Jimmy Webb: From 'Phoenix' To 'Just Across The River' The songwriter talks about some of his greatest hits, including "MacArthur Park" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." His latest album, Just Across the River, features a series of duets with some of the singers he wrote for, including Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Vince Gill.
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Jimmy Webb: From 'Phoenix' To 'Just Across The River'

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Jimmy Webb: From 'Phoenix' To 'Just Across The River'

Jimmy Webb: From 'Phoenix' To 'Just Across The River'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Jimmy Webb was one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of the 1960s and '70s. Glen Campbell had big hits with his songs "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." Webb's other hits include "Didn't We," "Up, Up and Away," "The "Worst That Could Happen" And "MacArthur Park," which was recorded by Richard Harris, The Four Tops and Donna Summer to name just a few of the hundreds of recordings of that tune.

Jimmy Webb has a new album of duets he recorded with some of the artists he's written for over the years. Here he is with Linda Ronstadt. The song is "All I Know."

(Soundbite of song, "All I Know")

Mr. TERRY WEBB (Singer) and Ms. LINDA RONSTADT (Singer): (Singing) I bruise you, you bruise me. We both bruise so easily, too easily to let it show. I love you, and it's all I know.

All my plans keep falling through. All my plans, they depend on you, depend on you to help them grow. I love you, and it's all I know.

When the singer's gone let the song go on. It's a fine line between the darkness and the dawn. They say in the darkest night, there's a light beyond.

But the ending always comes at last.

DAVIES: Jimmy Webb and Linda Ronstadt from Webb's new album, called "Just Across The River." Terry spoke to Jimmy Webb in 2004.


Let's talk about one of your best-known songs, and that is "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." I was reading this is the third-most-performed song in the last 50 years, according to BMI, who should know.

Wow. How did you write the song?

Mr. WEBB: Well, it's more of a song about something I wish I had done than something I really did in that I did not get in my car and drive back to Oklahoma to punish this young woman for not reciprocating my love and affection.

In fact, a guy approached me one night after a concert, and he had a map, and he had all the times, and he had a stopwatch, and he showed me how it was impossible for me to drive from L.A. to Phoenix and then how far it was to Albuquerque and then - in short, he told me: This song is impossible.

And so it is. It's a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.

May I hasten to add that I think that the appeal of the song lies in its sort of succinct tale, its beginning, middle and end, and the fact that it sort of has an O. Henry-esque twist at the end, which consists merely of the guy saying: She didn't really think that I would go. But he did. And, in fact, I didn't. I didn't go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEBB: I stayed for more punishment.

GROSS: Does the woman, or girl I don't know how old you were that you wrote this for know that it was about her?

Mr. WEBB: Oh, yes, she does, and she's still thankfully, she's very much alive, and she's actually married into the Ronstadt clan. Her name is Susan Ronstadt now. And she and I are very, very close friends. And there were many, many songs that were inspired by her and came about as a result of our, well, very young relationship.

High school, she was a high school sweetheart. We actually went to Disneyland together on graduation night. And that picture still exists, unfortunately. I was wearing the worst sort of plaid sports jacket you have ever seen in your life.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: It sounds like this torch is still dimly burning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBB: Well, listen. I believe that all torches are inextinguishable to some degree, no matter human beings say about that subject. And I just do believe that once that fire is kindled, it lasts forever. You do love that person forever.

GROSS: Well, I think this would be a good time to hear the Glen Campbell of "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," written by my guest, Jimmy Webb.

(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. She'll find the note I left hanging on her door. She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leaving 'cause I've left that girl so many times before.

By the time I make Albuquerque, she'll be working. She'll probably stop at lunch and give me a call. But she'll just hear that phone keep on ringing off the wall, that's all.

By the time I make Oklahoma, she'll be sleeping...

GROSS: "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" started a short series of place-songs, you know, "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman." Did you start to think that if you put a place name in the song, it would hit?

Mr. WEBB: No, it wasn't so much my doing as it was deliberate manipulation on the part of A&R and the labels in their attempts to engineer what we called in those days a follow-up record.

But I remember particularly the day that they called me about "Wichita" and said: Glen's looking for a follow-up for "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," but it's got to be a place. And I thought, well, okay. I didn't particularly like that idea. I'm not someone who thinks that way or creates that way.

But I'm a young songwriter, and I think I've got the chops to do it, and I sit down, and I spent maybe an hour and 45 minutes or two hours working on a song. I come up with a concept based on some memories I have of some blue-collar guys working on telephone lines around Liberal, Kansas, and the panhandle of Oklahoma, out there in the great kind of land of no horizon.

And I called them up, and I said I've got a song over here, I said, but I don't really think it's finished. And they said, well, send it over anyway. And I sent it over, and they called me back in a state of exaltation of what I had written. And they put it out, and it became this huge hit.

And this song has had people still tell me, and it bothers me a little bit because when I was writing my book on songwriting, "Tunesmith," I actually for the first time analyzed some of my songs, and I was really shocked and appalled at what I found.

And one of the things that I found was that in Wichita linemen, there's a line that goes like this: And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time. And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

And the first thing I thought of when I read it is false rhyme. That's a false rhyme.

GROSS: Oh, line and time.

Mr. WEBB: That's biggest, that's the most biggest, awfulest, dumbest, most obvious false rhyme in history, and night after night, at performance after performance, person after person comes up to me until now, I'm talking about 100,000 people have walked up to me and said: You know, the greatest line you ever wrote, I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time, you know?

And so, I don't know how to explain that. I wouldn't have - had I known what I was doing, I wouldn't have written that line. I would have found a way to make it rhyme. It was only years later that I became aware of what a songwriter was even supposed to do. I was really just a kid who was kind of writing from the hip and the heart.

GROSS: Why don't we hear Freedy Johnson's version of that. Are you familiar with the version?

Mr. WEBB: I've heard it, and I like it.

GROSS: Good, me, too. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Wichita Lineman")

Mr. FREEDY JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) I am a lineman for the county, and I ride the main road searchin' in the sun for another overload. I hear you singin' in the wires, I can hear you thru the whine, and the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

You know, I need a small vacation, but it don't look like rain. And if it snows, that stretch down South will never take the strain. And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time, and the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Oklahoma. Your father was a Baptist minister. How did the church figure into your daily life and into your musical life as a child?

Mr. WEBB: It was a totally all-encompassing influence in that when you're the son of a Southern Baptist minister, you are informed at a very early age that you are part and parcel of his ministry and that your behavior reflects on his image in the community and therefore your every movement, your every word.

Everything that you do is monitored. And that includes the music that you play, the music that you listen to. And my mother's dream from the very beginning, when she started me on piano at six years of age, was that I would be church pianist.

And I was. By the time I was 12 years old, I was playing. I was the church pianist, and I was - I had also moved over to organ and was a large part of the musical program in the church.

And we did specials. We sang three-part. My father played guitar. My mother played accordion. I can just remember the top of my mother's head sticking over this big Hohner accordion. She was short, and the accordion was taller than she was.

GROSS: Now, your family moved to Southern California, to San Bernardino, in 1964. Did your father get a church there?

Mr. WEBB: Yes, he was pasturing in Colton, and I finished my high school in Colton. I graduated as a senior from Colton High School. It was the year that JFK was assassinated, and it was also the year that my mother died. And so it was really quite an eye-opener for me.

And my it's interesting to note that my mother, after expending these huge reserves of energy, sort of lashing me into a somewhat formidable young musician, that she died before I ever did anything.

She never heard me. She never heard one of my songs on the radio. She never saw me get one award. She never saw one piece of sheet music on the piano with my name on it.

I have regrets about that because had she lived just a little bit longer, I think she would have been really proud of me, you know?

GROSS: Sure, sure.

Mr. WEBB: So all of a sudden, I was exposed to The Beach Boys, which was like it was like a fish to water. I mean, I loved Southern California. I loved the lifestyle. I loved The Beach Boys. I loved The Righteous Brothers. And I just wanted to get into it. I wanted to get into the record business, stop, you know... get into the record business, stop, you know...

GROSS: Did your father love you doing that?

Mr. WEBB: No, he didn't and because one of the precepts of the Baptist Church, Terry, is that we do not believe in dancing. The Southern Baptist Church does not believe in dancing. In fact, Glen Campbell told me a story once. He said Jimmy, he says, you know why Baptists don't make love standing up, don't you? And I said no, how come? And he says because they're afraid people will think they're dancing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBB: That's kind of a typical Glen Campbell story. I think it's a pretty good one.

GROSS: The year your mother died, your father moved back to Oklahoma. Did he want you didn't. You stayed in California. Did your father want you to go with him?

Mr. WEBB: He sure did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBB: I remember we were standing in San Bernardino, California, in the parking lot of the Palm Paradise, Paradise Palm Motel. And my dad had the car parked, and my sisters and my brothers were in the car. And I was standing there, and I said: Dad, I'm not going.

I said: There's no way in the world that I'm going back to Oklahoma after coming all this way and being this close to Hollywood. I just have to try it. I have to try it.

He said son, he said, this songwriting thing, he said it's just going to break your heart. And P.S., he was right about that more than once, but he said but and he dug down in his pocket, and he came up with $40. He said son, he says this is all I've got, but he says it's yours. And he gave me 40 bucks, and he got in his caravan, his little trailer-truck thing, and off he went.

And that was a lonely, very isolated moment in time, standing there in a parking lot with these neon lights blinking, these kind of electronic palm trees blinking on and off over my head, going now what have I done? How am I going to handle this?

GROSS: You started writing hit songs at an interesting time in the history of radio. You know, we're talking about the latter part of the 1960s. So it's a time when you still have pop music on AM, and you have the beginnings of, you know, quote, progressive rock on the FM, and...

Mr. WEBB: Underground, we used to call it.

GROSS: Underground, yeah. So your songs were falling a bit on both, weren't they?

Mr. WEBB: I was very fortunate that way. If it hadn't been for FM, quote, underground, unquote, radio, "MacArthur Park" would have never been broken as a single because Top 40 was not going to play "MacArthur Park."

It was seven minutes and 20 seconds long - parentheses, and "Hey Jude," is seven minutes 21 seconds long. I'm sure that's just a coincidence. But "MacArthur Park" would never have broken on Top 40.

In fact, I remember Ron Jacobs calling me from KHJ in Los Angeles and saying: We'll go on "MacArthur Park," but you have to edit it for us. And I just, no, I'm not going to do that. And they said: Well, you realize what you're doing? I mean, you're throwing away a hit record.

And I said, well, I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to edit it because that's what it is. And a week later they were on it. And as soon as stations like KHJ started playing "MacArthur Park" in its entirety, forget it. It rolled across the country. It was inescapable.

GROSS: "MacArthur Park" and "Stairway to Heaven" are two of the most, like, baffling lyrics in the history of pop songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So let's go over the lyric a little bit. You know, MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing melting down.

Mr. WEBB: Flowing down.

GROSS: Flowing down, excuse me. Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can make it, but it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have the recipe again.

Mr. WEBB: I don't think that I can take because it took so long to bake it. Anyway, you can freely substitute. I don't really think it matters that much.

GROSS: What were you thinking about when you wrote this? What is it?

Mr. WEBB: Well, I was thinking about the end of a love affair, you know, in very lurid, sort of melodramatic terms because I this whole love affair had taken place in and about the environs of MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, which in those days was this kind of lovely little park with ducks and things.

Now, it's like I don't know what it is. I think it's even smaller. I think they've chopped it down into a smaller piece of real estate. But there were boats there, and it passed for a romantic place when one was a teenager.

And so really, I make no defense of the lyrics in "MacArthur Park." They were written in a hallucinogenic era when actually, such lyrics are quite common, and most of them need to be defended. It was an era of that kind of thing.

GROSS: So you're using the psychedelic defense?

Mr. WEBB: Well, it's not even a defense. Again, I stand by "MacArthur Park." I think that it's completely unique, and it is a very viable attempt to coalesce rock and classical music and sort of format something for the radio that has movements, that has a kind of grandiose, symphonic feeling to it. I'm really not and I did the arrangement myself. I won a Grammy for it. So, I mean, I don't think there's anything to defend really. It was just part of a lot of kind of careless lyric writing.

GROSS: It's interesting. You know, it does have this kind of like trippy lyric about the cake melting in the rain and everything. And, you know, Richard Harris had the hit, and he, you know, I don't think he struck anybody as being particularly of, you know, like, the groovy psychedelic era. So it was kind of odd matching in a way.

Mr. WEBB: Well, he thought he was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Judging from I'm looking at the album jacket of the CD reissue, and I don't know if this is the same thing that was on the album, but there's a picture of him in the park. I don't know if it's the park, wearing, like, a black robe.

Mr. WEBB: Looking very sullen.

GROSS: Yes. He's in this kind of throne with a red headband tied around his forehead.

Mr. WEBB: Yeah, he saw himself that way, too. He always saw himself on a throne. In fact, he ended his career playing kings. He played "Caesar," and then in Harry Potter, he sort of, he was playing sort of the king of the magicians. But he was a king, and I to me, even though I think I could say without fear of contradiction that this much maligned song, "MacArthur Park," has been recorded probably 200 or 300 times by everybody from The Four Tops to Frank Sinatra.

But my favorite version of it is still Richard Harris'.

GROSS: Did he want to ask you anything about the song before he actually recorded it?

Mr. WEBB: No. You know what he said? He said: I'll have that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He's talking about striped pants in the lyrics, and he says strip-ed. Did you want him to say strip-ed?

Mr. WEBB: Actually, I can give you something much better than that. The name of the song is "MacArthur Park." All the way through, he sung MacArthur's Park:

Mr. WEBB: (Singing) MacArthur's Park is melting in the rain...

Mr. WEBB: He sang MacArthur's Park, and he couldn't be dissuaded from that. And, you know, I've had artists change my lyrics throughout my whole career in that way, and sometimes they get something in their head, and you can't get it out.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Richard Harris' version of your song "MacArthur Park."

Mr. WEBB: Oh, let's do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "MacArthur Park")

Mr. RICHARD HARRIS (Actor, Singer): (Singing) Spring was never waiting for us, girl, it ran one step ahead as we followed in the dance between the parted pages and were pressed in love's hot, fevered iron Like a striped pair of pants.

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can take it 'cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again, oh, no.

I recall the yellow cotton dress foaming like a wave on the ground around...

GROSS: That's Richard Harris' recording of "MacArthur Park," a song written by my guest, Jimmy Webb. What did you think when Donna Summer had her hit disco version of "MacArthur Park"?

Mr. WEBB: Well, first of all, I'm not I was not a great disco fan, but I am a great Donna Summer fan, and she's got these great pipes, and she really sang the song.

It was also, just from a purely financial point of view, it was and this is probably one of those asterisk quotes at the bottom of my career somewhere it was the only number one record I've ever had in the United States.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. WEBB: And I remember yes because everything else, you know, through my heyday, I was battling The Beatles, and The Beatles quite often held down the top three spots, sometimes the top five.

"MacArthur Park" was kept out of number one by a Beatles record. I don't remember which one it was, but they just sat there. They just sat there for 16 weeks and kept us out of number one. So "MacArthur Park" was never higher than two with a bullet, with Richard Harris.

And a lot of those records were stuck either in the top 10 or the low teens or the high teens because The Beatles held down so many slots. And here it was, finally my first number one record.

GROSS: Do you see yourself as straddling different eras, you know, of having, like one foot in the rock era and one foot in the popular song era?

Mr. WEBB: Oh, I think it's inescapable. I think it's absolutely true, and in many ways, I've been fortunate because of that because I've had a breadth of experience, and the artists that I was conversant with, and the fact that Johnny Mercer would call me up and ask me if I was interested in writing a song with him is quite incredible when you place it alongside, for instance, the fact that Lowell George, who founded Little Feat, recorded one of my songs on his solo album and that I played piano on "Jump Into the Fire" on "Nilsson Schmilsson" and that I that my first song was recorded by The Supremes. It was a Christmas song called "My Christmas Tree."

And so I've been almost extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to live in those two worlds and to intimately embrace those two worlds, to have been at the recording session in London when The Beatles recorded "Honey Pie," to have been sitting there watching them play.

So it is it's really if variety is the spice of life, then, you know, my life has been well-seasoned.

GROSS: Jimmy Webb, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WEBB: It's been a long-time dream of mine to talk to you, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBB: I'm honored to hear you say that. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "MacArthur Park")

Ms. DONNA SUMMER (Singer): (Singing) MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can take it 'cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again, oh, no.

DAVIES: That's Donna Summer's 1978 recording of Jimmy Webb's song "MacArthur Park." It was her first number one single. Jimmy Webb spoke with Terry Gross in 2004. He has a new album of duets he's recorded with some of the artists he's written for over the years. It's called "Just Across the River." You can hear three tracks from his new CD at our website, freshair.npr.org.

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