Interview: Longtime Tunesmith Jimmy Webb Talks About Writing for Motown and the Music Industry 

June 18, Henrico Theater

click to enlarge Songwriter and musician Jimmy Webb has written numerous platinum-selling songs including “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

Jessica Daschel Walker

Songwriter and musician Jimmy Webb has written numerous platinum-selling songs including “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

The first record that a 14-year-old Jimmy Webb bought was Glen Campbell’s “Turn Around, Look at Me” in 1961. He had to borrow the dollar and his father’s car to get it.

In 1967, Campbell released the Webb-written “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and made it an instant pop standard. The following year, Webb won a Grammy for writing the 5th Dimension’s hit “Up, Up and Away,” while the Brooklyn Bridge made his “Worst That Could Happen” a staple of teen club dance parties.

But it was when Webb wrote and produced an album for Irish actor Richard Harris — the grandiose, seven-minute “MacArthur Park,” a complex piece written in four movements — that his arranging chops really shined.

Since then, Webb’s music has been covered extensively by such artists as Frank Sinatra, the Four Tops, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone and R.E.M. — while Webb continues to put out his own albums and tour extensively.

The 69-year-old lands in Richmond this month to kick off the Heritage Music series.

Style: What about performing still appeals to you?

Webb: I thrill to it. It’s definitely a feeling of stepping off a cliff. If you’re going to see people who aren’t a little nervous, you’re going to see the wrong people. A little stage fright is good.

What was it like being a songwriter for Motown in the ’60s?

I was the only white kid in the building. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t know what to expect, but they made me part of the family, teaching me everything: engineering, producing, where the chorus and bridge went, how to write a hook. Motown gave me a college education that songwriters couldn’t get back then.
Now colleges teach songwriting, but when I left high school, there was nowhere to go except into the business. Motown was colorblind, kind and sweet to me.

“Up, Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” won a total of eight Grammy Awards in 1968. Does it set the bar too high to win a Grammy at 21?

I wouldn’t take it back. It was a heck of a night, but it means a lot is expected of you and you try to re-create that if you can. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, that explosion of approval. It represented everything I’d been struggling for since the age of 13.

I settled into a grind of making a living in the music business, which is something completely different. Sometimes I lived up to people’s expectations and more often I didn’t. I love performing, writing and arranging. Versatility has kept me in the business.

How do you feel about the changes you’ve seen in the music industry?

There are no records. When CDs came out, it was hard for me to comprehend they were the last physical expression of music. I’ve been on the board of ASCAP for 16 years, and once Napster came out, that was the end of the recording business as we knew it.

It’s been a ragtag game of catch-up ever since as we try to figure out ways to get songwriters paid in an environment that doesn’t want to pay them. We definitely know how George Custer felt: encircled and embattled with all kinds of enemies. Our goal is to keep money flowing to the people who create.

I was having lunch with Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone yesterday, talking about the changes in the publishing world — that we’ve seen the coming of a new technology, a new way of life. Our challenge is to adapt quickly, or frankly, perish. We need to remember that lots of kids are going back to record stores because they like the way records feel and look, how they sound.

Any advice for aspiring songwriters?

Run the other way! The only way to become a songwriter is to become a songwriter. Move into that reality and participate. Songwriting has to be the most important thing in the world to you. Submerge yourself in the society of songwriters and play every chance you get.

Are you working on anything?

My next album of all original songs is mostly written. I embrace getting older and try to write about that. It makes for interesting songs because I’ve seen enough of life and changes worth exploring.

So you still write?

Do sharks still swim? S

Jimmy Webb performs June 18 at 8 p.m. at Henrico Theater, 305 E. Nine Mile Road. For information or tickets call 896-2511 or visit



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