On Sunday 11 September 2016 I went to the fabulous surroundings of Cadogan Hall to see multi Grammy award winner Jimmy Webb – one of the most consistent and amazing songwriters of all time – who has topped the charts with hits across genres for the last five decades – pop, country and disco. Webb is relatively unknown to many, by name, but instantly recognisable through his partnership with Glen Campbell.
I was brought up listening to the songs of Glen Campbell, whom my dad often played on the radiogram (along with Tom Jones), and I have many of his albums! I also have several of Jimmy’s albums and have a wide appreciation of his repertoire and so this evening, a celebration of his songs with Campbell, was something I’d been looking forward to for quite some time – I couldn’t get tickets when he was here last year.
For nearly two hours, intentionally or not, Webb revealed himself through sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and always entertaining stories. After an introduction featuring Webb’s own version of Galveston, as it was originally written, rather than the “Piece of commercially viable material” it became under Campbell, the 70-year-old went right back to his musical roots, taking the audience on a journey through his life from growing up as a country boy in 1950’s rural Oklahoma to the day when, aged 14, he heard Glen Campbell’s ‘Turn Around, Look at Me’ on the radio and begged his father for a dollar and drove 22 miles to buy the record.
When he started writing songs, the teenage Webb prayed “To write a song as good as that and meet someone like Glen Campbell who can sing it.” He believes it was a “miracle” that within four years Campbell won a Grammy for his performance of Webb’s own ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ before he had even met the man himself – Webb played this as a duet with a video backing track featuring Campbell.
It was interesting to learn that Webb’s father was a Baptist Pastor and that he learnt his trade by playing in church every Sunday from a young age. They moved to California when he was 17, but his dad decided to move back to Oklahoma when his mother died. One of the songs Webb composed during that period was ‘Honey Come Back’ a song that Campbell covered to great success.
After being rejected by almost every record label, Webb found a home at Motown and then transferred to Soul City Records.
Keen to get the audience to understand the full scope of Campbell’s talent, Webb went into great detail about his achievement as a member of the legendary ‘Wrecking Crew’ that played on dozens of hit records in the second part of the sixties. Another on screen duet on ‘Wichita Lineman’ that Webb wrote at Campbell’s insistence (he wanted a follow-up town song to ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’) proved another highlight.
Webb performed his classics at a grand piano, and his voice couldn’t quite reach the highest notes, but that didn’t matter, his DNA is in all those songs. Webb told how a radio station in his home county threatened to stop playing the Fifth Dimension hit he wrote ‘Up, Up and Away’ thinking it was about drugs not balloons. Only when Webb’s father – a former US Marine turned Baptist Minister – marched on the building clutching “a .45 and a Bible” did they have a change of heart.
Another moving moment came when Webb talked about Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. He revealed that during Campbell’s farewell world tour in 2012 – knowing that he had Alzheimer’s and dependent on an auto-cue – the legendary country star accidentally sang Wichita Lineman twice whilst performing in Sydney and the crowd shouted “Sing it again!” (the Documentary about Glen’s last tour ‘I’ll Be Me’ is worth checking out on Sky Arts).
As the Seventies wore on, the two men’s fortunes were on the wane, but Webb concluded that he had been very fortunate that Campbell had so much faith in his material (the great man recorded more than eighty Webb compositions over the years). After another duet on ‘Postcard From Paris’ that Campbell recorded on his last studio album ‘See You There’ was followed by one of Webb’s most famous (and most hated as the man himself remembered) tracks ‘MacArthur Park’. One of Campbell’s favourite Webb songs, it usually enabled him to display his virtuoso guitar skills that we were able to witness thanks to a clip from the eighties cleverly inserted in the song by Webb. After a standing ovation, an emotional rendition of ‘Time Flies’ concluded the show while pictures of Webb and Campbell played in the background.
The Glen Campbell tribute was only organised by Webb because Glen, now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, is no longer able to perform. Webb wanted to highlight his belief that Glen is one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Few would argue with that accolade.