As most longtime country fans know, American songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote all but a handful of Glen Campbell’s greatest hits. It’s impossible to separate Campbell’s incredible late ’60s run of success from Webb’s “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.” Webb’s songs, including hits for stars other than Campbell, nearly rival the works of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
James Layne Webb was born in Elk City, Oklahoma on Aug. 15, 1946. After a childhood fascination with country and gospel music, Webb bought his first record at age 14. Fittingly, it was Campbell’s “Turn Around, Look at Me,” an early career single by the Wrecking Crew’s future breakout star.
The Songs That Made the World Sing
As a young songwriter in Los Angeles, Webb seemingly became famous overnight in 1965. That year, The Supremes recorded his “My Christmas Tree” for a holiday album. A year later, Johnny Rivers debuted “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” In ’67 came the 5th Dimension’s interpretations of Hollywood’s hottest songwriter’s “The Worst That Could Happen” and “Up, Up and Away.”
Between “Up, Up and Away” and Campbell’s 1967 version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Webb accounted for eight total Grammys in one fell swoop. His momentum was just starting, with ’68 bringing Richard Harris’ original recording of Webb’s six-plus minute pop epic “MacArthur Park,” a song later covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings.
Beyond those hits, Webb wrote other memorable songs recorded by a who’s who of American rock and pop music: Art Garfunkel of Simon & Garfunkel fame, Linda Ronstadt, Donna Summer, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and others.
To country fans, he’s also the writer of “The Highwayman.” Campbell recorded the song in 1978, seven years before it became the theme song for country music’s best-loved supergroup. In the hands of Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, the once-obscure song made music industry big-wigs sing from New York to London.
An Unsung Solo Artist
The ’70s brought an outstanding run of solo LPs, from 1972’s Letters, featuring Joni Mitchell, to 1977’s El Mirage, produced and arranged by The Beatles’ cohort George Martin. He must’ve learned a thing or two from Harry Nilsson, John Lennon and others on his way to applying his sharp mind and great songs to a pop-friendly yet artistically deep singer-songwriter persona. Despite a lack of commercial success, Webb’s ongoing solo career makes for riveting nights of classic songs and memorable stories.
The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inductee tells even richer stories about a long-gone golden era for pop music in his 2017 book The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir.