Is it possible for a musician to emerge unscathed from the kind of early success enjoyed by the singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb? In the late 1960s, when he was barely 21, Mr. Webb was showered withGrammys for writing the Glen Campbell hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” Then there was “MacArthur Park,” the grandiose quasi-symphonic “cake out in the rain” popularized by the Irish actorRichard Harris and in 1978 remade into a disco fantasia by Donna Summer.
Jimmy Webb was present at major music events of the ’60s, though stage stardom eluded him. These songs established Mr. Webb — the son of a strict Baptist minister from Elk City, Okla., who moved his family to Southern California in the mid-’60s — as a pop music wunderkind with a Midas touch. But because his intensely romantic ballads straddled two worlds — traditional pop and country-flavored Southern California rock — Mr. Webb found himself on the far side of a generation gap. At the same time, he admits sheepishly today, he avidly subscribed to his generation’s slogan of not trusting anyone over 30.
To his profound frustration, audiences over 30 didn’t buy him as a singer-songwriter when he began releasing albums in the early ’70s. Not that that kept him from the customary excesses of the time.
“I lost it pretty badly,” he said of those days, “but unlike some others, I never wanted to die — not really.”
Sitting in his publicist’s Lower Manhattan office on a steamy afternoon recently, Mr. Webb, tall and rangy, now 63, still has a wild man’s gleam in his eye. He is a marvelous storyteller with the expansive style of a rural yarn spinner, who becomes more excited the more wound up he becomes. If he is an endless storehouse of real-life rock ’n’ roll adventure stories, set mostly in Hollywood and London in the late ’60s and ’70s, part of him is still a wide-eyed Oklahoma country boy agog with wonder at the goings-on in the big city.