- - Sunday, April 17, 2016

Jimmy Webb is America’s greatest living songwriter. In his five-decade-plus career he has been awarded every major award a songwriter can get, including three Grammys. Mr. Webb doesn’t just write songs, he crafts musical moments that become cultural touchstones ingrained into our collective consciousness. “Up, Up and Away,” “The Highwayman” and “MacArthur Park” are complex stories of beauty and sadness wrapped in beautiful melodies that became a part of the soundtrack of our lives.

And then there are the hits Mr. Webb crafted with his greatest collaborator and interpreter, Glen Campbell. That lifelong partnership serves as the inspiration for Mr. Webb’s latest tour, entitled “The Glenn Campbell Years.” The show, which plays The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Thursday and Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, April 24, is a multimedia evening of stylish piano ballads and storytelling. Mr. Webb reflects on his lengthy career, the magic of Mr. Campbell and what he thinks of Kanye West sampling his music.

Question: Is it true that Glen Campbell recorded and had a hit with one of your songs before you met?

Answer: I had moved from San Bernadino, California, to Los Angeles. My mother had passed away. My father went back to Oklahoma, took all my siblings. I stayed. I was a stubborn, headstrong kid.

I went to work at Motown Records in their West Coast office. I say I went to the best college in the world for songwriters and producers, and it didn’t cost me a dime. They were so sweet to me. They paid me a little money every time I wrote a song. I ended up writing about 45 songs over there. The guy who brought me in had a disagreement with Berry Gordy and he resigned. At the same time someone there said, “You’re probably gonna be moving along too.”

They took about a dozen of the songs I wrote and said, “Here, just take these. We’re never gonna use them.” One of them was “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” My next stop was at Johnny Rivers’ music company, where my old boss had gone. I met Johnny Rivers, and the first song of mine he liked was “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He cut it.

Johnny Rivers was a very important guy in my life. He called Glen’s producer and said, “I’ve got a hit for Glen.” Johnny had known Glen for years. He played his version of the song for him. He said, “I don’t get it. Why are you giving us this song?” He said, “I’m trying to help my writer.” Glen cut “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and within three weeks it was on the charts.

Q: What do you remember about the first time you met Glen?

A: We still don’t know each other. Our record climbs up the charts. We all went to the Grammys. Glen won one; I won one for song of the year for The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” I guess we must have met that night and shook hands.

I don’t remember seeing him until we were doing this General Motors commercial. He was sitting there fiddling with his amplifier, picking at his tuning pins. All of that was really just an excuse not to say hello to me. I was standing right in front of him with long John Lennon hair and a funky Yak vest. I was so unlike what he wanted to see. Finally I said, “Mr. Campbell, I’m Jim Webb.” And I stuck out my hand. He had to look up at me, and he said, “When you gonna get a haircut?”

Q: What made him the perfect singer for your songs?

A: He had this wonderful five-octave range. It was very usual among singers. It was his range that really didn’t have a break. He didn’t get any weaker in falsetto, he got stronger.

Q: Did you ever write the songs together?

A: We may have touched on collaboration a couple of times. He certainly made changes to my songs while he was working on them. He was very impulsive. “Why don’t we do this? Try this.” Most of his ideas made a crazy good sense. At least on the second hearing. We never sat down and wrote songs together. I’ve hardly ever done that in my life with anyone.

Q: What are your favorite songs from “The Glen Campbell Years”?

A: I have to say “Wichita Lineman” is one of my favorite records of all time. Period. When I’m asked about the favorites of songs I wrote for Glen, I come up with songs that are way, way off the beaten path, like “Where I Am Going.” One of the songs we did on our “Reunion” album called “Light Years.” “Postcard From Paris,” which Glen and I recorded together in 2013. That was pretty much the last hurrah. It came out lovely.

Q: Are you still able to visit Glen?

A: I’m still able to visit. When I go down there in a week and a half I’ll visit him. He’s very much aware that you’re there. He loves that you’re visiting. He’s very sweet and happy and upbeat most of the time. We would just maybe hold hands and I would talk to him about stuff, tell him stories, remind him of stuff.

The point is to make the visit and let him know that people are still thinking of him, oving him.

Q: Are there any current singers that you would like to write songs for?

A: It’s something that I don’t give a lot of thought to. I’m on the top record in the country. One of my songs has been sampled into a song called “Famous” by Kanye West. I hear Rihanna singing some lines I wrote many years ago from a song called “Do What You Gotta Do.” She sings beautifully.

If I were to meet her I would say, “Hey, I’m the guy who wrote that line. Would you like to hear one of my songs?” I would approach her the same way I approached a singer 50 years ago. I would say, “I think I have a couple good songs for you. Would you like to hear them?”

I think I still have songs to contribute to people like Adele if she didn’t write all her own material. Or Taylor Swift. I’d like to help write some of her songs.

Q: What is the one song you wish you had written?

A: One song? More likely be a bushel basket full. [laughs] I wouldn’t have minded writing “Blackbird.” And I guess there is no songwriter that doesn’t wish they had written “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Jimmy Webb plays with Karla Bonoff at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Thursday and Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, April 24.


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