Tunesmith Jerry Webb recounts career of hit songs, famous friends

Jimmy Webb, the legendary songwriter behind such hits as 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' and 'Wichita Lineman,' performs Saturday at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center.

Photo by Handout

Jimmy Webb, the legendary songwriter behind such hits as "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman," performs Saturday at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center.

Jimmy Webb

8 p.m. Saturday at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, 3663 Appling. Tickets: $20, available by phone at 901-385-6440. For more information, visit bpacc.org.

Jimmy Webb, who performs Saturday night at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, gets nostalgic when discussing his latest release, the CD/DVD package In Session …, which comprises a 1983 Canadian TV performance that teamed the award-winning songwriter with his greatest muse, Glen Campbell.

"I'm very proud of it," he says of the recording, which features the pair playing some of the hits they had together in the '60s and '70s, including "Galveston," "MacArthur Park," "Wichita Lineman" and "Light Years," a personal favorite of Webb's that he calls "one of the best things Glen and I ever did." "He and I are probably in our prime on that recording. We're both wearing a couple of rhinestone cowboy outfits."

The recollection is bittersweet for Webb, who like millions of fans around the world has had to watch Campbell, one of the finest voices and guitarists of his generation, ride off into the sunset this year on a farewell tour precipitated by his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease.

"Glen has behaved heroically over the course of this disease," Webb says of his longtime collaborator with whom he last performed at a tearful tribute last fall in Nashville. "We put on the show of our lives that night. The show was literally the talk of the town for days. You live to do a show like that."

Webb, the only artist in history to receive Grammy Awards for lyrics, music and orchestration, has had to say goodbye to too many friends in the music business lately, including Jerry Leiber, Nick Ashford, Phoebe Snow, Hal David, — his successor as chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame — and Memphis' Isaac Hayes, who caught the songwriter off guard when he recorded an epic 19-minute version of Webb's Grammy-winning "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" on his classic 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul.

The losses have made Webb — 66 years old and already reflective as he collects late-career honors like the hall-of-fame chairmanship and the Ivor Novello Special International Award, which he received earlier this year from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors — think even more about past and his place in it as well as the future he leaves behind for other songwriters.

In recent years, he has devoted an increasing amount of time to setting the right conditions for the next generation of tunesmiths, from advocating for artist rights in the digital age to recording an album — 2009's Cottonwood Farm — with his sons' band, The Webb Brothers, to simply inspiring others with stories from his nearly 50 years in the music business.

"It's been an exciting, interesting life, and it's kind of time to talk about it, and people are in the mood to listen," says Webb, who, in the solo piano shows like the one he'll present here, can be expected to share stories of the many music legends he's encountered over the years, including the Beatles and Joni Mitchell and the rest of the Laurel Canyon scene.

"I try to keep a balance," he says. "Sometimes I kind of have to slap myself in the face and say, 'OK, that's enough talking for tonight.' I try to limit myself to one Waylon Jennings story, one Richard Harris story, and one Sinatra story. It's very easy for me to find myself up there after a couple of hours and wonder why no one has left."

Webb was born in Oklahoma, and the family moved to California when he was a teenager, It was there that the 17-year-old first broke into the music business by writing songs for Motown. His first big success came a year later with "Up, Up and Away," a Grammy winner recorded by The 5th Dimension. Soon after, he started his long association with Campbell, whom Webb had admired since 1961 when "Turn Around, Look At Me" became the first record he ever bought.

Webb's songs have been recorded by Sinatra, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt (Webb's relationship with her cousin inspired both "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park"), Carly Simon, and R.E.M. among others too numerous to mention. One artist never to officially record a Webb song was Elvis Presley, who was forbidden by his manager, Col. Tom Parker, from recording any songs of which the King didn't have a piece of the publishing rights. Nevertheless, Presley frequently played "MacArthur Park" live, and the pair stuck up a tentative friendship that Webb recounted in the song "Elvis and Me" on his 1993 album Suspending Disbelief.

Though Webb doesn't write with same fecundity as in his heyday, he still writes and records, splitting his time between serious, larger works for stage, screen and orchestra and continuing his own career as a performer that began with 1968's Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb. He is currently wrapping up production on a sequel to his 2010 record Just Across the River, due in early 2013, that will once again team him with guest artists like Keith Urban, Amy Grant and Joe Cocker on a selection of songs that includes "Elvis and Me."

"I've been here for 50 years," Webb says, "and I'm still getting away with it."

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