“Tunesmith, tunesmith, sing me a song, give me your laughter, give me your tears ...”
It is part of the chorus to “Tunesmith,” a song first heard on rocker Johnny Rivers’ 1967 "Rewind" album, but still a simple and evocative portrait of the songwriter’s life. It is even more remarkable when you realize the guy who wrote it was all of 21 years old, but his songs have always touched hearts.
“What am I doing out on the road?” Webb was saying through laughter, by phone from his upstate New York home. “I’m carrying my own stuff, it’s just me and my wife, and road manager, and I’m 76! But hearing stories from fans, what these songs have meant to them, rejuvenates me. I love my small-venue shows because I like that degree of intimacy, and treasure the chance to play for real people I can see. I can feel the room; it’s a visceral thing. Sometimes we see people in tears, hearing these songs. And I like to hang out afterwards for the meet-and-greets, and listen to their stories of what these songs have meant to them.”
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Webb is quite possibly the most acclaimed American songwriter of the last 100 years. He’s still the only person to win Grammys for music, lyrics and orchestration. He won a Grammy for the Fifth Dimension’s breakthrough mega-hit “Up Up and Away” from 1967, and then was awarded another in ’86 when "The Highwayman" was cited as best country song.
Webb might be best known for his ties with Glen Campbell, for whom he penned the hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman.” He wrote the famously dramatic “MacArthur Park,” a seven-minute ballad about lost love sung by actor Richard Harris.
Over the years, his work has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt to Isaac Hayes, The Supremes, The Fifth Dimension and crooners from Tony Bennett to Josh Groban.
The native of Elk City, Oklahoma, was elected to the Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in ’90, and given a National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award in ’93. Since 1999, he’s been on the ASCAP board of directors, and he won an Ivor Novello International Award in 2012 and a Songbook Award from the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame in 2013. The Songwriters Hall of Fame gave him their Johnny Mercer Award in 2003.
If anyone could rest on their laurels, Jimmy Webb could. But over the years he’s also pursued his own musical career, recording 14 solo albums. It's worth noting that there are seven different albums out by various collections of artists paying tribute to Webb’s work. In 2017 the songsmith released “The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir,” his autobiography.
I was always a Johnny Rivers fan because the rocker, noted as the late-1960s house band at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, had a great ear for songs. The album with "Tunesmith" also had Rivers’ version of Smokey Robinson’s "Tracks of My Tears," which became an even bigger hit for Rivers. Webb was just an unknown kid with big dreams and a bunch of songs when he met Rivers.
“I first became involved with Johnny Rivers with his ‘Rewind’ album, and I wrote a lot of the songs on it,” Webb explained. “It was somewhat inspired by Johnny’s ‘Changes’ album, which had the hit ‘Poor Side of Town’ — to my mind the perfect pop song.
Johnny was a tremendous influence on my career. He put me in touch with the Fifth Dimension. He heard my ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ and told Glen Campbell he should record it. Why didn’t Johnny do it himself, Glen asked, and he replied, ‘You can only have one No. 1 record at a time.’ He was old friends with Glen Campbell, and Glen hadn’t had a big hit before that. Johnny is a good man, and unlike many people in the music business, he was not just about the money. He got me my all-important connection to Glen.”
Rivers helped steer Webb to the Fifth Dimension and their eventual deal with Soul City Records. The glistening vocals of the group and their upbeat songs quickly topped the charts.
“We were recording with ‘The Wrecking Crew,’ so we couldn’t lose,” Webb chuckled, referring to the iconic studio musicians who were on so many hits in those days. “They had been going in and ghosting tracks for some bands who were supposed to be musicians — like The Monkees — but they had also done lots of work for everyone else. Glen Campbell is on a lot of (Beach Boys album) ‘Pet Sounds,’ and things like The Mamas and Papas. Occasionally they had ‘serious’ date for Mr. Sinatra, and they played on all kinds of commercials. They didn’t become as famous as some musicians did, but they were making very good money. Drummer Hal Blaine was their leader, and once they found out I was a piano player they mentored me in the studio. It was quite a heady whirlwind for a kid who, just a couple years before, had been sitting on a tractor in the Oklahoma panhandle.”
Covers: Sinatra to Ike to Donna Summer to Weird Al
Perhaps no songwriter has had more of his work covered by various artists than Webb. How does he feel about some of those covers, like the 19-minute, soul version of ‘Phoenix’ that launched Isaac Hayes’ singing career, with its long rap/spoken word intro?
“You mean where Isaac takes up a whole side of his ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ album with that song alone?” said Webb. “It goes on for like 11 or 12 minutes before he starts singing, and it is seen as a precursor to rap. I was always very pleased with that version, where he adds this whole story of a girl and his infidelity. But I like all kinds of music and I love jazz.”
“One of the joys of being a songwriter is seeing what happens to your work,” Webb added. “MacArthur Park’ has been recorded by 500 different artists, from Mr. Sinatra to Weird Al. I especially liked Donna Summer’s disco version, which was my first No. 1 record, in 1978. My songs were usually top 20, maybe top 10, but The Beatles dominated the charts so much in the late 1960s/early ‘70s it was pretty hard to get a No.1. Donna Summer was one of the greatest singers I ever worked with. Her version was full-on disco, and I never had much use for disco, but I concentrated on her voice and she was incredible.”
Webb does about 50 concerts a year. His area shows will include a sampling of work from all the eras of his career. He also does another kind of show, as he’ll be doing in Nashville on April 22, devoted to "The Glen Campbell Years."
“That is a multimedia thing I do, which is an unabashed tribute to Glen and our friendship,” said Webb. “We wanted to create country-pop crossover records, and I believe Glen’s hits paved the way for people like Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie to also find success doing country-flavored pop records. Actually my favorite style is classical, so I go to Maine for a month every year, and just listen to classical music.”
Sticking up for songwriters
Webb has now been on the board at ASCAP for 25 years, a period when digital music has transformed the industry, and songwriters with streaming numbers in the hundreds of thousands get royalty checks for 30 cents.
“With Napster and other sharing peer-to-peer networks, there were no ‘mechanicals,’ albums, CDs or singles to get songwriters paid,” Webb noted. “We bobbled the ball and have spent the last 25 years catching up. We at ASCAP track down radio and TV performances and have been modernizing the way we track stuff like streaming, which gets a lot of use of the music for very little — minuscule amounts. ASCAP is a nonprofit, and we will distribute over a billion dollars in royalties to songwriters. It is a constant battle, as the digital stuff keeps getting more sophisticated, and it’s a massive-scale operation, but it is what we have to do.”
Hull benefits at The C-Note
The late Michael Weddle was a serious music fan with a big heart, so he organized countless benefit concerts. This weekend, to salute his memory, The C-Note features a weekend of benefits, with all proceeds going to one of Weddle’s favorite causes, music programs at Hull High School. At 7 p.m. Friday, it’ll be a showcase for young bands from the area, topped by Eye Socket — a great chance to see what the local kids are up to musically. Tickets are $10. Saturday features a lineup of bands that played at Boston’s legendary punk and garage rock mecca, The Rat, so the seaside joint ought to be jumping, beginning at 2 p.m., with a bill featuring Count Viglione, Tsunami of Sound and a Johnny Thunders tribute jam. Tickets are $20.
Upcoming gigs: Tommy Castro, Marcia Ball, Tinsley Ellis
THURSDAY: Decades of Boston rock history onstage when Rick Berlin brings three of his bands, the 1970s Berlin Airlift, ‘80s Orchestra Luna, and present-day Fiver and Dimers to Brighton Music Hall. Caroline Rose sings at Royale. Professor Caffeine jams at Soundcheck Studios. Americana siren Florence Dore at City Winery’s Haymarket Lounge (Jimmy Webb in the main room). British R&B star Ella Mai at The House of Blues. Don’t forget Tommy Castro tearing it up at The Spire Center.
FRIDAY: Terrific bill of Acoustic Songs and Stories when Marcia Ball and Tinsley Ellis take over City Winery. Laura Stevenson rocks at The Sinclair. Scullers Jazz Club features New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley’s Quartet. Club d’Elf with Lyle Brewer jams at Soundcheck Studios.
SATURDAY: Folk singer Liz Longley at The Narrows Center. Ripe gets down at MGM Music Hall. Jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy at Roadrunner. Anne Hampton Callaway sings a night of Peggy Lee songs at Scullers. Australian slide guitarist Harper is a fiery bluesman at The Spire Center. Rootsy songsmith Chris Knight at City Winery. Mighty Mystic’s reggae fire at Brighton Music Hall. The Olde Brigade Celtic fare at The Next Page. Rory & the Blues Hounds at Nickanee’s. Wilder Woods — the solo moniker for Bear Rinehart, singer from the rock band Needtobreathe — at The Sinclair. Sleaford Mods, Brit punk duo, at The Paradise Rock Club. Booty Vortex and their disco inferno have sold out their show at Soundcheck Studios.
SUNDAY: Sicilian singer/songwriter Sissy Castragiovanni debuts at City Winery, while riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill shake up Roadrunner, and Seattle rockers The Home Team arrive at Brighton Music Hall.
MONDAY: Balladeer Lewis Capaldi breaks hearts at MGM Music Hall.
TUESDAY: Songsmiths from the north, when Vermont’s Henry Jamison and Canada’s Donovan Woods bring their tour to Brighton Music Hall.
WEDNESDAY: Marc Broussard’s bayou soul at The Narrows Center.
APRIL 15: Catch roots icon Joe Henry at The Spire Center.
APRIL 16: Joe Perry’s Project returns to The House of Blues.
See Jimmy Webb
8 p.m. April 6 at City Winery, 80 Beverly St., Boston, with Pete Mancini opening; $35-$55, 617-933-8047 or citywinery.com/boston.
8 p.m. April 7 at The Narrows Center, 16 Anawan St., Fall River, with Pete Mancini opening. $45 in advance, $48 day of show; 508-324-1926 or narrowscenter.org.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Grammy winner Jimmy Webb comes to City Winery and Narrows Center