Seasoned interviewee that he is, singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb has some sage words of advice as we begin talking about his remarkable career.
“My suggestion would be that you ask questions that you want the answers to because I’m a guy that will talk endlessly about the same thing, you need to push me along,” says the composer of some of the finest and most sophisticated pop songs of the last half-century, including Wichita Lineman, Galveston, MacArthur Park and By The Time I Get To Phoenix.
It is indeed easy to let the 68-year-old Oklahoma-born composer, lyricist and arranger discourse at length on the art of songwriting and the spark that seems to be missing from much modern pop music but it makes for fascinating conversation.
Of his new show, ‘An evening of songs and stories’, which he’s bringing to Leeds City Varieties in April, he says: “I sort of pull back the curtain on what goes on between songwriters and artists when they’re working out these miracles.
“I believe that every hit record is a small miracle because so many factors have to combine in such a synchronistic way to create a hit record and if any little thing goes wrong – from the bass player to the engineer to the record company promotion man – and sometimes outside events, world-shaking events like disasters and wars and things of that nature, will actually affect the course of an album’s potential.
“It’s just a small moment of magic when the right artist connects with the right song and suddenly it’s on the radio and it’s a part of the public consciousness, it literally becomes part of the whole human mind, I can’t help thinking of that as kind of a miracle.”
Webb got his first job as a songwriter in Los Angeles at the age of 18, writing for Tamla Motown. His father, a former Marine turned Baptist minister, disapproved, telling him: “Son, this songwriting thing is only going to break your heart.”
Webb recalls: “I have to say at the same time he took $40 out of his pocket and gave it to me. It was the only cash he had in the world and he gave it to me and drove away but it was a laugh for a while because it was like, ‘Well, Dad, look at me – songwriting certainly didn’t break my heart’.
“Yet in retrospect I have to admit that he was exactly right – that it has over the length of my career, which is 45, going on 50 years that I’ve been in the business making albums, some successful, some not successful, some projects that were like building the Great Wall of China that simply went by like a mosquito without being noticed, it has broken my heart several times and so the old man was actually spot-on with that.”
Webb worked many times with Glen Campbell over the years. Of all the recordings that the country singer made of Webb’s songs, Wichita Lineman remains his favourite.
“It was a perfect marriage between a song and a voice,” he says. “It’s amazing today to listen to that record and realise how highly pitched his voice is because all of our voices have dropped in the intervening years.
“But he sung so high and he was such a smooth singer and there was a note – it was very plaintive, almost like a dying fall – to his intonation, to things that are almost indescribable, almost intangible, but I don’t think that the record has lost any gravitas since it was made.
“You put it on and it still sounds as though that song and that singer were meant to be together.”
Jimmy Webb plays at Leeds City Varieties on April 7. Visit www.cityvarieties.co.uk for details.