Sunday 22 April 2018

Singer Jimmy Webb: 'At 14 I realised it was all about attracting the opposite sex'

Jimmy Webb (70) is a Grammy-winning songwriter and singer who has written many classics, including 'Wichita Lineman' and 'MacArthur Park'. Born in Oklahoma, he lives in Long Island with his wife, Laura. He has six children from his first marriage

Singer and songwriterJimmy Webb had his songs covered by Glen Campbell and Frank Sinatra
Singer and songwriterJimmy Webb had his songs covered by Glen Campbell and Frank Sinatra

Ciara Dwyer

I sleep late, but that's because I'm a musician. 10am is early for me. Each morning, I have a double shot of Bewley's Irish Breakfast Tea. I discovered it on my first trip to Ireland in 1969. I was with the great Richard Harris, who recorded my song - MacArthur Park. We went to Ireland with the avowed intention of having a drink in every county in Ireland. I think we made about seven counties before the plan fell apart at Durty Nelly's.

I live in Long Island with my wife, Laura. Over breakfast, we sit and talk about my upcoming concerts, which includes Dublin on September 18. If it's a lovely day, we'll go to the beach, which is 60 seconds out the back door. We walk for a mile, and then stop off at a bar. I'll have a Virgin Mary, because I haven't had a drink for 16 years.

Later, at home, I'll sit down at the piano and try to pursue my craft, which is singing and songwriting. My working life at the piano is about four hours a day, because I throw myself into it. When I come out the other end, I am spent. When I'm writing prose, I can only work for four hours too. I'm working on my memoir, which includes stories about the 1960s. I experienced that decade from a very privileged place in the music business.

I'm always working on some project. I was raised in the Midwest, where righteous, hard-working values are instilled at a very early age. I feel guilty if I'm not doing something. My father was a Southern Baptist minister, but he was also an ex-Marine. He'd spent 37 months in the South Pacific in World War II, and when he came home he was a hybrid Marine-minister, which was a ghastly thing to grow up with. I think we were the only kids in our neighbourhood who had to bounce a quarter off our bunks [to check for tightness] before we went to church on Sunday mornings.

We lived in a tiny shotgun shack. His first church gave him 100 dollars a week. Sometimes, if they couldn't come up with the cash, they would fill out the difference in groceries. I remember clearly the deacons coming to the house with bags of groceries. My parents struggled just to keep us in pants. My mother used to go out and buy one big piece of material, and she'd make outfits for all five of us. So, when we went to church, the boys had shirts with aeroplanes, and the girls had skirts with the same fabric. But my mother was the one who insisted that I play the piano for half an hour every day, and if I didn't, I was punished. I became the church pianist under my father when I was 12. But when I was 14, all the hormones kicked in, and I realised it was all about attracting the opposite sex. That's quite a powerful fuel to drive a young man.

When I was 16, the family moved to San Bernardino, California, an hour south of Hollywood. Within months of our moving there, my mother died from an undiagnosed brain tumour. She was only 36. Then the family was going back to Oklahoma, but I told my father that I couldn't go with him. All I'd ever dreamt about was writing a song for Glen Campbell, and I was in this magical place where these things could actually happen, even if the odds were against it.

We argued, and he didn't want to let me stay, because I was still a minor. He said, 'Son, this songwriting thing is gonna break your heart'. Then he took some worn old bills out of his pocket - 40 dollars - which was all the money he had. With a tear in his eye, he said, 'I hope the good Lord takes care of you', and then he drove away. A minute later, I thought, 'Now what have you done?'

I ended up working at Motown, and eventually, Glen Campbell sang my songs. In fact, he recorded over 80 of them, including Wichita Lineman, Galveston and By The Time I Get To Phoenix. It was almost a predestined affair when my music came together with his voice. There is no way that I sing my songs better than Glen did, but that's not what my performing is about.

Glen has Alzheimer's now. He was always very funny, and he liked to laugh and tell jokes, and that still comes to the surface. The last time I saw him, I said to my wife, 'I don't know if he knows me'. He loves her, and he was patting the bed, saying to her to come over to him. Then, as I was leaving, he pointed his finger at me and said, 'I do too know you'. It was kind of like an Alzheimer's joke.

Frank Sinatra sang some of my songs too. He loved songwriters, and was famous for mentioning them on stage. He'd say, 'This is by a young guy, Jimmy Webb', and he'd start singing Didn't We. He would have me come up to Vegas, and he wouldn't let me spend a dollar. The next afternoon, I'd go to his place, and he'd listen to me play. He'd sit in a comfortable chair, with a couple of fingers of Jack Daniels, and he'd smoke a cigarette every once in a while. There are many dark stories that appear about Mr Sinatra, but he treated my father like a brother, and he used to take him out to dinner. I guess I took all of this in my stride, but now it seems incredible.

I don't have the natural gift that a lot of those singers had, but the comparison isn't fair. Who can sing like Frank Sinatra? Or Glen Campbell? It has taken me years to become a seasoned performer and to get a handle on my stage fright. Before I go out on stage, I pray for the grace and strength to be a credit to myself. When I walk to the edge of the stage, I stand and look at the piano. There is a magic moment when the house lights go down, and I know that's my space, and I'm going to own it. When I start walking on and the audience applaud, there is a burst of adrenaline; a thrill that is like a golden butterfly in my chest. Then I know that I'm supposed to be there, doing that, and each song rushes over me, until I end with MacArthur Park.

'Jimmy Webb: Still on the Line - The Glen Campbell Years', Sunday, September 18, at The National Concert Hall, Dublin, tel: (01) 417-0000, or see

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