Getting Webb Savvy

Legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb brings his “Songs and Stories” tour back to the NY metro area on March 24 at City Winery in Manhattan.

Webb has topped the country, disco and pop music charts with a list of artists astounding in its diversity (“MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Up, Up, and Away” among his many iconic songs) and remains a trailblazer among songwriters 50 years after his first hit. To say that Webb is one of the last of a breed would imply that there is or ever was anyone quite like him. He is the only artist ever to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration. His book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, in addition to being a good read, is considered a “bible” among musicians.

Now in his sixties, Webb looks back on his days as a Midwestern teen navigating fame and fortune in Los Angeles with vignettes of a music industry coming of age, enhancing his virtuoso performance of iconic tunes with riveting tales of the inspiration behind some of pop music’s biggest songs and singers, and a humorous tour into the days and nights of a songwriting prodigy. Getting to know the man behind such generational touchstones as “Worst That Could Happen” or “The Highwayman” in concert is also a lesson in pop culture, an insider perspective on the Nixon Sixties, the Rat Pack heyday, the London Mods, Laurel Canyon and more, told by a charming yarn spinner who hasn’t lost sight of his roots despite decades of international fame. More than a concert, an evening with Jimmy Webb in performance is a master class you can sing along with.

A master class you can sing along with. Image: Bob-Barry

The more research I did into the man and his career, the number of questions increased exponentially to the point of near-absurdity: Jimmy Webb’s songs are woven into the fabric of our collective unconscious 50 years deep, so to speak, and the artists whose paths he has crossed reads like a Who’s Who of the music industry. How does one begin a conversation with such an individual—especially given a pre-set limit of 15 minutes? As it turned out, we spoke for closer to a half hour. Webb’s thoughts, opinions, and anecdotes were a marvel to listen to.

Here’s some of what Webb had to say during our conversation:

“I lived the whole California thing to the hilt. You know, the ‘California Dream’ was no dream! I really lived it; it was almost like a storybook.”

“On Christmas Eve, there was always a caroling party that came to my front door where I lived. The carolers were James (Taylor), Linda (Ronstadt), Peter Asher, Joni Mitchell, (and) sometimes Jackson Browne; it would be a slightly different group every year, but there they would be at the front door, singing, ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ … it was bizarre!”

bob barry
Image: Bob Barry

“I really enjoy the contact with the audience. I always go out and see them after, and they always have stories they want to tell. It’s very important for them to tell their stories, and I love to hear them speak on how their lives were changed or how they interacted with certain songs.”

“I have a huge audience out there with people who are no longer young. And so I want to write music for them and for the way things have turned out for them. I don’t think that the muse stops speaking to you when you reach a certain age.”

“I can’t be relevant to some 18-year old in San Bernadino, California; I don’t see how that’s possible. I can be relevant to my peers. That’s what I want to do!”

For the entire conversation, please visit Island Zone Update.

roy abrams

roy abrams

Currently living in Kings Park with his wife and stepson, Roy Abrams is an educator, musician, and writer. He created and hosted the popular Island Zone radio show in the late '90s and was a contributor to Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young), the authorized biography (Gopher Publishers, 2002).