Jimmy Webb has been one of America’s most prolific songwriters for over 50 years. He wrote his first song aged 13 and later quit college to embark on a career as a songwriter, performer and composer. A wealth of illustrious names such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, R.E.M. and Carly Simon have recorded his music. And, most recently, the song Webb wrote for Nina Simone, ‘Do What You Gotta Do’, was used in Kanye West’s headline-grabbing ‘Famous’. Now, aged 70, he’s still touring, and recently finished a memoir called Cake in the Rain which will be released at the same time as a new album of 12 original songs in 2017. So what keeps him going? Webb credits a multi-faceted career for his continued relevance.
“The reason I’m probably still working is that I made a decision in my early ‘20s to perform, for better or worse. I think I am doing it more successfully today than I’ve ever done it,” he tells BASCA. “It’s very gratifying to still be in the business with reasonably good health and surrounded by a number of people who wish me well.”
Webb, whose father was a baptist preacher, grew up around church music, big band and classic jazz. Naturally, it was the music he wasn’t allowed to hear that he counts as his biggest influence: good old rock’n’roll. “I had to go off on my own and listen to rock’n’roll with my friends and of course that’s what I liked and what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “Then, after my teenage years I was heavily influenced by Simon and Garfunkel, Bacharach & David, Lennon and McCartney.
“I can’t omit the Great American Songbook writers like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Hank Williams and Cole Porter, who were all important to me. I’ve always prided myself on being a cross-genre writer, I didn’t really get stuck in one time in music and that’s been a blessing.”
The disruptive nature of a life as a preacher’s kid, moving from parish to parish, meant Webb felt he needed to find something individual that put him on the social map, especially since he wasn’t a sportsman. “I discovered that I was really quite good at improvisation, I could transform hymns into epic rhapsodies,” he explains. “A spark of creativity leapt and I found myself writing my own little tunes. Bit by bit I began to put together this idea that perhaps I could be a songwriter.
“I would imitate songs on the radio and very quickly understood the concept of the follow-up record. If an artist had a hit, I would try to write another song that would be appropriate for that artist. These were just for my own amusement at home and I became more and more serious. As the years went by, my conviction that I could do it and the fact I was already doing it on a fairly high level resulted in me entering the industry on my own volition, despite not knowing anyone. I just gradually succumbed to the gravity of the business.”
That volition took Webb from office to office with his portfolio in a paper bag, until he met Dick Glasser, who was recording the Everly Brothers at the time. Glasser gave Webb two cuts and that was the foot in the door he needed. He quit college and got a job at Motown Records where he became a contract writer for two years whilst learning from the likes of Frank Wilson and Hal Davis.
“Motown was my college, I learned some of the finer points of constructing hooks,” he says. “The label was very single-minded about the importance of the message. I would write a song that had all these airy fairy lyrics with Paul Simon-esque images and sit back with a look of pride on my face. Frank or Hal would say, Okay kid, what’s the message? What is the song about? What are you trying to say? It was those kinds of teachers that taught me the really basic nuts and bolts. This would have been the university for songwriters had there been any such thing in that world of ‘60s music.”
Up, Up and Away, performed by The 5th Dimension, brought Webb a lot of attention after it won in a whopping four categories at the 10th annual Grammy Awards in ’68. The success brought him access to music royalty like Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon and his ultimate idol, Joni Mitchell. “The more successful I was, the more I came under the direct influence of even more successful writers,” says Webb. “Joni Mitchell was a close friend and I found her work so exquisite and fresh that I became hypnotised by her writing and thought of nothing else for three years.
“Seeing the way other people worked built my confidence. I discovered that there is this universal approach underlying everything, and everyone goes through the same insecurities and then takes steps to mend the weaknesses in their approach. No one way of writing a song is better than any other and out of that realisation comes a growing confidence.”
A four-year purple patch arrived where everything Webb cut would chart. Working on Glen Campbell’s pop country crusade brought experience crossing country records into pop mainstream, while sessions with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and jazz musicians opened Webb’s world further. “During that time I was also listening to classical music and playing it, trying to figure out how classical could influence my pop writing,” he adds. “I just wanted my horizon to be as high as possible.”
Plagiarism is an area Webb advises budding songwriters to steer well clear of, and extensively researching what’s gone before is a vital part of that. A working knowledge of Jermone Kern and the writers that follow him his vital, he says, as well as all the blues and early rock’n’roll artists like Eddie Cochran, and the songs that make up the Great American Songbook. “There’s a generation out there that is not that careful about treading where other writers have walked before,” he says. “However, you can’t always be 100% original and there’s nothing wrong with taking influence from someone. The ability to ape and imitate is absolutely essential in developing one’s own voice, but it must be recognised for what it is.”
A notebook is what Webb uses to write down song ideas, which come from “everything all the time.” He continues: “I think that a writer has to constantly be aware of what is going on around them and ready to snatch an idea out of the air. That could come through a situation, an argument between two people in a restaurant, or a phrase with rhythm that has universal truth. Being a songwriter is a full time job. You listen for different things, nuances, language and phrases. I find myself thinking in rhymes all the time.”
While Webb insists he was a composer from birth, the transition from songwriter to performer wasn’t so easily achieved. In the ‘70s he witnessed artists who wrote and performed, like Muddy Waters, The Beatles, Carole King and Bob Dillon, come to the fore. With the emphasis on trained vocalists waning and lines blurring between what was previously two separate professions, Webb realised he needed to join the movement in order to stay relevant. He made a slew of albums as a singer/songwriter, and, whilst not being best-sellers, they enabled him to cultivate a persona as an artist in his own right and attract a fan base that still comes to see him perform live today.
Alongside his recording career, Webb is Vice Chair of ASCAP, where he is dedicated to preserving the rights and the craft of the songwriter. It’s an area he’s hugely passionate about after witnessing what he perceives as a host of negative changes in the industry over the last five decades. One of Webb’s biggest gripes is the legal decision made in the US in ‘07 that ruled there’s no performance right for publishers and songwriters in a download. He says: “That was a low point in our history of copyright. In retrospect, I think it’s clear that time and time again really important decisions are coming to courtrooms with often elderly judges who can’t grasp the overall significance of peer-to-peer networks. Vested powers that be have sided with digital interests. I think it’s been a collusion between a legal system that is mired in the 19th century and a very fast moving digital industry that says, Well, we can pull the wool over their eyes.”
Despite the current status quo, Webb has faith good sense will eventually prevail. However, he does add that his successors should be prepared to directly license their music for use on digital services—and learn some fierce negotiation tactics when it comes to payment terms.
“Young songwriters need to be prepared to be extremely aggressive about pursuing their own path when monetising their catalogues and resources. I don’t think that publishing deals have improved, so they might have to prepare themselves for not having a publishing deal,” he says.
“Thanks to all the technology that’s available for a reasonable cost, a young songwriter can create their own demos and perhaps have a partner who goes out and solicits opportunities or uncovers uses in local advertisers and TV—and there is huge opportunity in that market, it’s a gold mine. All you have to do is write the theme tune for Game of Thrones and you’re set. There are thousands of uses for music, and it falls on the individual songwriter to get out there and find them.”