I spoke to Jimmy Webb a few days ago. His new CD, Just Across the River, is something of a return to his rural roots, so I wanted to talk about that part of his life—the period before he cranked out hit after hit in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Songs such as "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" exude a homespun soulfulness and a musical sophistication that's incredibly rare.
Where did that come from?
Webb, who performs solo at the Cabaret at Germano's this Sunday and Monday, explains...
Fred Molin, the producer of Just Across the River, hatched the idea for this CD, that it would be a Nashville project and a return to a more natural way of singing that I grew up with in Oklahoma.
My father was a Baptist minister, who played guitar and strummed very nicely. He came back from the Second World War with a whole repertoire of war ballads like “Harbor Lights” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” He also used to sing Woody Guthrie’s “In Those Oklahoma Hills Where I Was Born.” I grew up on that song. My mom played accordion, and the family joke was that you could see the accordion pretty well but it was hard to see mom. She’d be peering over the top. We did songs for Sunday morning service and we sang after dinner.
There was no TV, so we invented our own entertainment. In that type of environment, music becomes a second language, and it’s a very natural thing to break into three or four part harmony because everyone knows what part to grab. I think about that rather nostalgically because I know that 99 percent of the people in the world don’t do that anymore. It just doesn’t happen anymore. It’s more of a church-going tradition, but, these days, people are so busy with their televisions and computers and Blackberrys and people’s schedules are so regimented.
We lived in the country, and, without music, life would have been pretty much unbearable. Music was a diversion and a kind of participatory game that we played. It was also a deep emotional venting of some of the trials and tribulations of growing up in a rural landscape where there isn’t a lot of opportunity for children to play. We worked pretty hard. When I was growing up, we’d actually get out of school and come home for harvest. In the spring, we’d get out of school for four weeks for planting.
And we used to sing on the school bus during the ride home. We’d sing songs like, “hey Good Lookin’/what Ya Got Cookin’/how’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me.” In those days, that was kind of a naughty song, believe it or not.
My mother put me on the piano when I was six years old, and she was pretty strict about it. She had one of those chicken-shaped timers where you sort of wring, or turn, the chicken’s neck, and it comes around. She used to set it for 30 minutes, and I did my 30 minutes every day under her watchful eye. If the piano stopped, and she was busy in the kitchen, I’d hear, “Jimmy Layne! What are you doing? Don’t be drawing pictures or reading science fiction books.”
Her dream was for me to be a church pianist. Actually, she wanted me to play organ for the church, and, by the time I was 12, I was playing organ for the services. In my mother’s mind, that was pretty much the epitome—that was about as high as you could go. But I was thinking of some other things.
Once the hormones began to run, and I really became aware of the opposite sex, I… well, I wish I could soft pedal this a little bit, but I was just lousy as an athlete. And where I grew up, football was religion. Christianity was okay, but football was religion. I was on the team. I used to suit up and go out and sit on the bench. About 10 minutes before halftime, I’d run into the field house and put my band uniform on. The second-stringers weren’t allowed to just be football players. They had to march in the band—I played cornet. After halftime, I’d put my pads back on. It was real drudgery.
As a football player I was lousy, but the social bridge, for me, was the piano. They laughed when I played football, but when I sat down at the piano, the girls would gather around. Many generations of young men with guitars and amplifiers and such have learned the advantages of being able to play the latest pop song.
I also wanted to make up my own music, and I started doing that when I was 12 or 13. I wrote a couple of pretty fair songs at that time—in fact, one of them eventually got recorded. It wasn’t the exact same song, but it was recorded by Art Garfunkel. It was called “Someone Else.”
By the time I was 17 years old, my mother was gone—she’d passed away. The family had pretty much experienced nuclear disintegration. Everyone had gone their separate ways—one sister was married and had a baby, dad had left the ministry, and that whole life was gone. It was shocking and appalling. My mother was the linchpin of the family, and when she was gone, that was it.
You know, the last time was back in Oklahoma, I went by this old country store—where we used to get Moon Pies and soda pop—and took pictures of it. It’s gone now, the roof is falling in and the gas pumps are gone, but it was still recognizable. The jungle was kind of growing in on it. I got some beautiful pictures of it, and they’re both sad and kind of happy. It’s reminiscent of so many happy days, but it’s the end of that kind of life in America. You see the old farmhouses now and you know that a family lived there and they had dreams. I always drive past those places and wonder how things turned out for them. I have a song called “If These Walls Could Speak” that’s about those farmhouses.
By the time I was 17 years old, I was in Hollywood, in the streets every day looking for a recording contract. I would introduce myself as a professional songwriter.
I got a job at studio called Audio Arts on Melrose in L.A. I was under contract with the owner, so everything I wrote while I was working there went into her publishing company, which was called Ja-Ma. I also tidied up after sessions, mopped up, took out the trash, locked the doors. I played piano on sessions. I remember one day I did a Rod McKuen session and did 53 songs that day. I’ll never forget the number. We started in the morning and went to midnight or one o’clock in the morning. They paid me a dollar apiece. I got 53 dollars. Then, I locked up and drove to my employer’s home, where I had a room in the back.
A friend named Mark Gordon eventually introduced me to Johnny Rivers, who was a big star then. He actually came down to the studio, heard my songs, and bought my contract. He walked out of there with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Up, Up & Away,” and half a dozen other songs he thought were potential hits. I moved over to Johnny Rivers Music, and my life improved a little bit. I was making $100 a week and had a company car, but I was still staying at my former employer’s house.
Then, I met the group that eventually became known as the Fifth Dimension, and my first big breaks came out of that particular association, which was through Johnny Rivers. He opened the doors and made hit records happen. It’s a debt that I’ll never be able to repay.