By Richie Unterberger
Coming so soon after his rise to fame as one of the most successful pop songwriters of the late 1960s, Jimmy Webb's early singer-songwriter albums seemed almost deliberately uncommercial. 1970's Words and Music and 1971's And So: On (both reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) were each diverse records that delved into less pop-oriented tunes and more personal, idiosyncratic lyrics than he'd written as a younger man. There were also more conventional ballads that put him well within the standard early-'70s singer-songwriter style. The LPs might have been too eclectic for radio or listeners to pigeonhole, and neither of the records charted, though each garnered some good press. The same fate would befall 1972's Letters, the third and last album Webb released on Reprise.
first two Reprise albums had sold well, Webb's stock was still high
within the industry and his fan base strong. His solo records might not
have been getting played on the radio, but he was able to tour with a
band and find pockets of receptive audiences in various cities,
particularly New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. He was even recorded
live in London in April 1972 with an eye toward a possible concert
album. Webb's voice was showing wear, however, and the record was
shelved, though material from the tapes was issued in 2004 as part of a
limited edition box set.
Before going to London, however, Webb had completed the recording of an album that was more mainstream in both sound and content than his previous Reprise efforts. Perhaps there was a sense that, with a little nudge toward the center, Jimmy could finally break through to the large singer-songwriter market that had been created in the early 1970s by the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. It did mark the first time Webb used an outside producer for his 1970s recordings, those duties being handled by Larry Marks, whose varied resume included releases by Phil Ochs, Gene Clark, Lee Michaels, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emitt Rhodes, Lee Hazlewood, and Barbara Keith.
Letters was a more sedate, piano-oriented album than its predecessors, and soaked in the influence of Webb's peer and eventual close friend Joni Mitchell. "I was tremendously influenced by Joni Mitchell," he admitted to Peter Doggett of Record Collector in 1994. "She was a good friend, and I was fortunate enough to be around her when she was working on For the Roses and Court and Spark. We were just part of each other's lives for a while. I definitely envied that part of her work -- the idea that this is just a conversation you're listening in on. It can still be poetry, but not self-conscious or forced poetry. I got extremely under her spell as a writer -- I still am. I used to go to the studio and listen to her record, sit quietly in the back of the control room. After the Beatles, Joni was the next big blip on my radar screen, in terms of, 'Hey, pay attention: this girl is doing something a little bit different.'" Mitchell's longtime engineer Henry Lewy also did some engineering work for Letters as well.
Joni's influence is most apparent on one of the record's stronger cuts, "Simile," inspired by an incident at the Los Angeles Troubadour club. Webb had sent her roses and a letter after seeing her perform there early in her career, but the letter wasn't found by Mitchell until a few years later, as alluded to in the song's opening verse. More indirectly, several other tracks had a similar intimate, piano-based ambience, such as "Hurt Me Well," "Catharsis," "Piano," and "When Can Brown Begin," the last of which might have had a hint of Brian Wilson as well.
None of Webb's Reprise albums, however, stuck to a similar or predictable mood, and Letters was no exception in that regard. Two of the more lighthearted numbers, the Tex-Mex-influenced "Campo de Encino" and "Once in the Morning," were directly influenced by Jimmy's friendship with Harry Nilsson (another singer-songwriter, incidentally, who started as a behind-the-scenes supplier of songs to be recorded by others, though Nilsson made the transition to recording artist with far more success than Webb did). Nilsson had taunted Webb for not writing music with a sense of humor, and Jimmy responded by penning two of his most lighthearted numbers. They became Nilsson's favorite Webb tunes, and Jimmy would later recall that a Nilsson outtake version of "Campo de Encino" was found after Harry's death. That's Webb's sister Susan, incidentally, singing backup vocals on "Once in the Morning," as she does on "When Can Brown Begin," and as she had at various other points on his first pair of Reprise LPs.
In the midst of this new material and these new influences, however, came three songs that looked back to the past, each in a different manner. "Song Seller" had first seen the light of day on Words and Music less than two years previously, and is here remade in a harder-rocking fashion -- indeed, it's the only high-energy rocker on the record. "Galveston" had been a #4 hit for Glen Campbell in 1969, and Webb's own version is distinguished from the more familiar cover by a long instrumental intro. This was the first time Jimmy had elected to record a composition that had already been a hit for another artist on his Reprise albums, and while that might have come as a surprise to those who thought he'd be eager to capitalize on those songs' fame, perhaps Webb was more eager to carve a new identity for himself when he began a recording career of his own. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion was a cover of the classic Boudleaux Bryant ballad "Love Hurts," first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960 and later interpreted by numerous other artists, including Roy Orbison (who put it on the B-side of his 1961 chart-topper "Running Scared") and Nazareth (who'd have a Top Ten hit with it in 1976). But then, Webb had already recorded a medley of three pop-rock oldies on Words and Music, one of them being another song popularized by the Everly Brothers, "Let It Be Me."
Webb would put another version of "Love Hurts" on an August 1972 single. Alas, that would be his final Reprise release, as Letters, released the month before, met with no more commercial success than his initial pair of albums for the label. The singer-songwriter was able to keep recording without much interruption, however, moving to Asylum for his 1974 album Land's End, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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