When his Baptist minister father learned of his desire to make it as a songwriter in Los Angeles he told his son, “This songwriting thing is going to break your heart.” But he recognized the eighteen-year-old’s determination, so he handed him $40 adding, “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.”
Though clearly not easy for the conservative clergyman, it was a wise decision, because Jimmy Layne Webb, born in Elk City, Oklahoma in 1946, would become the only artist ever to receive separate Grammy Awards for Music, Lyrics, and Orchestration.
Having learned to play piano and organ, at the age of 12 Webb was playing for his father’s services and although his was a religious upbringing with radio listening restricted to Country and Gospel music, he began to write songs. When, at 14, he was allowed to buy his first record, it was by a singer he admired named Glen Campbell.
In California, Webb studied music at San Bernardino Valley College and landed a job as a transcriber for a small music publisher, which (with his discernable talent) paved the way to actual songwriting contracts, first with Motown in 1965 and then with (“Secret Agent Man”) singer and producer, Johnny Rivers in 1966.
It was Rivers who first recorded Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” which would come to be recognized as the “third most performed song in the 50 years between 1940 and 1990.” But it was the performer whom Webb first met at a television commercial recording session that turned the song into an “instant pop standard” in 1967. When the now 21 year old Webb approached the much-admired Glenn Campbell, the singer looked up from his guitar and told him to get a haircut.
Of course, that conservative streak didn’t keep Campbell from crossing into the Pop charts and winning two Grammy Awards for his version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Nor would it keep him from again riding high on the Pop and Country charts in 1968 with Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” later cited as “the first existential country song.”
Meanwhile, Johnny Rivers had asked Webb to write some songs for a new group he was producing called The 5th Dimension, five of which were featured on their debut album. This included the album’s title song, “Up, Up and Away” which went on to win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. As a matter of fact in 1967 “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” received eight Grammy Awards between them.
The following year, while “Wichita Lineman” was all over the airwaves (and while The 5th Dimension was hitting the charts with more of his songs), Jimmy Webb, whom some thought out of sync with the times, formed his own production company and scored big yet again. After the song was rejected by The Association, it was included on a full album of Jimmy Webb songs performed by none-other than (“I wonder what the king is doing tonight”) Richard Harris.
While the Webb-produced album, “A Tramp Shining” remained on the charts for nearly a year, the curious single “MacArthur Park,” which ran for 7:21 and was based on actual events, reached Number 2 on the Billboard Charts. Ten years later, Donna Summer’s version would reach Number 1.
Today’s selection, first recorded by Glen Campbell in 1969, made it to Number 4 on the Billboard Charts, while topping both the Country and Easy Listening Charts, and has been ranked by CMT (Country Music Television) at Number 8 in its “Greatest Songs in Country Music” tally. Yet here, as performed by Jimmy Webb himself, it is the antithesis of Country.
As heard on “Ten Easy Pieces,” Webb’s 1996 album featuring new arrangements of his most popular songs, one is compelled to follow the advice that he sets down in his liner notes to… “Draw yourself a bath, pour yourself a snifter of Chateau de Pommes 1967 (a steal at only $98 a bottle) and [light up] a Partagas Series D.”
That last item, a well rolled Cuban cigar, is especially appropriate for “Galveston” which (contrary to popular belief) was not written as a protest song but is meant to reflect the laments of a young soldier engaged in battle during the Spanish-American War.
Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea winds blowing
I still see her dark eyes glowing
She was twenty-one
When I left Galveston
Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea waves crashing
While I watch the cannon flashing
And I clean my gun
And I dream of Galveston
I still see her standing by the water
Standing there, looking out to sea
And is she waiting there for me?
On the beach where we used to run
Galveston, oh Galveston
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I see your sea birds flying
In the sun, at Galveston