In advance of his Lawrence visit, legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb visited with the Journal-World about his Oklahoma roots, working with his musical idols and what's wrong with kids today. (They're not writing enough songs, evidently.)
Webb has penned hits for Glen Campbell, Donna Summer and Art Garfunkel, among others. The "Wichita Lineman" scribe, who also published a memoir (the critically acclaimed "The Cake and the Rain") earlier this year, will share stories behind his songs and play a few hits Wednesday evening at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., as part of the Lawrence Public Library's 780s storyteller series.
What can audiences expect at your Lawrence show?
It’s a singer-songwriter show. The repertoire is really, for the most part, hit songs that I’ve written for other people. I also include some things that I’ve written for my own albums, for the die-hard fans out there. It’s a kind of anecdotal framework. I sort of open the window on what goes on behind the scenes between the songwriter and the artist, which is almost always personal.
So, it’s informative, it’s fun, and we play the hits (laughs).
And you have a lot of hits. Are there any songs you’re just tired of keeping in your rotation at this point?
I’m sort of picturing myself addressing the audience and saying, “Ladies and gentleman, usually I play ‘Wichita Lineman’ right now, but I’m really freakin’ tired of it, so I’m not going to play it tonight.” Here’s the real truth about that — is that somehow or other, the performer, in one’s soul, has to find a way to interpret that song every time like it’s the first time. I find a new way through that song. I never play it the same way twice.
I never reach the point where I say, “Oh, I’m just sick of doing this song.” If I was really and truly sick of doing it, I’d probably drop it from the show.
You grew up not too far from Wichita, across the state line in Oklahoma. I’d read that radio listening in your parents’ household was limited to country and white gospel music. How did that shape your early influences and career?
Well, I think that I really need to fix that description a little bit, because one of my father’s favorite records was by Doris Akers and the Sky Pilot Choir, and they were an African-American ensemble who really shouted those gospel songs. It wasn’t exclusively white gospel. My dad was into The Statesmen (Quartet), The Oak Ridge Boys, the Blackwood Brothers, Jake Hess and the Imperials — the same groups that Elvis was into, and he didn’t like us listening to Elvis Presley.
There were two of us boys, but there were three girls, and he had gotten the strange idea somewhere that rock ‘n’ roll music was about sex. Now, where he got that idea, I can’t tell you. But he was very, very anti-rock ‘n’ roll. If we tried to change the station to a rock ‘n’ roll station, he would slap our hands. That’s why I always valued my transistor radio — I could pack it out into the wilds with me, or I could take it out onto my tractor when I was working, when I was plowing in Laverne, which is right over the state line. And I’d listen to Glen Campbell or Roger Miller or whoever I wanted to.
Given that Glen Campbell was an idol of yours when you were young, what was it like finally working with him for the first time? Surreal?
It was always surreal. I mean, when I got a job at Motown Records — that was my first job in Hollywood, and when they hired me and signed me to a contract and said, “We need some songs for the new Supremes album,” that was surreal. And so virtually everything that happened was surreal. But Glen was particularly weird, because I heard my first Glen Campbell record when I was 14 years old. It was called “Turn Around, Look at Me.” It was a huge hit. I heard it out in the middle of the pasture on my tractor, and I borrowed some money off my dad, drove over to Beaver — which was about 22 miles away where they had a record store — and bought a copy of “Turn Around, Look at Me” by Glen Campbell on Crest Records. And from then on, I was writing songs for Glen Campbell.
The first time I met Glen was at the Grammy Awards in 1968, and that was the night that I got a Grammy for Song of the Year for “Up, Up and Away” and Glen won two Grammys for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Now, I shook his hand, I took a photo with him, but I still hadn’t met him. I didn’t know him. And finally it was time for me to go down to studio and meet him, and I went down full of trepidation. I had just been to the Monterey Pop Festival, I had long hair, I wore a red bandana, I wore some ratty old moccasins and I had a yak vest. So, I walked into the studio and there’s Glen, and he’s just pristine in a beautiful pair of like, faded Levis and a cowboy shirt with little pearl buttons on it, and his hair all coiffed and everything. He’s wearing some Gucci loafers and he’s sitting there with a $1,000 watch, playing guitar. And when I walked in, he wouldn’t even look at me. And I said, “Mr. Campbell?” He wouldn't look at me. I said, “Mr. Campbell, I’m Jimmy Webb.” He kind of looked at me, and I went right over and I got in front of him and I said, “Mr. Campbell, I’m Jimmy Webb and I wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.'” And he looked me up and down and he said, “When you gonna get a haircut?”
We were just on different sides of the playing field, you know? I was to the left, and he was to the right. But luckily we found out we had this commonality in terms of music, and it really created a bond between us because we both loved music so much. We eventually did sort of put our political differences to one side, and we always found a way to come up with a musical solution to the problem.
If you go
What: "780s Series Presents Legendary Songwriter Jimmy Webb"
Where: Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday
Speaking of politics, I’d read that your song “Galveston” was originally conceived as a sort of anti-Vietnam War protest song. But the version made famous by Glen Campbell was more up-tempo and kind of did away with the original message …
Well, it was not much of a protest song. It was written during Vietnamese conflict, which was a terrible thing. To this day, I can’t imagine any earthly good that came out of it. And so, that was a point where he and I, we wouldn’t have been able to discuss that, probably. He hung out with John Wayne and Bob Hope, and it was a group of people that we referred to as Orange County Republicans. And I was not there. I went to extreme pains to expose the fact that I was not supportive of that particular mindset. And I lost a couple of good friends, guys that I played football with in Laverne. One in particular was a helicopter pilot and did not come back.
So, the song was more about the individual caught up in a war who suddenly realizes that they’d really rather be somewhere else doing something else. I can remember my father telling me that when he was in the Pacific during the second world war, he really wanted to be somewhere else doing something else.
Your dad was a Baptist minister and a former Marine. What did he think of your music career and your dealings with all those hippies and Hollywood types?
He didn’t like it at first (laughs). He told me one time, “Son, this songwriting thing is just going to break your heart.” And honestly, I have to say that he wasn’t 100 percent wrong about that, because I had a lot of success, I got to do a lot of stuff, I had a lot of fun, and I’m still having fun, you know? I haven’t worked a lick in 40 years, because music is fun to me. But it has its ups and downs. In this business you can be king of the hill one day and the next day wondering what exactly you’re going to do with yourself. You know, something is big one day and then all of a sudden it’s nostalgia. You step on an elevator and you hear Glen Campbell singing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and you go, “When did this happen? When did I become elevator music?” (laughs)
You have to constantly be shifting your stance and adjusting the way you’re going to concentrate your energies and continue to be successful, continue to make a living and provide for your family. It’s not an easy thing to do over a lifetime.
Who do you see as carrying the torch from your generation of musicians?
I think somewhere along the way we kind of dropped the ball. And I can wax at length about this, but I won’t. I’ll just say that, in terms of mentorship and in terms of creating another generation of real technically accomplished songwriters, that somewhere along the way we dropped the ball on that. And I say we did — we failed to communicate with this generation. Well, with Generation X, for one, but now there’s another one. You know, forget about the millennials. They don’t even know who we are or what we did, you know? You have to actually sit down with them and explain to them how important the Beatles were. They have no way of wrapping their heads around that.
I remember when Paul Simon said to me, “There aren’t going to be any more melodies.” And I looked over at him and I thought he could sometimes be kind of a dour fellow anyway, and I didn’t know how seriously to take him. And now I look back and I’m a little bit ashamed of that, because he was exactly right.
So, that’s the kind of position I’m in when you ask me, “Who’s great? Who’s carrying the torch?” There are people out there writing songs, but the market has swung into a really different place.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to make a record. I’m going to write 12 songs, just regular songs. I just have to put out an album. It’s been five years since I put out a record. I’ve got a lot of people clamoring for a record. I don’t mean to make it sound like more than it is, but I have a lot of fans out there who want a record. That’s really what I have to do next. And then there are other things that I want to do. I’d still like to get a Broadway show up and running, and it’s possible that I might be writing some more memoirs. I definitely have another chapter. I mean, I have a whole other book in me. So, I have plenty of work to do, plenty to keep my mind busy, and people are so accepting of me and seemingly more interested in me than ever before. So, I’m taking that as a good sign and I’m living one day at a time (laughs).