Oklahoma Dust Storm
Dusty, isolated and bleak, Elk City in far western Oklahoma seems an unlikely burg to birth one of America's greatest songwriting and composing talents. Yet to Jimmy Webb, author of such pop masterpieces as "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park," his Elk City childhood was a boon.
"Just to see the sky at night, to see that many stars the way you can't in cities, that's a deep, mystical residue you take with you wherever you go," says the 65-year-old president of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame from his home on Long Island. "And that salt-of-the-earth decency in small towns is kind of a spiritual gift."
Barely out of college in 1966, Webb found success in the wild and woolly Los Angeles music scene, landing a job as a writer for Motown Records' publishing subsidiary Jobete Music. As to how an Oklahoma kid managed to get on the Jobete payroll, he just laughs.
"It seems weird, maybe, but I used to walk around Los Angeles with this sack of tape reels with my songs on 'em," Webb says. "I tried everywhere I could think of — Warner Bros., little places like Screen Gems, and just got nowhere. One day a drummer buddy of mine tells me I should try Jobete, and I didn't have any better sense, so I just went over there."
Webb explained his mission to the secretary and cooled his heels sharing lunch with her. Eventually, she took his tape into another office.
"I could hear one of my songs being played, and I heard them talking but couldn't understand what they said," recalls Webb. "Then the door opened and Frank Wilson, the sweetest man who looked like a Greek icon, said very softly, 'Could you come in the office?' And they signed me that day."
In just a few weeks, Webb had written "My Christmas Tree," his first song for Jobete. It was recorded by no less a Motown powerhouse than the Supremes.
"It was a Christmas album, and they just told me to write a song about a Christmas tree," laughs Webb. "They were truly colorblind and so kind. They showed more love to me than I'd ever really known in my life outside my family. Unforgettable.
"I wrote 45 songs for them, and it was like going to writer's college for me," he adds. "I even got to work with [jazz/R&B songwriter and "Prisoner of Love" vocalist] Billy Eckstine on the very first thing I did."
Webb quickly came to the attention of "Secret Agent Man" Johnny Rivers, who signed him to a publishing deal and cut Webb's signature song, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," in 1966. The next year, Glen Campbell recorded the definitive version.
"They sent me over to Glen's session," remembers Webb. "He's real conservative. When I walked in he was sitting in a chair strumming his guitar and he looked up and said, 'Get a haircut.' That was our first meeting."
However abrupt their initial meeting was, Campbell would go on to become the greatest interpreter of Webb's work, following "Phoenix" with "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Campbell is frequently in Webb's thoughts.
"We talk fairly regularly," says Webb of his friend. "I'm so glad his family decided to go public with his condition. Sure, it hurts when I see him and sometimes have to explain who I am. But I think this is the big epidemic, that we're all going to know someone or have someone in our family that's going to be affected by this. It's one of the great modern tragedies."
In spite of his almost instant success, it wasn't all gold and glitter for the wunderkind Oklahoman. With the success and fame came drugs and alcohol.
"It's no secret I got pretty far out there with that stuff," admits Webb, whose father was a former Marine and Southern Baptist minister. "But my upbringing saved my life and got me loose from that drugged-out, stoned-out environment I got into. I'm fortunate because I always had an internal emergency brake, a sense of when it's time to pull out, time to go home."
Webb, who flatly stated "I'm an alcoholic" during the interview, quit drinking 12 years ago. He had already stopped using drugs years earlier, but continued drinking to combat performance anxiety.
"You start thinking a couple of drinks will knock that edge off, make it easier," he says. "Then it becomes something beyond just a couple of drinks."
"I remember playing this little jewel-box theater up in Pennsylvania to a packed house, and my manager was watching from the wings," remembers Webb. "I walked off to all this applause and asked her how 'Wichita Lineman' sounded, and she said, 'It was great, both times you played it.' That was one of those wake-up calls."
With his almost magical lyrical powers, the support of major industry players like Rivers and Motown founder Berry Gordy, and Campbell's success with his songs, Webb had won virtually every award a songwriter can by the time he was 25. He was a highly valuable commodity, attracting all genres of artists to record his songs. Acts as disparate as psychedelic pop groups (The 5th Dimension), British actors (Richard Harris) and country outlaws (Waylon Jennings) all won awards recording Webb's work.
But the biggest surprise of his career?
"The success of 'Up, Up, and Away' was such a strange thing to me," says Webb of his first hit song, released in 1967 on The 5th Dimension's album Up, Up and Away.
"Johnny [Rivers] had signed 5th Dimension to his new label, Soul City, and they released two singles, 'Go Where You Wanna Go' and 'Another Day, Another Heartache,' but they still hadn't really taken off," he says. "So there was a lot of talk and discussion, and finally it was Johnny who made the decision to issue 'Up, Up, and Away.' And it hit big."
While today Webb is a celebrated American musical icon, it hasn't all been success and thrills for the man whose father warned him that songwriting would break his heart.
"He was absolutely right," Webb says. "After the first couple of hits I had, I thought now I'll call up Dad and say, 'Yeah, it's breaking my heart,' then a few years went by and things weren't so rosy, and I was glad I never made that call."
Webb's low point came when he thought he was about to fulfill an ambition he had for almost all his life. Instead, the hit songwriter got a lesson in the sometimes harsh realities of a different side of show business.
"In the '80s, I pulled up stakes and moved to New York, because composing for a Broadway show had been my dream since junior high," he recalls. "I was working with Michael Bennett, the biggest producer on Broadway at that time. One day he called me in the office and said, 'It's too complicated to explain, but we're closing the show.'
"I felt like my music had failed, and I spun out of control," he adds. "It took quite awhile to recover from that. So, yeah, Dad called it."
Today, at what most would consider retirement age, Webb's recording career has found new life. His 2010 LP, Just Across the River, features a huge cast of noted singers including Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt and Vince Gill, and catapulted Webb onto the pop charts. He's currently working on a follow-up, Just Across the River 2, in Nashville.
"Like I wrote in my book about songwriting, it's an always ongoing process," he explains. "I just take my own advice and get up and go to work every day. It's what works and makes me happiest."
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