Friday, September 25, 2009

Glen Campbell - Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb (1974)

Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb talk about their classic, overlooked 1974 collaboration

by Robin Platts

"I just love Jimmy Webb's songs," says Glen Campbell. "Jimmy was like Brian Wilson. He was like McCartney and Lennon. His songs are timeless."

It should have been a glorious comeback. As the 60s came to a close, the combination of singer-guitarist Glen Campbell and songwriter Jimmy Webb had been all over the airwaves: By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, Galveston, Where's The Playground, Susie...

Campbell and Webb's first run of records were smashes, both commercially and artistically. Although Webb's tunes were memorably recorded by other artists (Art Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension and let's not forget Richard Harris), Campbell was perhaps the perfect voice for his compositions.

But after that first chart run, Webb and Campbell had pretty much gone on their separate ways. Webb was determined to make his own mark as a recording artist, and Campbell's energies were increasingly focused on touring and his hugely successful TV program The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. By 1974, Campbell's Top 10 days appeared to be over, and Webb's own records, although critically well received, had failed to match his success as a songwriter for other artists.

"He and I had already crested, in terms of our initial success on the charts," says Webb. "It had actually been a few years since By The Time I Get To Phoenix. There had been kind of a lull for us on the charts. And it seemed a good idea to go into the studio and make a concerted effort to try to come up with another big record, a big Webb/Campbell commercial venture. So, first of all, it was about that. And enough time had passed that you see the word 'reunion' cropping up as the album title. We went into the studio and, I think, probably made our best album ever."

"We did a lot of work at my house," Webb recalls. "In fact, that photo on the album cover was taken in my front yard in Encino. I moved my grand piano out into the front yard under the trees. The trees were so beautiful, reflected in the high gloss finish on the grand piano. It was really kind of a 'made at home' project. I had a studio in my house at the time, so a lot of the initial demos and the fooling around and woodshedding that goes into a record were done up at my place, just hanging out."

Although I Keep It Hid and Just This One Time were drawn from his back catalog, most of Webb's contributions were new compositions. "I created at least six of those tunes for that record," he recalls. "I remember writing You Might As Well Smile for that project. It was a free and easy song selection process. But I think we really did a good job. It was a real natural sounding thing - all the tunes were really Glen Campbell tunes. We weren't really trying to get out of the envelope at all. We were actually trying to recreate some of the success we'd had at the beginning."

Although none of the numbers were bound for the charts, all were up to the high standard that Campbell and Webb had previously established. Campbell cites You Might As Well Smile and The Moon's A Harsh Mistress as two of his all-time favorite Webb songs. Two and a half decades later, he enthuses about these songs as though he'd just heard them for the first time. "I just get such a joy out of singing them. The Moon's A Harsh Mistress... Oh, what a song! (Sings) See her how she flies... I still do that. It's so good!"

Although subtitled The Songs of Jimmy Webb, Reunion includes two compositions by other writers. The album opens with Lowell George's Roll Me Easy. "I don't know why that was in there," laughs Campbell, "but Jimmy played it for me and I loved it. I thought it was great."

"That comes out of the fact that I was really fairly close with Lowell George, and a great fan," Webb explains. "It was my belief that Glen should start recording other writers."

The other outside contribution was About The Ocean. If it sounds like a Jimmy Webb tune, it might because its author was Jimmy's sister, Susan Webb.

"I was trying to help Susie get going as a songwriter in those days," Jimmy explains. "That song is on there because Glen wanted to do it. He heard her playing it around the house and said, 'Let me try that,' and started playing it. Next thing you know, it's part of the program."

Throughout the album, Campbell's renderings of Webb's richly melancholy songs are astounding in their sincerity. If you didn't know it, you'd swear that Glen had written them himself.

"Well, a lot of people think he did!" says Webb with a chuckle. "I basically considered that to be a compliment."

"They are (personal)," says Campbell. "They fit. That's what drew me to them. When I heard Johnny Rivers' record of Phoenix, I didn't like the record that much, but I cried because of the lyrics, because I was so homesick at the time. That took me right back to Arkansas. I almost sang, 'By the time I make Arkansas, she'll be sleeping,' but Jimmy would've probably had a hissy. I told him that, and he said, 'Don't you dare put Arkansas - I'm from Oklahoma!'"

After that first success, Campbell proved to be the perfect voice for Galveston. Webb's anti-war classic had originally been cut by Hawaiian crooner Don "Tiny Bubbles" Ho. "Don gave me his single and he did it like Jimmy had written it, as a ballad," recalls Campbell. "(Sings Ho-style) Galveston, oh Galveston... (Laughs) I said, I can understand why it wasn't a hit! It just wasn't for Don, you know? I just heard it faster when I went into the studio."

Although Webb didn't produce Reunion, his gorgeous arrangements and piano playing give the record his own mark. "Jimmy, as an arranger, is very articulate," says Campbell. "We'd play onto a track, get the track done, I'd put a vocal on, then I think he'd put strings on. And sometimes I'd go back and re-do some vocals after the strings were put on, because everything that he put on it would kind of give it a little different feeling."

The result was a beautifully executed, deeply felt collection of songs. But, despite their best efforts, Campbell and Webb's masterpiece failed to make the charts.

"I think we were both real disappointed when we didn't get the ride that we expected from the record company," says Webb. "And I think that that was the beginning of some real trouble between Glen and Capitol. I know that he eventually got so disgusted with them that he get up and literally walked out of the building, during a meeting."

"There was a lot of regret that we had, because we couldn't understand what the problem was," Webb continues. "And I think what neither one of us realized was that we were kind of at a crucial moment in history, and what was happening was that radio, Capitol radio, you know, was in the process of dropping Glen off the playlist when that record came out. And it didn't matter what was on the record, as much as it mattered that 'Well, we don't play that anymore.' They had had enough of him. They do things like that. It's almost like some sort of mental telepathy. There's no official position paper that goes out, no secret communiqué that's circulated to all these people at the same time... It just kinda works that way. Obviously we were going to be hurt, we were going to be confused, and we were going to blame the label. But it was just one of those things that was happening. There's not much you can do about it."

"I think it was too hip for 'em," Campbell says with a laugh. "I think Capitol let that album fall through the cracks. Between '72 and '75, it was the president of the label and all that stuff. "It's just who's running the show. A company can make a hit out of a mediocre half-decent record or song if they want to."

Radio's abandonment of Glen Campbell was short-lived, as it turned out. In 1975, he hit the top of the American charts with Rhinestone Cowboy, and repeated the feat two years later with Southern Nights.

"When Al Coury came back to Capitol, he worked his way up through the ranks at Capitol, we were real good friends, and that's when Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights and all the other stuff came out," Glen explains. Although Webb didn't write either of those hits, he did introduce the latter number to Campbell. "I'm the guy who played Southern Nights for him. I said, 'Here's this New Orleans writer - this sounds like something you could get your teeth into.' And, boy, that was the understatement of all time. I mean, he really made a hit record out of that song."

Despite the commercial failure of Reunion, the partnership endured. Through the years, almost every Glen Campbell album has included one or two Webb compositions. There have been no further hits, although there have been tracks that deserved to be, particularly Campbell's rendering of Webb's Highwayman, which Capitol foolishly refused to release as a single.
The later Campbell/Webb collaborations have been given a fair shake Down Under, where the Reunion album has been revamped and reissued on CD. "God bless Australia!" enthuses Webb. "You know, I've been touring down there for several years, and they always show up in great numbers. They have been instrumental, as a culture, in re-focusing some attention on us. Just the very fact that they put this record out..."

"This record" is a new CD version of Reunion, entitled Reunited, with fourteen additional Webb/Campbell bonus tracks added, comprising most of their post-Reunion collaborations. And a new collaborative album is in the works, possibly to be culled from a series of live dates at Feinstein's in New York.

"I played at Glen's birthday party a couple of years ago," Webb recalls. "It sounded so beautiful. I was playing a Fender Rhodes and he played guitar. And I thought, 'God, this is the way this music should be done - we should do an album like this.' So I started trying to talk him into it immediately."

Although a chart-topper seems unlikely in the current musical climate, here's hoping that Campbell and Webb's next reunion will find an audience. Even if it doesn't, the joy that Jimmy and Glen find in working together will be enough to make it worthwhile.

"Jimmy really is a songsmith," says Glen. "He can take a raw piece of material and make a horseshoe out of it."


  1. Great article - I love their music. I remember the old Glen Campbell TV show - good memories.

  2. Another superb entry on a great "lost" record - I love your taste, Robin. Where did this article originally appear? I recently got my hands on Webb's Words and Music album and although it's great, nothing matches his chemistry with Glen. What's the next step for someone interested in Webb's 70s output?

  3. Thanks, DZ. I originally wrote this for MOJO, but I'm a big believer in recycling, so I reworked it a little bit and posted it here.

    As for other Webb stuff, have you heard Zumpano? They did a superb version of Rosecrans Blvd and a pretty good version of Orange Air. I also really like Art Garfunkel's Watermark LP (mostly Webb songs). I also think Johnny Rivers' voice was really well-suited to Webb songs, but he only did a few, I think.