Legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb shares stories behind iconic songs
Multi-Grammy-winning songwriter, two-time author, singer and advocate Jimmy Webb takes to the State College Theatre stage March 29 for a peak into one of modern music’s most prolific minds.
While Webb might not be a household name, his hit songs have been performed by A-list icons for five decades. In 1968, Webb’s Grammy sweep began when his own “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” vied for Song of the Year — the Fifth Dimension’s “Up” won.
Often called “America’s Songwriter,” Webb’s compositions have topped the charts from pop to country to disco. And, he gets asked to write for new artists.
“I write all the time, not just for myself but also for other artists who ask me to write for them,” he said. “I don’t keep with them, but I’m told they’re famous. Kenye West used my ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ in a rap song. He didn’t tell me about it first but we worked it out piecefully — p-i-e-c-e-f-u-l-l-y — eventually.”
The West incident is an example of how songwriters no longer get the recognition and monetary compensation they deserve for their creative sweat. Webb is a known for his advocacy for songwriters and said there is still a long way to go but songwriters don’t have the money to lobby for additional change.
Webb, 73, continues to write both books and music and is preparing an album of original music to record later this year. Webb’s first book, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting,” is considered a “bible” among professional musicians. His second book — a memoir — provides creative context for his songs.
Attendees to his upcoming appearance at the State Theatre will be treated to Webb’s massive catalog of hits that have been performed by Glenn Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt and Donna Summer and also covered by the likes of Josh Groban, Guns n’ Roses and Little Big Town.
Webb’s performance of his songs mixed stories will resonate with his longtime fans as well as new devotees introduced to the music through covers by modern chart toppers including Five for Fighting ( “All I Know”), Rumer (who stormed the UK in 2012 with her take on “P.F. Sloan”) or any number of reinterpretations of “Wichita Lineman” by R.E.M., Urge Overkill, Keith Urban, Homer Simpson and more.
Webb will also “peak behind the curtain and tell the stories” behind the creative context the songs were written and the song’s performers. The show will borrow heavily from his 2017 memoir “The Cake and the Rain,” which reads like a who’s who in show business through the 1970s.
Webb said he’s written a follow-up autobiography that covers the years since 1980, but is awaiting word on the timing of publication.
“If people aren’t laughing all the way through then something is wrong. I place a great emphasis on humor, what happens back stage and what goes wrong,” he said, adding that he’s been sober for the last 20 years.
Webb brings timeless tunes combined with poignant tales from his first songwriting job at Motown through a career trajectory that took a teen preacher’s son from a farm town in Oklahoma to the top of his longed-for profession, with pitfalls and blessings in equal measure between.
Webb will give a “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, a lesson in pop culture, an insider perspective on the musical giants of the 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,” organizers said in a release.
Songs made famous as recorded by an impressive and ever widening range of artists are discovered anew with revelations by the man who first brought them to life on the piano.
Webb’s numerous accolades include the prestigious Ivor Novella International Award (2012) and the Academy of Country Music’s Poet Award (2016). He is the only artist to ever receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. He has time and again paved the way for songwriters in the ever-changing media landscape, pioneering commercial use of pop songs (“Up, Up and Away”) as the centerpiece of the 1970 Trans World Airlines campaign) and spearheading the ongoing effort to preserve the rights of songwriters and their intellectual property rights on the board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
“If I am remembered at all,” he said, “I’d like to be remembered as a good songwriter who tried to keep the craft of songwriting alive and helped preserve jobs so song writers don’t perish from the earth,” he said.
Webb has released a dozen solo albums since the 1970s, while continuing to write for other artists. His CDs “Just Across the River” and “Still Within the Sound of My Voice” feature duets on some of his biggest songs with friends Billy Joel, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Lucinda Williams, Mark Knopfler, Brian Wilson, Art Garfunkel, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Lyle Lovett, Keith Urban and others. In 2016, Webb premiered his first classical piece, “Nocturne for Piano and Orchestra (Nocturne for “Lefty“)” with Orchestra Kentucky, a large symphony orchestra. It’s an example of how he remains committed to trying something new. His latest release 10-months ago, “SlipCover,” features his self-portrait and he shares his piano arrangements of what he considers the finest compositions of his generation, including The Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney.
“I’m proud to still be making a living in music and I’m still loving it,” he said. “If something is happening I try to be there. I don’t want to fade quietly into the wallpaper.”
Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.