Jimmy Webb On Elvis, the Sinatra/Webb Album We Almost Got to Hear and The Tyranny of Melisma
An interview I did with Jimmy Webb some years ago. He was, as you would hope, a darling.
Like Michelangelo’s bafflingly intricate flying machines you might be forgiven for looking at a Jimmy Webb song on the scoresheet, scratching your head and saying - ‘that baby’s never leaving the ground’.
Ambitious, eccentric key changes, far-vaulting melodies, finely calibrated lyrics and big emotions - of such hard-won beauty and adventurous engineering, hits were once made before our boil-in-the-bag culture got hold of music. Jimmy Webb heads this way with The Webb Brothers and with two new albums of Webb treasures to his name - Cottonwood Farm, featuring three generations of the clan, and Live and At Large, which gathers some of the writer’s memories and stories of his collaborations and friendships with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell and Richard Harris.
Jimmy Webb spoke to Kate Clarke about Elvis, the Sinatra/Webb album we almost got to hear and the tyranny of melisma.
COTTONWOOD FARM IS AN ALBUM WE'VE BEEN HEARING RUMOURS ABOUT FOR A FEW YEARS. WAS IT A DIFFICULT BIRTH? “The album is from me and my sons and we live on different coasts in the US so it involved me flying back to Los Angeles which I hate doing now, so it was difficult logistically. But with new technology we can send bits of music back and forth like pen pal letters, so that worked out. Our drummer was Glen Campbell’s son Con and we were able to do some of the work at Glen’s studio, which was great for us. We all sing on every song on this album. Even my dad got in on the act - he is 86 years old. He sings one called Red Sails in the Sunset, which will be familiar to most British veterans.”
AND YOU HAVE A NEW LIVE ALBUM, WHICH IS WORTH BUYING FOR THE STORIES ALONE. YOUR MEMORIES OF RICHARD HARRIS ARE HEARTBREAKERS. YOU WERE SOUL BROTHERS WEREN'T YOU? “He was really the big brother that I never had. I was the eldest child in a family of five siblings so I was always the caretaker. “Richard came along and he changed the way I looked at things. He would say things like ‘Listen. You can’t go around saying Paul McCartney is the only talented Beatle.' Richard was very good and very kind, but very unforgiving of mean spiritedness of any kind. He also taught me what a Black Velvet was, which is important to know. He took me from boyhood into adulthood in a way.”
AND YOU LEANED A LOT OF TRADITIONAL FOLK SONGS FROM THE TIME YOU SPENT WITH HIM IN IRELAND? “For sure. He taught me dozens of Irish songs which I fell in love with completely. And elements of them found their way into my work - into songs like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and into others too. Though it may be less obvious in some of the others, the Scottish and Irish influence is there.”
IS YOUR SONG NO SIGNS OF AGE ABOUT HIM? “That song was written before he died, for an album which was going to be called No Signs of Age. Richard was so excited about the song, he said “I’ll have that one Jimmy Webb”, in that lovely voice of his. I can't regret much about knowing Richard, we had so many good times, but I do regret we never got to make that album, and when I sing the song I think about the album that never was.”
THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES IN YOUR CAREER WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN UTTERLY IN STEP WITH THE STYLE OF THE TIMES, BUT BECAUSE YOUR CRAFTSMANSHIP TREADS JOHNNY MERCER/JIMMY VAN HEUSEN TERRITORY YOUR SONGS WERE COVERED BY THE GREATS OF OTHER ERAS LIKE SINATRA. THAT MUST BE SO GRATIFYING - TO SPAN THOSE GENERATIONS? “It is a great gift and it is the thing that makes it easy for me to say that I don’t regret any moment of my life and the way music has taken me. If someone says to me ‘yes but, what if you could have been a Beatle?' Well, being a Beatle would have been incredible but I wouldn’t have had all of these other experiences, like meeting Mr Sinatra, who was a good friend. We used to get together often. And working with Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand. And to have songs cut by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and then in another sphere to have Miles Davis say appreciative things about my music. Writing songs that lots of different kinds of artists can cut also says this to me: if one creates a really righteous piece of good music then there are no barriers. Music is a wonderful passport to foreign lands.”
THOUGH OTHER PEOLE’S VERSIONS OF YOUR SONGS HAVE BEEN BIG HITS YOU MUST HAVE KNOWN WHEN YOU CUT THE HIGHWAYMAN THAT IT WAS DEFINITIVE.
WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF CUTTING THAT? “I remember I was in London when I wrote it, staying at the Inn on the Park and I had this spectacular nightmare about a Dick Turpin character who was chasing me. I don’t have many nightmares but this was a real howler. I woke and went from bed to piano and started writing the first verse and the second straight off. By the time I finished I was on the phone to George Martin, who was in LA and he was producing my album. He said to me, in that lovely RAF Major voice of his, ‘are you sure you want to tinker with the album at this stage?’
“So I said, ‘just listen to this.’ I played two bars to him over the telephone. He said ‘yes, that should go on. Later on he said: ‘Jimmy do you think it would be possible for me to do the arrangement on The Highwayman?’ “I stood there with my jaw on the floor. He ended up doing all of the arrangement on the album and some people say it ranks among the best things I've done.
“I played the arrangement two weeks ago in Nashville with Glen Campbell and it works as well now and in a different setting as it ever did.”
THERE ARE HALLMARKS TO A JIMMY WEBB SONG - THE LYRICAL DISCIPLINE, THE DRAMATIC SWOOPS AND PEAKS BUT THE OVER-RIDING ONE IS ALWAYS BEAUTY.
IT WAS TOUGH TO PREDICT THAT BEAUTY WAS GOING TO GO OUT OF STYLE, IN THE WAY THAT GREAT VOICES HAVE BECOME OLD FASHIONED. CAN IT RE-EMERGE? “That’s a good question. There are predictions emerging from experts in the field that there will be a re-emergence of great music and of a more healthy music business. “And that it will come from people who have experienced what it is like to live for so long without real music - people who have had to put up with mechanical music and drum machines. There is even the feeling in rap and hip hop, where a lot of people have been getting away with murder for years, that you can only go so far without melody, and it shows in the sales percentages. In country music I think we are starting to hear things get better after they got really abysmal a few years ago. I think there are signs that things are getting better and there are some singers. Beyonce, for instance, sings well. HOW CAN YOU TELL. SHE NEVER HITS THE NOTE? “Ah yes, melisma. I’ll tell you a story about that. “I was at a Songwriters Hall of Fame event one night with Billy Joel, and some wine had been flowing. I don’t drink, but he was drinking and Clive Davis wheeled out his ‘diva of the month’. She was singing one of those songs, the way they do, doing all of this rococo ornamentation, going up and down and spinning it out and eventually Billy Joel had enough. He bellowed at her from the other side of the room, ‘just trust the fucking note! It is such a songwriter complaint, but as a writer you carefully place the notes in the place they need to be and you take all of this care and effort to create something that works and they do that to it. It’s hard to take.”
TALKING ABOUT GREATNESS PAST, THERE WAS A TIME WHEN ELVIS WAS PLAYING VEGAS THAT YOU USED TO GO AND SEE HIM AS OFTEN AS HE PLAYED. MANY SAY THAT PERIOD OF HIS CAREER DIDN’T FIZZ LIKE THE EARLY ROCK AND ROLL PERIOD, THOUGH THOSE PEOPLE ARE CRAZY. WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING IN THAT AUDIENCE?
“I wrote at least two songs about Elvis. The first time I went to see him, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it was because the story was going around that he was going to fall on his behind.. There was a meanness about me at that time and I was cynical about him. But when he came on, he was so much younger than I thought he would be and incredibly fit. He was dressed in black with a red sash around his mid-section, more to emphasise the smallness of his waist that for the look, I think. His hair was a bit long, more of a Beatles cut, no pompadour. And when he sang he took compete charge of every soul in the room, including mine. I was ringside for the show and when he finished he walked past my table and dropped a piece of paper on it, which said ‘Dear Jimmy. Come backstage.’
“I had no idea he knew who I was. So then every time I went to see him I would go backstage and talk to him until Tom Parker put a stop to it. One of those nights Parker just put himself in my face and said ‘I guess the next time I see you will be at the Hollywood Ranch Market’. I was a young kid but even I knew the Colonel had enough of me hanging around. I was totally absorbed by Elvis. He died on Aug 16, the day after my birthday and it was devastating to me. He had just been surrounded by this malevolent force-field of the Colonel and these hangers on and sociopaths who just wanted to keep him where he was. But Elvis was interested in doing new things, He knew what was happening. He was very impressed with what The Beatles were doing, he knew about George Martin and Geoff Emerick. He came up to me one night and asked me ‘how many French horns do you have in your orchestra?’
“I said ‘four’. The next time I went to Las Vegas to see him he had four French horns up there. He also wanted to record MacArthur Park. Some friends have given me bootlegs of him singing it live but he didn’t get to cut it. I think without that terrible group of people who had access to him Elvis might possibly be alive day and I think he certainly would have gone on to have another great artistic chapter in his life.”
WE LOST WILLY DEVILLE THIS YEAR, THE ONLY CONSOLATION BEING THAT HE WORKED WITH DOC POMUS BEFORE HE DIED. IS THERE ANYONE YOU WISH YOU’D GOTTEN THE CHANCE TO WORK WITH OR WOULD STILL LIKE TO? “I missed my chance do an album with Mr Sinatra. I had half of the songs written for an operetta that I always wanted to do - a song for every month of the year. “I had written Mad about May and I had already asked Barry Manilow if I could do one of his called When October Goes. We kept putting in back because while Mr Sinatra, nearing 70, had lost none of his effervescence at all as a performer he had lost some of his ability to absorb new material, not to mention eccentric pieces of music with strange changes, so it kept being postponed until it was to late. So that is a regret. It is the Sinatra album that never was. IS THAT A CLOSED CHAPTER. WILL YOU USE THOSE SONGS IN SOME WAY? “Nothing is a closed chapter. When you look at Natalie Cole’s version of Irving Gordon’s Unforgettable, the way she duetted with her father on that and if you think about some of the young singers who are ‘doing Sinatra’, something may happen with that yet.
As for other people I would like to work with, I was very happy James Taylor cut Wichita Lineman on his new album because I have always wanted to work with him. And it might be out of the realm of possibility because he writes his own wonderful songs but I have always completely loved Paul McCartney’s voice. Such a lovely tessitura, I would love to make an album with him, or just to hear him cut one of my songs, would be incredible.”
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE ME TO KNOW BEFORE I LET YOU GO? “Only that you have been the most charming and considerate of interviewers.”
Photo: Rockstars and Babies