Jimmy Webb Big Break in Music
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Jimmy Webb has been in the pantheon of American songwriters almost from the very beginning, competing with himself in the Grammy Awards nearly 50 years ago with “Up Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Since then he’s written numerous hits. Variety first noted Webb as a young staff writer for the West Coast office of Motown’s Jobete Music publishing arm in 1965.

Variety’s review of “This Time Last Summer” was rough.

I’d cut a record on the song with my own act, a girl group called the Contessas. Hal Davis was head of Jobete. He snuck into the studio and overdubbed a vocal on our track. He called himself Danny Day, and was trying to do a falsetto, but he wasn’t Smokey Robinson or Frankie Valli.

Your career survived us deeming the record “Nowheresville.”

If any record could have taken me down, Danny Day could have done it.

It wasn’t long before you left Jobete and went to work for Johnny Rivers. Was “Summer” the final straw?

No, the people at Jobete were the greatest people in the world. They were colorblind, selfless and generous. They turned the wheelhouse over to me. I learned on the job there, but they liked my big ballads, and were less excited by the more “countryfied” things I was writing. So I left with some excellent songs.

Including “Phoenix.”

I got a staff job with Johnny, and he paid me $100 per week and bought me a Camaro convertible. And he played “Phoenix” for Glen Campbell’s producer Al De Lory.

You were “somewheresville.”

I was the rehearsal pianist for a band called the Versatiles that Johnny had on his label. I gradually tried to introduce them to some of my songs and, as fate would have it, one of them was “Up Up and Away.” They changed their name to the Fifth Dimension, and we swept the Grammys.

Around the same time, you connected on a really unlikely hit, “MacArthur Park,” for Richard Harris.

Johnny asked me to play piano for an antiwar show at the Coronet Theater. It was a benefit evening of spoken verse and songs, and featured people like Edward G. Robinson, Mia Farrow, Jean Simmons. Richard Harris was a wild man on that show, swinging on ropes from platform to platform.

Pretty heady days for a boy from Oklahoma by way of Colton, Calif.

It will all be in my book. But I will give one example: I went to Ireland with Richard Harris and stayed drunk for 30 days. We set out to drink at every pub in Ireland, and I think it soon became an epic pub crawl, where we just went from one pub to the next. By the end, of it I was completely disintegrated.

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