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Jimmy Webb: The Songwriter Steps Behind The Mic

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Jimmy Webb: The Songwriter Steps Behind The Mic

Jimmy Webb: The Songwriter Steps Behind The Mic

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb worked at Motown Records at the time when the label was looking for a piece of material for Paul Peterson, a star on the Donna Reed TV show. Webb showed them his song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." They liked it but thought it needed a big chorus.

In a 1988 interview, Webb demonstrated what that would sound like.

Mr. JIMMY WEBB (Songwriter): (Singing) By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising, she'll find the note that I left hanging on her door. And she will cry and think that I would really leave her and that I've left that girl so many times before. And I'm going to Phoenix...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBB: You understand? This is the Motown approach.

HANSEN: Well, Webb avoided that because it was a ballad, a soap opera of sorts, and it became a big hit for singer Glen Campbell.

(Soundbite of song, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix")

Mr. GLEN CAMPBELL (Singer): (Singing) By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising...

HANSEN: Jimmy Webb has just released an album of many of his hit songs. It's called "Just Across the River." "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is cut six. Jimmy Webb sings it with Glen Campbell.

(Soundbite of song, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix")

Mr. WEBB: (Singing) 'Cause I left that girl so many times before. By the time I make Albuquerque, she'll be working...

HANSEN: Hall of Fame songwriter Jimmy Webb is in our New York bureau. Welcome back. It's nice to talk to you again, first of all.

Mr. WEBB: Well, it's nice to hear your voice again.

HANSEN: Well, tell me, is this really the first time you and Glen Campbell have sung together?

Mr. WEBB: It is. We were doing a big concert at the Schermerhorn in Nashville. After the concert, everyone was so excited - it was a good show - and my producer Freddie Mollin came running up to me and he said, do you realize that this is maybe our only chance to get Glen and you on the same record together? We aren't as young as we used to be. And so the next morning, Glen came in and for the first time in our careers, we actually appeared on the same record together.

HANSEN: Could you have imagined it happening when you first met Glen Campbell many years ago and the first thing he said to you is, when are you going to cut your hair?

Mr. WEBB: I love you. You really do your homework. You know, I was in such awe of him at that point that I don't think I would have imagined singing with him, no. You know, something that I think is a little tale worth telling is that the very first record I ever bought, I got a dollar from my father and I said, dad, there's a record I have to have. It was a record being played constantly called "Turn Around, Look at Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Turn Around, Look at Me")

Mr. CAMPBELL: (Singing) Turn around, look at me...

Mr. WEBB: And it was by a young singer named Glen Campbell. And I took that record home and I wore it out. And I would get down on my little Baptist knees at night beside the bed and I'd say, dear Lord, when I grow up, can I be a songwriter and work with Glen Campbell? And so I think it's prima facie evidence for the existence of God because for me to grow up and to actually end up working with Glen Campbell, it's just almost unbelievable.

(Soundbite of song, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix")

Mr. WEBB: (Singing) She just didn't know I would...

HANSEN: You invited Mark Knopfler in, who plays guitar at the end of "By the Time to Get to Phoenix," but he's also featured with you on a tune called "The Highwayman." And you credit him with helping you to change your singing style.

Mr. WEBB: Well, when I was talking to you a few years back about "Ten Easy Pieces," we were cutting this record up in Toronto with Fred, and I had decided that it was time for me to stop imitating Billy Joel and trying to imitate Elton John at making these huge production records. And we made a very minimalist record.

And one of our rituals was that as we drove to the studio each morning, we listened to Mark Knopfler. And Freddie would say, now, this is what you want to do. You want to sound like this. You know, you want to just be natural. You know, don't try to sing, just communicate, you know. And I'm listening to Mark and I got it, I really got it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Highwayman")

Mr. WEBB: (Singing) The bastards hung me in the spring of 25, but I am still alive. I was a sailor. I was born upon the tide...

HANSEN: I'm speaking with songwriter Jimmy Webb about his album titled "Just Across the River."

While you were advised not to be Billy Joel but you did invite Billy Joel to appear and he does one of your greatest hits, "Wichita Linemen." How did that happen?

Mr. WEBB: Well, Billy's a mate, he's a chum. And I can think of no one that I admire any more as a composer, as a real composer. And I love his voice. I dreamed that we might be able to do something together and he very fond of "Wichita Lineman." He deconstructed "Wichita Lineman" one night at the Songwriters Hall of Fame line-by-line, to my intense mortification. You know, as a songwriter, you do not want to hear your songs taken apart and quoted line-by-line.

I will give you an example of that. He said, for instance, he said, well, and then the guy says, you know, and I need her more than want her. Well, you know, I mean, that sounds like a diss, you know, and the audience laughed. And he said, but then he says and I want her for all time, and I want you for all time. He says, geez, I guess he does need her. You know, and the audience is just crying, they're laughing so hard.

And I'm as red as a beet, you know, and so we kind of have this history of a mutual respect but a kind of - the British have an expression, I won't use it, but taking the you-know-what out of each other.

HANSEN: Um-hum. The Mickey.

Mr. WEBB: Yeah. And, you know, it just, I tell you, I was at that session in New York. And Billy started singing and he worked so hard; he worked like it was his very first recording session. It was just so moving when he comes in on that second verse - I sing the first verse - when he comes on that second verse, it was just a thrill. I'll never forget it.

(Soundbite of song, "Wichita Lineman")

Mr. BILLY JOEL (Musician): (Singing) And I want you for all time, and the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

HANSEN: I can understand your discomfort at having "Wichita Lineman" deconstructed 'cause you once said that that lyric, but I need you more than want you and want you for all time, and the Wichita lineman is still on the line. It was the dumbest thing you'd ever written. I have to question cake left out in the rain. But, no, you say this was because it was a false rhyme.

Mr. WEBB: Well, it was a false rhyme which I didn't realize until I was writing a book on songwriting and I started scrutinizing my lyrics. I do, however, continue rewriting my songs into infinity, which drives people crazy. Because I'll go on stage and I'll sing it the way I want to - I'll correct it. And then some irate punter will come around after the show and say, why did you do that like that? That's not the way the record went, and, you know, they get very upset.

But let me give you an example. The first line of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" goes, on the original record: see her how she flies, golden sails across the sky. It bothered me for years and years and years. It's a beautiful image, and the record by Judy Collins was - and Arif Martin producing - was an absolute masterpiece.

(Soundbite of song, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

Ms. JUDY COLLINS (Singer): (Singing) See her how she flies, golden sails across the sky...

Mr. WEBB: But I'm listening to it one day and all of the sudden something went click. I mean, this is 20 years later. And I thought, now I know what the line is. The line is see her how she flies, golden sail across the skies. It was just simply adjusting the pluralities to get the correct rhyme.

HANSEN: You know, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is not on your new CD, so that tells me you're not finished with it.

Mr. WEBB: Well, it tells me it's going to be on my next CD, maybe with Judy Collins.

HANSEN: Oh nice.

Mr. WEBB: My favorite, by the way, just so you know, is "Where Words End" with Michael McDonald. That's my own personal favorite.

HANSEN: And why is that?

Mr. WEBB: Well, it's a brand new song and he's been singing with me for so many years and I just feel it's the best work I ever hear him do. When it gets to the part that says just across the river, just across the river - it repeats three times - and, you know, I get chills because I'm thinking about my mother. It says she'll be waiting for me then, just across the river, just across the river.

It's a hopeful statement. It's a positive thing to say in a world that is increasingly edgy. And I just wanted to put that, you know, one strong positive statement on the album.

HANSEN: And a new song.

Mr. WEBB: And a new song.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Words End")

Mr. WEBB and Mr. MICHAEL MCDONALD (Singer): (Singing) Just across the river, just across the river, where all the words end, where all...

HANSEN: Jimmy Webb wrote that song and all the others on his new recording, "Just Across the River." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks a lot.

Mr. WEBB: Thank you again for another wonderful interview.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Words End")

HANSEN: You can hear full songs from Jimmy Webb's latest album at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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