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.Ē

But I quickly realize it wasn't hymns Webb was composing, so I asked if his parents approved.

ďIt was an uphill battle," Webb admits. "My father had gotten the crazy idea somewhere, I donít know where, that rock and roll was about sex and he didnít want us to listen to rock and roll. Of course thatís all my sister Janice, two years younger, thatís all we wanted to listen to, rock and roll. And the fact that I was sort of covertly preparing myself for a career in pop music was an anathema to my dad. He eventually banished me to the garage, he wouldnít let me play in the house. It was a struggle, but over time he began to realize that this was more than a teenage flirtation or some grand idea, it was an internal commitment than Iíd made. He eventually went to work for me.

ďHe was in my record label. He had an interesting career in the record business." Webb continues, "He worked for my company for a while. He discovered Tanya Tucker when she was young. He sent her back to school, thatís the way my dad was. He discovered a band called the Five Man Electrical Band that had a big hit for Mike Curb. He should have had a life in the business, but as he got older he got into contracting and then retail and he retired. He had a good life because he did a lot of different things.Ē

I wonder how Webb's religious upbringing affects his songwriting.

ďIím not really a very religious person even though Iím a very spiritual person. I tend to go in the direction of one to one relationships and the spiritual relationship a very private thing, not necessarily regimented by the church. Maybe thatís because I had so much church as a kid. I was there Sunday and Sunday night and Wednesday night and vacation Bible school and revival after revival after revival, I heard it. Iíve read the Bible four times," Webb says. "Iím a little more independent, but I will give credit where credit is due and thatís the services in the Baptist church were highly emotional, the whole thing is an emotional trip really and itís people making psychological breakthroughs and coming to terms with themselves and God and confessing the things that theyíve done. Religion and religious services are very emotional things and the music is part and parcel of that and when my father would go up to do an invitational at the end of a service and call for people to come forward and give their hearts to Jesus and join the church and be saved, I was playing the music for that so I was very affected myself by those moments. I think thatís where the connection between emotion and musical notes, which really are just mathematical things that are scrawled on a page, but I made the connection between the sound and the emotional experience in church.Ē

I ask Webb about his writing process.

ďI believe in writing every day. I just finished my memoir, at least part one and I had a very rigorous writing schedule on that and when Iím on a project I can be very businesslike about it, but itís hard to be businesslike about it because the music itself is a very flirtatious and unreliable collaborator. Sometimes it wants to play, sometimes it doesnít want to play.Ē Webb explains, ďSometimes Iíve shown up for work and absolutely nothingís happened, but one thing is for sure, if you donít put yourself on the piano bench in a position where you can write a song then youíre not going to write one. Part of it is putting one foot in front of the other and saying OK Iím going to write this morning and sitting down. I think the hardest thing in the world to do is to play that first note.

Jimmy WebbďSometimes you donít get a whole song, maybe you get an idea," Webb goes on. "Iím a great believer in taping everything that I do so I can go back and listen to it. Sometimes I have found that mistakes are the most wonderful thing in the world. And if you play the wrong chord and all of a sudden you realize itís one of the best things you ever played, so do I have that on tape? Do I have a record of that? Can I recreate that? Thatís one of the most horrible moments in creativity, doing something and not being able to find your way back to that exact phraseology or that exact concept that for a moment seemed so clear and now it escapes. Iím a great record keeper. Part of my simple rules for young songwriters is always have your notebook inside of your bag or if you prefer, your phone. These days I find that my iPhone is a great tool for a songwriter, who knew?Ē

ďIím a scribbler, I always have a notebook beside me. Thereís one laying beside me right now and a fountain pen. I prefer fountain pens." Webb says, "I just write everything down and if Iím working on a project I set myself on a very strict schedule and work every day until the workís completed. Thatís something I learned as a kid on the farm, was actually following through and finishing the job, which as a writer sometimes I think is a particular challenge.Ē

Webb is a good performer himself and has released many albums, but his real success is in his songwriting. I want to know how he feels about this.

ďI came along at a particularly fecund moment in musical history, there was a lot of demand for music," Webb shares. "The Haight Ashbury scene was breaking out, the British invasion was underway, record companies were becoming larger, they had been small, almost cottage industries and the number of records sold was in the thousands when I first got into the business. Of course it was the good old days, now we think of it as quaint and friendly and there was actually quite a lot of skullduggery that went on during those days. We tend to glamorize it in retrospect, but it was more comfortable, it wasnít so pressurized as it became and at that particular moment in history I showed up.

ďI had 40 or 50 songs, Iíve been writing songs for Glen Campbell since I was 14 years old, and all of a sudden I was in Hollywood. My father had moved us west and I was in Hollywood, I was actually in San Bernardino, but I could drive to Hollywood, I could be there in an hour. Just to walk on those streets, just to walk in front of CBS or RCA Pictures, walk in front of those buildings and know that there were people in there recording was just so exciting to me. It was like amphetamines without the amphetamines. I had at that moment nothing but confidence and energy. I was actually a very lucky young man because I had timed it exactly right.

ďLuck played a great part in it, but I had a tremendous output and younger writers asked me how do I do what I do and I say write songs, write lots and lots of songs. When you go into a meeting donít just have one or two songs, have 20, have 30 and write cross-genre, write country, write pop ballads, write tunes for Broadway if you please, donít just be a certain kind of songwriter. That was in the old days, now itís even more complicated, you really have to be adaptive and ready to change gears at a momentís notice. I really advocate versatility and that I was," Webb continues.

ďMy first mentorship was at Motown Records. I wrote 45 songs for them and I had a song recorded by The Supremes and I had another record with Billy Eckstine, but that was about it. But I had accomplished something and I felt I had learned so much from working with those wonderful people at Motown and it prepared me for the next step.

ďI moved to over to Johnny Rivers Music and I was working with the Fifth Dimension. Itís a big experience and it requires that original commitment which is like, 'Iím going to cast off from the dock now, Iím going to sail out into the deep water because I donít have any visible means of support, Iíve just got these songs and Iím going to go with that.' Thatís a tough thing to do.Ē

Why did Webb write his book, ďThe Cake and the Rain,Ē now and what's in it?

ďIím 70 years old and I find that I have a much clearer picture of my life than I ever had before, the ups and the downs and also the sideways stuff, which is clearly the stuff that you regret the most,Ē Webb says. ďI have a good memory for detail and I was in a lot of interesting situations as I made my way up through this complex world of relationships and musical genres and working with different artists. I began to meet people like Mr. Sinatra, at one point in 1968 going to a Beatles recording session and meeting them. I began to think that some of these ideas were worth writing down, if only for historical reasons, I had witnessed some really mind-blowing things just by accident. I never asked for an autograph in all the years I was in the business.

ďWhen Glen Campbell went into the hospital this last time, which is his retirement from public life, I started looking around the house and I realized that I didnít even have a signed photograph of Glen,Ē Webb shares. ďWe had been together and pals and collaborators and performed innumerable concerts together for 50 years and I didnít even have an album. I have a Gold Record for ĎWitchita Lineman,í but it never occurred to me to ask him to sign it. So I really wasnít a climber in that sense. At least one reviewer tagged me as a namedropper, but thereís no way that I could write my life story without dropping names, itís what my life has been.

ďI guess if Iím not going to write my memoirs now, when am I going to write them? I think at 70, not to be morose and not to be maudlin about the whole thing, but you do have the ability to envision the end of your life and itís not such a dramatic thing and itís not a horrible thing, itís not really dramatic as we think it is when weíre young, itís just a part of life and you look at it, well, Iíll be around for a few more years, but how many more?

ďMy father lived to be 92 so my genes are good for a few more years, but I just figured this was the time to write everything down. Thereís personal bitches to tell you the truth that I aired that in some perverse way wanted to go public with some of the stories and otherwise I think that if nothing else itís an interesting commentary on the Ď60s and itís a perspective of someone who quite often comes last in the pecking order and thatís songwriters.Ē

In his concerts, Webb shares stories from his life, mostly funny ones, as well as the stories behind the songs and plays his music.

ďStorytelling was always a part of my life. We lived out in the country before television so we would sit around the table and tell stories and play instruments, so I canít help myself,Ē says Webb. ďThe journey songs go through is the part you donít see because they frequently start being written for a completely different artist and the words may be completely different and they may go through several transformations, they may even be recorded, before they appear on your local radio station. I never had an artist who didnít change my lyrics, I can't think of a one.

ďMy shows are as good or as bad as theyíve ever been. I love to perform,Ē continues Webb. ďUnlike a lot of people my voice is stronger now than it ever was. Iím a late bloomer, but Iíve actually learned to sing a little better than I used to. Iím looking forward to having a career now.

ďI would love to write another book, I have more stories. I was just getting warmed up, but I had overwritten the memoir by 300,000 words and they only wanted 120 thousand, 130 at the most so i watched a lot of my stories hit the cutting room floor. Iíd love to have another swing at the ball.Ē

Webb is also hoping to have another album out by late 2018.

ďMy very next project, and Iím already working on the songs, is a singer/songwriter album in the traditional mold,Ē Webb says/ ďIím looking forward to writing what will be the best songs of my life.Ē

Learn more about Jimmy Webb and catch him in concert or at a booksigning by going to https://www.jimmywebb.com

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