Jimmy Webb doesn't sound on the phone like someone who wrote five modern classic songs in a 20-month period starting in early 1966 when, as a 19-year-old, he penned "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Following in quick succession were "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension, "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" for Glen Campbell and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris. Like Burt Bacharach, the young Webb had a talent for idiosyncratic melodies and surprising rhythms that connected with the masses. But Webb also wrote lyrics that touched on universal emotions.
A classical music buff first, he's the only artist to have received Grammy Awards for not just music and lyrics but also orchestration. And yet Webb comes off like the humble son of a preacher from Elk City, Okla., whose simple songwriting goal was to get Campbell (whose 1961 album "Turn Around, Look at Me" was the first one he owned) to record one of his songs. The Stephen Foster of his time, Webb talks about how lucky it was when a recent appearance on the David Letterman show was repeated on Labor Day, when there wasn't much late-night competition.
From his home in New York, Webb has followed the Cactus Cafe drama closely and even offered to play for free if that would help keep the club alive. "I was pretty upset when I heard it was closing," says Webb, who'll play a solo piano set at the 150-capacity listening room Saturday. "We're losing places like that, where a new generation of artists can develop their craft. So it was great to see the community rally behind the Cactus. It's one of my favorite places to play."
Webb certainly doesn't tour because he needs the money; write one hit like "Phoenix," which BMI rates as the third most-played song on radio the past 50 years, and you're set for life. But he has a new record of duets that he's proud of, and so he's out promoting it. "The music business has changed dramatically," he says. "I'm back to being a troubadour."
New CD "Just Across the River" has some high-profile guests, including Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne and Vince Gill. But Webb says the roster was put together strictly by the connection the co-stars have with the material. Browne, for instance, has long called "P.F. Sloan" one of his favorite songs. Other pairings of tunes and musicians were also obvious. "Billy Joel plays `Wichita Lineman' every time he plays Wichita, and Vince Gill is a fellow Okie, so `Oklahoma Nights' was a natural," Webb says. But the songwriter says he was also pleasantly surprised with what guests brought to the well-worn material. "Lucinda Williams completely changed `Galveston' into a song about two real people," he said. Indeed, that duet is a highlight.
Although raised an only child in a deeply religious family, Webb says he strayed at times as a young adult who was suddenly worth millions. "I was raised on these core values, but I got off the road a couple of times. I got my tires in the mud, and I'm not proud of it."
In 1996, Webb and his wife, former model Patsy Sullivan (the daughter of actor Barry), divorced after more than 20 years of marriage. Three of the couple's five sons formed the Webb Brothers group, who recorded an album with their father last year.
Webb says that during his life's journey he always came back to something his father told him, that "what's most important in your life is your relationship with God." It's the truest thing his father ever said, Webb says.
"When I look back at the songs I've written, I know that it hasn't just been me; I've had a silent collaborator. During that 20-month period, I wasn't even in control of that. I'd come up with a freakish chord progression and I'd think `How did I do that?' Well, I had a lot of help."