For composers to have songs that are more recognized than their own names is a rare phenomenon — yet, at the same time, a definition of success. But to have a slate of recognizable hits over 50 years while staying comparatively under the radar involves rare air breathed by few other than 68-year-old vocalist, pianist and Oklahoma native Jimmy Webb.
At his forthcoming solo shows this month at the Arts Garage, listeners will recognize most of the songs despite the fact that they were hits for other artists. And all will be delivered from the piano by Webb in a gritty, storytelling voice that’s aged like a vintage wine.
The songwriter is the only artist in the history of the Grammy Awards to win separately for music, lyrics, and orchestration. Webb was barely 20 years old when his composition “Up, Up and Away” won the 1967 Grammy for Song of the Year for its recording by vocal group The 5th Dimension, which also took home the award for Record of the Year. Yet Webb was less than convinced that he’d found his calling.
“It took me a long time to have complete faith in the idea,” he says by phone from the home he shares with wife Laura Savini (a Public Broadcasting System host and producer) in the village of Bayville, located in Long Island, N.Y. “But I really had no backup plan. My eyesight had gotten me rejected from the United States Air Force, or I might have tried aviation. I eventually became a pilot, but I’m glad things worked out the way they did.”
It’s hard to imagine why Webb ever doubted himself. At age 17, he’d started working with Jobete Music, Motown Records’ publishing firm. His first commercial recording was the song “My Christmas Tree,” recorded by The Supremes for their 1965 holiday album Merry Christmas. And it was employment by singer and producer Johnny Rivers, who first recorded Webb’s song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” that led to The 5th Dimension, a group Rivers was producing.
“Johnny Rivers gave me a steady job, and helped me get a foot in the door,” Webb says. “He was a very supportive boss who gave me lots of responsibility, letting me write orchestrations, work in the studio, and develop my craft.”
With Webb’s additional modern American standards like “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “MacArthur Park,” “The Worst That Could Happen” and “All I Know,” he’s certainly captained a soaring compositional career. His music has been recorded and/or performed by a laundry list of the 20th century’s top artists, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Judy Collins, Isaac Hayes, Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings, Thelma Houston, The Temptations, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, America, Amy Grant, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, R.E.M., Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, John Denver, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Tom Jones, Rosemary Clooney, Kris Kristofferson, and Glen Campbell.
In addition, Webb has released a dozen albums, from his 1968 debut through the 2013 CD Still Within the Sound of My Voice, which features duets with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Brian Wilson, Keith Urban, Lyle Lovett, David Crosby and Graham Nash. Webb also became the youngest-ever inductee to the National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame nearly 30 years ago. He now serves as its chairman, and became a critically acclaimed author with his 1998 book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting.
Like many, Webb’s introduction to music was largely through the church. His father was a Baptist minister, and his mother encouraged him to learn to play piano and organ to accompany the choir at his father’s services. Yet much changed for Webb in the early-to-mid-1960s, both musically (courtesy of artists like Presley and The Beatles) and personally.
“I was working in Hollywood after having moved to California with my family,” Webb says. “But when my mother died and my family moved back to Oklahoma, I stayed there as a kind of lone soul. I had to learn to live like that; going around town and playing my songs for people and hoping to be able to trust songwriting to make a living.”
Intrigued by what he heard on the radio in his early teens, Webb’s first record purchase had been “Turn Around, Look at Me” by Campbell, the singer, guitarist, session musician and songwriter with the distinctive voice who was becoming a rising country star. It would prove to be fortuitous for both Webb and Campbell, now 79 and in a long-term Alzheimer’s care and treatment facility. He’d bravely recorded his final song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” in 2013 for the heralded 2014 documentary film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.
But in between his rise through the 1960s and fall during the past four years, Campbell had forged a most distinctive partnership and lasting friendship with Webb, who has 10 compositions that ended up on the Billboard Top 10 chart, including “Up, Up and Away,” very different versions of “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris (in 1968) and Donna Summer (1978), “The Worst That Could Happen” by Brooklyn Bridge (1969) and “All I Know” by Art Garfunkel (1973).
The other five Top 10 hits for Webb were all recorded by Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (1967), “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “Where’s the Playground, Susie” (all 1969) and “Honey, Come Back” (1970).
“With my father being a minister,” Webb says, “I’d literally been praying for God to let me become a songwriter and meet someone like Glen to record my songs. So when I was 18 or 19 years old, and heard him singing ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ on the radio while driving, it almost caused a massive pileup on the Santa Ana freeway when I realized I was listening to him performing my song! I had to get off the freeway, park, and come to grips with it actually happening.
“I still go see Glen, and it’s a very tough thing, because he wasn’t appreciated the way he should’ve been when he was healthy. I can tell that there’s no chance that he remembers who I am, or any of the stuff we did together. To me, that’s an overarching tragedy of epic proportions, but at the same time, it compares in no way to the stress his family has been put under, and the heroic way they’ve dealt with him. There was some criticism online about him being put in a facility, but that’s just people commenting on something they can’t possibly understand. He’s receiving the very best care a family could provide.”
When it comes to modern songwriting, Webb sidesteps any critique in favor of a timeline of his favorite peers, and an explanation of some of the myriad changes he’s seen during his half-century in the music biz.
“The Everly Brothers were like Elvis to me early in my career,” he says. “And songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter created a template for artists like that. Writers like Burt Bacharach and Hal David then helped to develop ’50s and ’60s compositions before The Beatles, and Lennon and McCartney’s great pop tunes. Then Joni Mitchell came along and turned things upside down, from a deeply emotional and personal vantage point. Now you had singer/songwriters, not just composers, which caused both writers and singers some consternation. “Performers writing their own material was once uncommon, but that led to guys like Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. And the natural modern successor is probably Sting.”
Ironically, Webb’s biggest complaint lies within the changes in an industry he was once looking to join rather than becoming a songwriter.
“Air travel has practically turned into one unending insult,” he says. “I’ve flown for a long time, and seen the industry go through various phases. And now it’s a sardine-can approach of canceling and delaying flights to sell every seat. I remember back when they rolled out the first 707. That was my plane! And half the time it was half-full. So those of us who were gigging a lot could have an entire row of seats; put the armrests up, and go to sleep. The flight attendants talked to you, whereas now they’re so defensive and have no time to find about who you are and where you’re from. But the whole world used to be a little more relaxed.”
Webb’s touring schedule has never been busier, and by his own estimation, his performances have never been in better form than on the recent United Kingdom tour he returned from.
“It was the best tour I’ve ever had over there,” he says, “both from attendance and media coverage standpoints. I played before almost a thousand people, one of my largest crowds ever as a solo artist. I once started performing because I’d decreed that I was going to play my songs even if no one else was. So I may be a late bloomer, but I still love playing all the hits.”
See Jimmy Webb at 8 p.m. on May 15 and 16 at the Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach ($25-50, 561-450-6357).