Jimmy Webb is, without a doubt, a songwriter of some high ability – even if he’s not best known for what are his most interesting compositions. His reputation in the UK has been burnished in recent years by appearances on “Later…” and “Songwriters Circle” where he has been able to mix songs with some autobiography – a bit like the programme for this evening of Jimmy Webb & Glen Campbell. So it came as something of surprise to find myself one of the younger members of the audience – I can only presume it was the Glen Campbell connection that had brought out the majority of the audience for this near sold out performance.
To be able to stroll on stage and start off with Galveston shows the stature of the man – this multi-million seller isn’t even his top song, so he can get the ball rolling with it confident that there’s more and better to come. Jimmy Webb’s version of Galveston is a thoughtful anti-war song – he briefly contrasts this with Glen Campbell’s version on the audio-visual display projected behind him, noting that Glen mad it into a more bombastic song of patriotic endeavour. It wasn’t what Webb intended but as he drolly acknowledges he didn’t send the royalty cheques back either. There’s as much talking as singing through the two hours of this evening with Jimmy Webb. As he jokes about his childhood, son of a farming Baptist minister and a mother who in a very modern way made contracts with her child “if I practised the piano for an hour every day”, Webb dryly recounts, “She wouldn’t hit me with a stick”. There’s a lot of affection and a heap of sadness in these recollections as he recounts how, five months after his father got the dream promotion to a city ministry Webb’s mother died leaving several children behind. Webb, only 17 years old, broke out on his own and fulfilled his cherished ambition of writing a song for Glen Campbell – an artist he’d revered for years. Although Jimmy Webb describes what has almost been a charmed life there’s this well of sadness at an early age that has also surely shaped his writing.
Along the way there are a series of superb songs delivered from the piano – and this does serve to highlight how, because he often wrote with others in mind, Jimmy Webb routinely writes songs that are barely within his vocal range. Wichita Linesman‘s final line stretches this to the limit as he gives his all to hit those high notes, head thrown back the effort is palpable. He generously contrasts this with Campbell’s effortless reach, an incredibly rare gift that Campbell used unthinkingly to slide to his upper register because he knew it would always happen. Side tracks from the main subject cover the 5th Dimension‘s world conquering success with Webb’s perfect pop ditty Up, up and away which, emphatically, was not about drugs! There’s something of a hint that MacArthur Park may have had a double meaning – Webb jokingly complaining that he has taken a lot of flak for this whilst Strawberry Fields gets a free pass. Credibility and acknowledgement is clearly an issue that rankles – and his own baroque rendition of the song goes some way to demonstrate that there’s more here than a throwaway pop song. A debt of gratitude to Glen Campbell was acknowledged for his part in finding, despite wanting to record it himself, the ideal vehicle for Highwayman: Johnny, Willy, Waylon and Kris “added twenty years to my career” Webb says with some feeling. It’s an odd thing, though, that this manifesto for reincarnation should have become such a mainstream hit.
This though was mostly a warm and entertaining look at Webb and Campbell’s intertwined careers – a successful musical partnership and a long friendship despite the one being “always a bit lefty-left whilst he was righty-right” in outlook. Webb would write an anti-war song, Campbell would make it a patriotic anthem and it would sell by the million. Popular success allowed for more thoughtful and highbrow songs such as The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress to also make their way into the world. There’s a genuine sadness that he curtain was brought down on this relationship by Campbell’s development of Alzheimer’s, coupled with a deep affection for what the pair did achieve over the years. For the audience a rich evening of anecdote and song, doubly rewarding for being presented in a relatively small room with all the added intimacy that gives. The standing ovation was a richly deserved thanks not just for tonight but for fifty years of songwriting.