Jimmy Webb review – hallowed pop classics and elaborate yarns

The master songwriter interweaves his version of tracks such as MacArthur Park and Wichita Lineman with tales of life with Richard Harris and Glen Campbell

The Guardian
By Dave Simpson
Photograph: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Jimmy Webb is remembering how, aged 14, he heard Glen Campbell’s Turn Around, Look at Me on the radio and begged his father for a dollar to buy the record. Shortly afterwards, when he started writing songs, the youngster would pray “to write a song as good as that and meet someone like Glen Campbell who can sing it”. Fatefully, of course, he met the man himself, and Campbell’s performances of Webb’s Galveston and By the Time I Get to Phoenix are among pop’s most hallowed recordings.

Perhaps had Webb’s songs not been sung by some of the greatest voices of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, he’d be recognised as a singer too. Here, performing his classics at a grand piano, he can’t reach the highest notes but gives the songs the loving care a father reserves for his children.

The evening rollercoasters between classics and elaborate yarns. There’s the one about how a radio station stopped playing Fifth Dimenson hit Up, Up and Away, thinking it was about drugs, not balloons. Webb’s father marched on the building clutching “a .45 and a Bible”. When Webb was demonstrating songs for the “notoriously finicky” Art Garfunkel – who became a lifelong friend – he was asked for “something more yellow” and handed over All I Know. Tales of Herculean drinking sessions with the actor Richard Harris abound – before Webb delivers a stunning rendition of their orchestral epic MacArthur Park.

There’s a moving moment when Webb talks about Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s – and how, recently, when the fading country star accidentally sang Wichita Lineman twice, the audience shouted, “Again.” After Webb’s own beautiful rendition of the song, a punter shouts, “Again!” The stories come so thick and fast that Webb only manages seven songs in 90 minutes. But what wonderful songs they are.