Aquestion I ask of all recording artists I have the honor of interviewing is whether it is the song or the singer that makes the hit. Jimmy Webb’s response echoed what I heard from singers as disparate as Larry Gatlin, Michael Martin Murphey, and Suzy Bogguss.
“Yes, a mediocre singer can be saved by a truly great song,” Webb said. “I’ve witnessed and heard it on record many, many times. When the Beatles were active, John and Paul had to come up with a song for Ringo to sing. One of reasons I respect and admire them so much is they were able to write ‘Octopus’s Garden’ to fit his very ‘north country’ way of singing. Professional, pure songwriters can do that — they can adjust their songwriting for Shirley Temple or whoever. Those are the real songwriters. That’s the kind of songwriter I want to be.”
What of the obverse? Can a great singer rescue a bad song?
“That’s not even in the equation,” Webb said. “I think the song has a lot more power to... what word am I looking for... to redeem a shaky vocalist. A great song can make everybody love her, maybe even take advantage of her frailty, to make that song even better.”
He noted there are other views.
“Mick Jagger said reportedly that it’s the singer, not the song,” Webb said. “But he is a great vocal stylist. I believe to some degree he was underestimating his and Keith Richards’ ability to write songs. I think the Stones write absolutely brilliant songs.”
Webb will be singing his own songs at this concert. Many of his most ardent fans can’t say they have heard “Webb sing Webb.” He freely admits his vocal style is not going to challenge Sinatra or Nat King Cole (whose is?), but there is a purity in hearing a songwriter sing his own tunes.
“To be honest, a lot of the time I am just trying to get through the song, from beginning to end. Whatever I have to trample over to get there is what I’ll do.”
But still, the greatest singers in the business want to hear him sing.
“Linda Ronstadt was recording my music, and she would call for my demos from the studio,” he said. “Linda would say, get Jimmy’s demo. It was an odd thing, one of the greatest singers in the world wants to hear one of the worst singers in the world before she recorded. But she believed the writer’s phrasing and attitude was all important to the song, even the things people might not pick up on as less than perfect. To her, she hadn’t heard a song until she heard the guy who wrote it, because he had innate special knowledge of how that song worked.”
Cher was another singer who wouldn’t roll tape until she heard Webb’s demo.
“Cher felt there was some mojo in the original demo,” he said. “She would call for the demo — ‘Why don’t we have the demo in here? Let’s listen to Jimmy’s demo before we cut this record.’ I think that is a fairly widespread practice. Even the greatest singers in the world go back to the songwriter’s demo, thinking there is some key in how song should be performed.”
Webb saw this previously delineated separation of singer and songwriter change over the course of his career. It was the rise of the singer/songwriter.
“When the singer/songwriter movement came along, it was considered passé to hear singers sing songs they didn’t write,” he said. “They only wanted to go to the source, and only listen to the person who wrote the songs. That changed the industry quite a bit in the 1970s, when there was a singer/songwriter wave, with artists like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.”
Webb welcomed the wave.
“Thank god it happened,” he said. “We got to hear people like Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. Maybe in a world where they just judged singing, those people never would have been recorded.”
Webb’s concert “The Glen Campbell Years” at the Cailloux Theater in Kerrville will focus on the songs he wrote for the artist, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.”
Webb acknowledges that though he and Campbell came from similar small-town backgrounds, they were far apart on the political spectrum. He also admits his own “political temperament has come down a little bit,” over the years.
“We proved you cannot agree politically, and not agree philosophically on most things, but that music is the one thing that brings people together. I’ve seen it work all my life. It’s like a miracle.”
He’ll share some of that philosophy between songs, along with personal stories that hold nothing back.
“I talk about the funniness, of being a fish out of water — he being an Orange County Republican and me being a stoner/hippie,” Webb said. “I switched from drugs to Jack Daniels, and now I’ve been sober for 20 years. Once you get sober, you get enthusiastic, and I highly recommend it. I am in a very happy place.”
And his songs still have a deep effect on his audience.
“Sometimes I mean to be funny, but I look out and see people sobbing,” he said. “I’m thinking, no, this is the laughing part, wait until it gets really sad. But for the most part, it’s meant to be good fun and lighthearted entertainment for the whole family.”
He added one last comment.
“No dirty words.”
Jimmy Webb presents An Evening With Jimmy Webb “The Glen Campbell Years” on Saturday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cailloux Theater, 910 Main, Kerrville.
Tickets available by visiting www.caillouxtheater.com or by calling 830- 896-9393.
Phil Houseal is a writer and