By Richie Unterberger

By the time he released his first Reprise album in late 1970, Jimmy Webb was already one of the most successful songwriters of his era. He was barely into his twenties when the Fifth Dimension's recording of "Up, Up and Away" became the first of his songs to be made into a Top Ten hit. Huge smash covers of Webb tunes followed in 1968 and 1969 with Richard Harris's "MacArthur Park" and Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." His compositions were cut by scores of artists, from Johnny Rivers and Dusty Springfield to Frank Sinatra, the Four Tops, and Jackie DeShannon. At a time when the art of crafting songs for others was being overtaken by groups and solo performers who wrote material for themselves, Webb was viewed as something of a torchbearer for the Tin Pan Alley way of doing things, where the behind-the-scenes writer was considered at least as important as the singer.

    Yet at a time when Webb could have been expected to coast on his laurels and continue to churn out hit pop songs for others, the songwriter himself had other ideas. Even before recording for Reprise, he was started to explore other directions, writing for films and working on an autobiographical Broadway musical that never got produced. Too, his composing was starting to take a less commercial turn, away from the middle-of-the-road pop with which he'd been so successful in his initial splash. And Webb was already starting to perform on his own, and thinking about both writing and singing his songs.

    As he explained to Peter Doggett for a 1994 article in Record Collector, "There was always the temptation of money, the idea that I didn't have to do anything that didn't come easy, that my life had already been decided, that I'd accomplished everything I ever needed to by the age of 23. All I had to do was cruise and make this fabulous money. What happened was that I played a gig at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, with Connie Stevens. It just seemed like a nice thing to do, and the money was good. But when I came back, I realized that my integrity was on the line. I didn't want to play Vegas. I could almost sense, like a vague sound in the distance, an approaching storm, that I wasn't being taken seriously as an artist. If I wanted to have a true career, I was going to have to write and perform my own music. Even if I didn't sound like the Fifth Dimension or Glen Campbell, whatever I did sound like would have to suffice."

    Added Webb, "The kind of music I was starting to write then wasn't going to be recorded by those artists, anyway. I was getting very politicized in my writing, very controversial; I was writing about drugs, about the war, about pollution. Frank Sinatra was not going to sing a song about the environment being polluted. So who was going to do these songs? The Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash wouldn't, because they wrote their own. It was almost inevitable: it had to be me. I don't know how else it could have turned out. I only know that I could have made a lot more money if I'd done something else."

    Words and Music would actually not be Webb's first venture as a recording artist. He'd been on a Johnny Rivers-produced single as part of the Strawberry Children, and a collection of mid-'60s demos that had been overdubbed without his permission (Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb) appeared on a 1968 Epic LP. Words and Music would be his first proper solo album, however. It was done at a time when several composers who'd first gained notice for composing material for others were starting to focus on their own careers as singer-songwriters, such as Carole King and Randy Newman. It was natural that Webb would find a home for such efforts on the Reprise label, which (along with its parent company Warner Brothers) at the end of the late 1960s and early 1970s was signing up singer-songwriters left and right, including Newman, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, Van Dyke Parks, and John Sebastian.

    Unusually for an era in which Hollywood session players would take a heavy part in singer-songwriter albums, most of the instrumentation on Words and Music was recorded by just two men, Webb and Fred Tackett. Tackett had played guitar and other instruments on previous recordings by several artists Webb had written for and been associated with, including Johnny Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, Richard Harris, and Thelma Houston. There was just a little assistance from Darrell Birch on percussion, Tom Scott on sax, and Webb's sister Susan on backup vocals. Webb also acted as producer, making  this something of a DIY album before this approach had become more common, though Paul McCartney and Emitt Rhodes released LPs on which they'd handled virtually everything themselves shortly before Words and Music came out.
    "Fred Tackett played the drums, the guitars and the bass," Webb told Record Collector, "and I did the keyboards, the arrangements and the words. The components were brilliant, and we did some quite bizarre things -- I remember playing crystal glasses and tuning them with different amounts of water, and taking some big wooden boards and sawing them up with an electric saw in front of the microphone. We worked very hard on getting individual things right, but when I listen to the record now, it sounds as if it was cut in a garage. It's such a small record; the bass drum sounds like a cardboard box. I would listen all night long to the way the acoustic guitar sounded, and never really hear the way it all sounded together. It was obvious that when I went from 'MacArthur Park' to Words and Music, I was trying to create some change of direction in my life. I wanted to scale things down, to find a role for myself outside the pre-conceived notion of the Jimmy Webb sound, whatever that was."

    Those expecting to hear something like "MacArthur Park" extended into a progressive rock suite, or even catchy pop tunes along the lines of what he'd written for the likes of Glen Campbell, may have been taken aback by Webb's new approach. Not only was it less pop-oriented than his late-'60s hits, but it was more personal and idiosyncratic in both its composition and lyrical focus. "Sleepin' in the Daytime," arguably the highlight of the record (if not his entire solo career), was a downbeat take on the pollution fouling Los Angeles, albeit with funky nearly psychedelic guitar work. Cynicism about the music business reared its head in "Song Seller"; Los Angeles took some more bashing in "Jerusalem"; music critics took a beating in "Dorothy Chandler Blues"; and religious supplication paced the gospel-tinged rocker "Psalm One-Five-O." Yet the romantic pop tone more prevalent in Webb's '60s work hadn't vanished, emerging to some extent in "Love Song" (from the rejected score Webb had done for the hit movie Love Story) and "Once Before I Die." Categorization of the album was made yet more elusive with the inclusion of a medley of three pop-rock covers: the Everly Brothers' "Let It Be Me," the Association's "Never My Love," and the Monkees' 'I Wanna Be Free." The gothic funereal sounds you hear at the beginning of "Song Seller," incidentally, are actually overdubbed tracks of car horns made to sound like an organ, and originally intended for use in the Love Story soundtrack.

    The most renowned song on Words and Music, however, is probably "P.F. Sloan," a tribute to a Los Angeles songwriter who'd been virtually forgotten by the beginning of the 1970s. Most famous for writing "Eve of Destruction," Sloan wrote or co-wrote a number of excellent pop-folk-rock covered for hits by the likes of the Turtles and the Searchers in the mid-1960s, as well as cutting some highly underrated albums of his own. By 1970, however, he'd virtually vanished from the industry, and it was unusual for a major songwriter to pay such direct homage to a peer on record.

    "P.F. Sloan is the heroic figure of the songwriter who goes on and keeps writing no matter what," explained Jimmy Webb to Paul Zollo of SongTalk magazine. "You know, he's a great songwriter. 'Eve of Destruction' is one of the best political statements, or any other kind of statements, ever made in a song. And you can go home and play it right now. And everything that he was talking about is still going on right now...The guy was hot. He was one of the first songwriters to want to be a singer and to really try to do that. And it was tough then to do that. There was definitely pressure for me just to stay a songwriter. Just to behave myself and be a songwriter and everything would be fine. He was one of the first guys to go up against all that and I look up to him, I admire him."

    The Association covered the song on an early 1971 single, and though it got some regional action, it didn't make the national charts. Oddly, though, the subject of the song did hear it at the time. "I first heard it at a hot dog stand on Sunset Boulevard," remarked P.F. Sloan on an America On Line chat session in 1997. "The Association were singing it. It was 1971. I had borrowed some coins for coffee...I was away from music and living on someone's couch. I thought to myself, 'God is still alive, and remembers and loves me." To SongTalk, he added, "The first time I ever heard the song on the air was a divine moment for me. I had had all my royalties suspended. I had absolutely no money. I had no place to live. I was at this hot dog stand on Vine Street, and trying to scrape up 50 cents for a hot dog, and out of the speakers from the hot dog place was that song. And I was thinking, 'Is this a divine play or what?'"

    Like the Association's "P.F. Sloan," however, Words and Music would not make the charts, despite good reviews in CREEM, Cash Box, and Rolling Stone, whose Jon Landau called it "one of the truly underrated works of the '70s." It set the pattern all of Webb's 1970s solo albums would follow, gaining critical praise while failing to attract airplay or sales. It didn't keep him from continuing to record regularly throughout the decade, however, following Words and Music just half a year later with And So: On, also reissued by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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