Favorite Jimmy Webb songscovers?
Discussion inMusic Cornerstarted bybabyblue
Ive always been intrigued by Jimmy Webbs songs, but have never taken a deep dive into his catalog. Last month I collaborated on a post examining some of Webbs songs. We only covered twelve, so Im curious what other fans consider their favorite songs or cover versions of Jimmys work.
Of course I know who songwriter Jimmy Webb is. Actor Richard Harris version of MacArthur Park was a ubiquitous baroque curio on the radio when I was a kid, as was the 5th Dimensions cheerful Up, Up and Away. His collaborations with Glen Campbell are justifiably legendary, and songs like Wichita Lineman and Galveston were all over the radio as well. I bought the albumTen Easy Pieces, featuring Webb singing some of his best-known songs at the piano. But as much as I admire him as a songwriter, I cant say Ive played it all that often. So, to help kickstart what may be a series of Songwriter Profile pieces, I asked fellow music aficionado and dedicated Jimmy Webb fan Jeff (aka CalicoSilver on YouTube) to provide me with a list of a dozen of his favorite songs composed by this unique American songwriter. Below is his list and my impressions of each song. Here we go.
Ive discovered with Jimmy Webbs work that its not only a mater of choosing songs, but also deciding whose cover version to select. By the Time I Get to Phoenix was one of the first Webb songs to be recorded. Johnny Rivers included it on one of his albums in 1966, a year prior to the release of Glen Campbells hit rendition. In 1969, Isaac Hayes recorded an epic eighteen-minute interpretation for hisHot Buttered Soulalbum. Im not familiar with a lot of Hayes catalog, but I am aware how highly regarded this recording is. For good reason, because its quite a trip in itself. Drums and bass quietly establish a laid back groove, while Hayes leans on one single organ chord for nearly ten minutes. This provides a haunting backdrop to an extended monologue that begins as a tribute to the songwriter and segues into Hayes own prelude to the songs heartbreaking story.
Now we should attempt to do a tune that is very popular it was written by one of the great young songwriters of today
Now I dont know what he was thinking about or what inspired him to write this tune, but its a deep tune
Theres a deep meaning to this tune because it shows you what the power of love can do
Now I should attempt it to do it my way, my own interpretation of it
Like I said, everybodys got its own thing
Im gonna bring it on down to Soulsville. . .
. . . With tears in his eyes, he said, Im gonna leave you, baby.
He said, Im leaving my heart right here, but Ive got to go, you see, cause this man cant take no more.
He packed his clothes. He got in his 1965 Ford
Three times he started to turn back before he reached the outskirts of the city, but he kept on going
Oh, I dont wanna go, but Ive got to leave you, mama
I guess it was around 3:30 in the morning
He could not hardly see the road with tears in his eyes
He cannot barely see the sign that read on the side of the road, the next town is 125 miles away
And these very words came into his mind. He said. . .
Then Hayes enters the vivid world created by Webbs original lyrics, as a man weary of his lovers betrayals imagines her going through her daily routine and finally realizing hes gone for good this time. I think the fact that the protagonist is playing out these events in his head makes them seem all the more real for the listener. Simply masterful songwriting. The soaring ache of the melody doesnt hurt either. Sadness, hurt and perhaps relief, are all palpable.
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
The bastards hung me in the spring of 25
Jimmy Webb recorded Highwayman for his albumEl Mirageand gave it to Glen Campbell as the title track for his 1979 LP. In 1985, the song inspired the name of an all star country group consisting of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. The Highwaymen took the song to Number One on the Country Music charts. The lyrics concern reincarnation, as each of the singers take a verse representing a soul returning as four different characters at different times in history. For such an unusual plot device, the story is told with effortless grace. Its sweeping cinematic arrangement matches the majesty of the words and performances. Highwayman is a textbook example of powerful, yet economic songwriting.
In reviewing these songs, Ive marveled at the how lean and effective Webbs prose is and Wichita Lineman is a prime example of this. The scenario is a simple one. A telephone line repairman in rural Kansas lets his mind wander while carrying out his solitary duties out in the field. He wonders if severe weather is going to damage the lines, or if it will only rain and hell be able to get some time off. He also wistfully contemplates a lover. Notice how once again most of the action takes place internally, solidly placing the emotions and images inside the listeners head. Even when I heard the song on the radio as a kid, I could see this guy climbing telephone poles in the blazing sun in the middle of nowhere. I doubt I knew what a lineman actually was back then. Naturally, these images are brought to life by the music as well. Keening strings echo the dusty winds whistling above the plains, as a Morse code rhythm reflects the pulsing electricity running through the lines. The six string bass solo in the middle, played by Glen Campbell himself, gives the tale an air of a modern day Western, making the lineman a quiet everyman hero of sorts, lost in his plans and dreams.
In 1988, Webb and Campbell taped a program for Canadian television titledIn Session. It featured the pair talking about and performing Webb compositions from throughout their careers. Its a wonderful relaxed glimpse of two old friends reminiscing and sharing their talents.In Sessionswas released as a CD and DVD set in 2012, and even though its great to have this intimate meeting available, it is something of a mixed blessing. Webb and Campbell introduce the songs with often fun and informative background stories, but sometimes the film cuts away mid-song to interview Jimmy. This minor annoyance on DVD becomes a major one on CD when Webbs recollections suddenly interrupt the audio. It would have been preferable to have unadulterated performances included on the CD at the very least.
Ive chosen two songs fromIn Session. MacArthur Park isnt as grandiose as the Harris version when backed by a smaller group and with Glen on vocals. His singing eschews the overwrought qualities of Harris hit recitation, providing a refreshing change of pace. Webbs piano is more prominent, adding a stirring poignancy to the arrangement. Even better is the uptempo instrumental break which Campbell effortlessly tackles on guitar. The DVD shows him in the control room totally shredding the solo! The kaleidoscopic lyrics, often the source of intense scrutiny for their meaning, are Webbs remembered images and emotions of his visits to the park with a girlfriend amid an impending breakup.
Also in 1988, Campbell releasedLight Years, another album named after a Jimmy Webb tune. The lyrics portray someone remembering a lover from a distance, since all the life events spent together now seem light years away.
Theres a lot of empty space separating me from you
A lonely place, but I have to make it through
And saw them fill with sweet surprise
The narrator may remember their love interest just across the room, but admits that theres a lot of empty space separating me from you. It appears that both the longing to see each other during a love affair and after a breakup are in play here. Its clever how the two perspectives seem to fluidly switch back and forth. This sense of longing is heard as each verse ends with a classic heart-tugging Webb piano motif, just the kind of flowing progression I always seem to fall for.
I watched the cars and crows and cities pass
You know, I watched the sun till I was blind
She did not know that I was hearing her
She did not know that I was nearing her
Her eyes burned bluer than the skies
Jimmy Web didnt only write songs for other people, he also recorded his own albums. I Met Her on a Plane opens 1971sAnd So: On. Its prose sketches a brief encounter that nonetheless makes a lasting impression. In just a few lines, Webb manages to make quite an impression on the listener, too. I had forgotten I was made of glass establishes his vulnerability. I watched the cars and crows and cities pass encapsulates the experience of a long airplane trip. The lines I tried to drive her from my mind / But I kept seeing her and I / Disappearing in the scenery show just how much this meeting captured his imagination, so much so that hes humming, humming inside. So much conveyed with a minimum of words. The music has a dreamy, wistful quality and almost gets a little psychedelic when emulating the humming excitement he feels.
Not only does the 1977 albumEl Miragefeature Jimmys version of Highwayman, it also includes the frequently covered ballad The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Webb borrowed the title from the science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein with the authors blessing. The lyrics compare the moon to an unreachable, unforgiving object of desire and its devastating effects (I fell out of her eyes / I fell out of her heart / I fell down on my face / Yes I did, and I tripped and I missed my star). Producer George Martin imbues the song with stately horn and string arrangements that highlight its tragic drama and sadness.
In contrast, the instrumentation on the 1972 releaseLetteris largely stripped down. Webb reinvents Galveston three years after Glen Campbells hit with a thrumming rhythmic acoustic guitar in the style of Richie Havens. Catharsis is a dark solo piano piece and a scathing put down of one Mister Shuck and Jive, reminiscent of Bob Dylans Positively 4th Street. The baroque touch of the introduction puts a slightly macabre gothic spin on the proceedings. I imagine Webb had already met his share of such music business snakes by this point in his career. Or is the song a portrait of what he could become being involved in the business himself?
Tell us once again this morning, old friend
It wont matter if theyve heard your tale before
Tell us of the time when almost everybody knew you were a star
WOODEN PLANES (A SONG FOR MY BROTHER)
Wooden Planes is probably best known from the Art Garfunkel albumWatermark, his 1977 collection of mostly Jimmy Webb covers. Garfunkel handles Webbs fragile childhood memories well enough, but a dominant synthesizer backing and the swelling choral flourish at the end largely sinks his efforts. B.J. Thomas released the song under the title A Song for My Brother in 1972, and it fares much better utilizing a simple piano arrangement instead. The lyrics are a snapshot of brothers chasing wooden planes during their West Texas childhood. As Thomas poignantly muses, Yes, I believe that was the finest time, a torrent of sparkling piano notes rains down and then slowly fades into silence, echoing the melancholy distance of a fondly remembered past.
Glen Campbells 1969 albumGalvestoncontains two Jimmy Webb tunes. The title song presents a young soldier longing for his girl back home. A bright, stirring string and brass arrangement sets a patriotic tone that led many to believe it was a Vietnam era antiwar anthem. But Webb has always insisted the story is more general and is about a homesick person whos someplace where they dont want to be. Wheres the Playground Susie? uses the childrens playground as a metaphor for a broken relationship. Instead of enjoying the all the toys and rides, or the joy and excitement of romance, the lovers are left lost and trying to find their way back to better times. The playground is now a wasteland of memories for them. Chimes subtly ring throughout recalling a childs music box, until the chorus dramatically crashes in asking the title question. The result is a startling and devastating depiction of a couple that can no longer be together.
In a recentNew York Timesinterview, folksinger Judy Collins praised her peer and friend by enthusing, The songs of Jimmy Webb drive me nuts. Theyre so wonderful and I love singing them. Jimmy always says, You take my hardest songs. I recorded Paul Gauguin in the South Seas and it taught me more about singing than I had learned since I studied it. Gauguin certainly doesnt seem like an easy song to take on. It uses the painters biography as a metaphor for mankinds search for paradise (appropriately enough, the song appears on her collection titledParadise). But Collins pulls it off with aplomb. Her arrangement is similar to Webbs presentation on his albumTwilight of the Renegades(even down to the wind effects at the beginning). However, Collins reading includes a moody string section and her clear voice creates a sharper focus on the lyrics. The composition may be Webbs baby, but Collins marvelously accentuates all its glory and makes it her own.
Thanks to Jeff for providing a starting point for getting into the work of Jimmy Webb. He pushed me to discover aspects of his music I never would have considered. Be sure to check out Jeffs video for his take on these songs.
NorthwindblewsouthBeSteVennPaul Jand9 otherslike this.
On Angel Clare Webb wrote Art Garfunkels first & biggest solo hit All I Know, as well as The albums closing track Another Lullaby. Personally I think its his best album.
Watermark, Garfunkels third solo album, was almost completely Webb songs- the only two exceptions being an old Sam Cooke ((What A) Wonderful World) & an older Traditional British Folk Song (She Moved Through The Fair). For me this is the last of his better albums.
bluerondoMichael MacroneDalziel53and2 otherslike this.
Jimmy has quite a few tunes amazing tunes that you can mention, as well as the artists and their performances. He could teach a master class in songwriting. But its hard to top Glen Campbell and Wichita Lineman.
Jimmy Webb + CBS Orchestra -MacArthur Park on Letterman
scousetteLove Is Like Oxidationnocturnal-transmissionsand2 otherslike this.
If You See Me Getting Smaller-the autographical ode to his failed attempt of a tour,circa 1970. The line about folks standing in line at Philadelphias Main Point,a folkie club which deserves a national plaque, rings true for me. I wasnt in line but my buddy & I were driving around the block a couple of times and finally packing it in as the line & the rain was too much. I still have an ad Warner/Reprise spent in a Philly freebie paper announcing the event. Decades later Webb performed in Bethlehem,Pa. and I just couldnt find the ad for him to sign,but he was gractious and signed my Rhino Handmade box and poster. Waylon Jennings ruined the song-I dont think he ever performed at the Main Point. Rings false.
Paul Jbabybluejwoverhoand1 other personlike this.
RockMonster, ClassicalMaster, and JazzMeister
But I always come back to Galveston as my fave
Such a supremely brilliant lyric... an anti-war song that you dont have to be a protester to feel in your heart.
a customerbluerondomark winstanleyand1 other personlike this.
a customerMichael Macroneandrockerredslike this.
Webb is one of the greatest pop songwriters of the past 60 years. A treasure. Not to go down the underrated rabbit hole, but unlike people like Baccahrach, I dont believe hes had his broad hipster/mainstream re-evaluation moment in the Sun yet.
That Webb is still alive and still performs is a gift..
Michael MacronechickendinnaMark L.and2 otherslike this.
So many incredible songs. Hes the only Grammy winner for music, lyrics, and orchestration.
His interpretations of his own tunes are often idiosyncratic, but filled with the emotion that the writer often has as their advantage from creating the song.
I love all his albums from WORDS AND MUSIC to EL MIRAGE. TEN EASY PIECES is a stripped down overview of his work with Jimmy offering new versions of 10 classics.
The two Richard Harris albums are essential, with THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER being written for Harris in advance, so the key of the songs were picked to match his voice. The arrangements are pretty incredible as well.
I understand why the track listing to Garfunkels WATERMARK was changed, but Fingerpaint should have been left on. Jimmys demo version on the MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS box is one of my favorite Webb performances.
As an aside, Jimmy talks in his book about planning an album with Elvis but being shut out by Parker when things got too friendly between Webb and Presley. Could you imagine a whole album of Webb tunes, produced and arranged by Jimmy specifically for Elvis? The mind boggles. Elvis doing Honey Come Back would just about be perfect.
siveldLurgan Ladandbabybluelike this.
Oh, and When Can Brown Begin tries for the same thing as McCartneys Ebony & Ivory, but he did it about a decade earlier and its so much better, McCartney should have been embarrassed to even release his attempt.
From Jimmys Letters album, which I consider to be far-and-away his best solo effort.
My 6 year old daughter took this video from the front row of a show a couple years ago
a customersharedonandbabybluelike this.
Oh, and When Can Brown Begin tries for the same thing as McCartneys Ebony & Ivory, but he did it about a decade earlier and its so much better, McCartney should have been embarrassed to even release his attempt.
From Jimmys Letters album, which I consider to be far-and-away his best solo effort.Click to expand...Thats an incredible song. As usual, the arrangement is intricate and emotional (those strings!), and Jimmys limitations as a singer still work to his advantage when he really leans into the song.
LETTERS is a great album. Hurt Me Well is one of the standouts.
Thats an incredible song. As usual, the arrangement is intricate and emotional (those strings!), and Jimmys limitations as a singer still work to his advantage when he really leans into the song.
LETTERS is a great album. Hurt Me Well is one of the standouts.Click to expand...Hurt Me Well is my favorite song from the album of great songs!
Oh, and heres Jimmy singing When Can Brown Begin in the early 70s...he includes an additional section near the end thats not in the studio recording.
Yeah, Im going there...Jimmy was deeply involved in every aspect of this, so its especially appropiate. Be sure to read the description of the video for a fascinating story on how this became a hit record.
Another fantastic live performance from the early 70s. Jimmy doing McArthur Park solo, on piano.
The song calls for a lot of vocal range, and youd think Jimmy wouldnt be able to deliver, but he does.
The Hive being on TV is almost a perverse thrill. The whole YARD album is bombastic, overblown, near hysterical, and just brilliant. Its a perfect fit for Harris vocals, and Jimmys arrangements are as sophisticated and ambitious as pop music gets.
I like Paper Chase from the first Richard Harris album. The Art Garfunkel rock version demonstrates that Garfunkel is not a rocker.
Galveston- Glen & Jimmys slower tempo version (as Webb originally intended) from theirIn Sessionalbum is stunning.
Do What You Gotta Do- Of all Webbs songs this is my absolute favourite. Johnny Rivers had first crack at it, and its okay although a tad perfunctory. Clarence Carter & Al Wilson upped the ante with some real heartfelt vocals. Glen Campbell, again, did a slower and sparser version on hisMatter Of Timealbum which is very effective and affecting. The Four Tops had a big UK hit with their version in 69. Levi sings his socks off, and I love this rendition.
Im not a big fan of solo Art Garfunkel, but his versions ofAll I Know,Scissors Cut, andCrying In My Sleepare all topnotch, especially the latter.
As forMacArthur Park,its so ludicrously OTT lyrically, that it either needs an equally OTT performance, or something very stripped back & sombre. Richard Harris delivers neither. Most of the covers that Ive heard play it straight; pretty boring. Donna Summer goes for epic, and I quite like that. The Four Tops & Glen both deliver (seemingly) effortless soaring heartbreak. Waylon Jennings strips things back for a hauntingly effective rendition. Wayne Kramer & Mick Farren recorded a left-field version in the early 90s, which rocks out nicely.
John Denver never floated my musical boat, but his version of WebbsPostcard From Parishas a truly emotional wistfulness about it.
See You Then&I Keep It Hid-Roberta Flack turns in a majestically ethereal performance of the former on her 1971Quiet Firealbum. And Alice Clark pulls out all the stops for a stunningly soulful belter of the latter.
And back to Glen. Apart from the obviousPhoenix,Witchita&Susie,a couple of the lesser known:You Might As Well Smile(74Reunionalbum), andShattered(85Just A Matter Of Timealbum).
MGMLurgan LadIsitquiexand1 other personlike this.
Some great audio, video and stories posted so far. Keep it up!
Hoover Factoryandbabybluelike this.
a customerbabyblueand7solqs4iagolike this.
The entire Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb album, Reunion, is excellent. My favorite on that album is this pointed kiss off that I dont think has been covered by anyone else:
As an Amazon Associate, we may earn commissions