NiteLife Person of the Week: Jimmy Webb at 70

By Rob Lester

Jimmy WebbThis week marks songwriter/performer Jimmy Webb‘s 70th birthday.  On the eve of Webb’s 70th, Brian Gari, who’s usually singing/playing his own creations took to the Metropolitan Room stage to lovingly honor one of his heroes with a deeply felt set of songs and the stories behind them, including truly rare material.  While a certain Presidential campaign is getting loads of press, if I were allowed to campaign for a one-shot cabaret show to be “re-elected” for a return engagement, this fascinating, sweetly sung concert told the story of the breakthrough years: struggles that found him sweeping floors before sweeping up awards, struggling before stardom hit.  “Didn’t We” at NiteLife Exchange want to salute Jimmy Webb?  You bet. Jimmy Webb 2His career is still going “Up, Up and Away” with a tour taking him far from the U.S.A, where the his early songs saluted locales—“Wichita Lineman”; “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”; “Galveston”; “MacArthur Park”— with concerts in Scandinavia and the U.K.

Brian GariThe show by Brian Gari (left) is chock full of interesting anecdotes, such as composer-lyricist Webb suddenly diving in to write a full musical while he was supposed to be concentrated on his finals in college.  And so he flunked out.  Inspiration had hit, but the show wasn’t a hit; it was never produced.  But did you know that the score contained that heartbreaker “Didn’t We?” which did very well on its own as a stand-alone, having been recorded by artists including Sinatra and Streisand.  Barely out of his teens, he made a connection with an arm of the Motown publishing company and placed a number on the Christmas album being recorded by The Supremes.  

While our readership may be more focused on cabaret’s MAC Awards, the same letters shuffled into CMA spell success for another honor–the Country Music Association —and the 2016 CMA Awards will be honoring Jimmy Webb with their Poet award and giving a a career award to Glen Campbell,  who recorded many of Webb’s works, both individual hit songs and going for the full album treatment.  Webb and Campbell cdBridging the eras between the Great American Songbook classic era and the 1960s-and-beyond pop singer/songwriter period, Webb has been one of the post-mid-20th-century tunesmiths to appeal to the old guard, those coming up in the 1960s-70s, and beyond.  In recent times, the kingpin of cabaret, Michael Feinstein, has dedicated a full album to Webb songs.  Feinstein's Webb cd

A few who, like Webb, are singers born in 1946 have recorded from his oeuvre: Liza MinnelliCher, and –most voluminously– Linda Ronstadt.  RonstadtA

Renaissance man of the industry, Webb not only writes music AND lyrics, but is a record producer, arranger, sings and accompanies himself at the piano, has scored films, and dedicated time to elusive Broadway-aimed theatre pieces.  After A Chorus Line and shows that followed, choreographer-director Michael Bennett had been working furiously on shows with Webb that were abandoned when Bennett became ill and passed away.

Sammy Cahn called Webb “one of the real geniuses” and some of the cabaret-leaning giants who sang Cahn’s lyrics have also turned to Jimmy Webb, with Rosemary Clooney’s version of “Time Flies” and Tony Bennett, one who took a crack at the opus “MacArthur Park” which was first made a hit by Richard Harris, Webb Harriswho was the early “pioneer” recording Webb, later revived by Donna Summer. And we must mention Art Garfunkel, long a Webb  master of interpretation. Garfunkel

But there’s nothing like Jimmy Webb singing and playing his own work.  He’s recorded many albums over the years, recently duetting on old and new classics with old and new friends.  He played cabaret’s crown jewel, the late, lamented Oak Room at the Algonquin.  And I saw him at the original NYC Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency — where he shared a bill with Paul Williams and Liz Callaway was the featured cabaret-savvy vocalist — and on his own at The Iridium, in another triumph.

Interestingly, Brian Gari seems to be a kindred spirit as a songwriter AND performer with a sincere and heartfelt intelligence that reminds me of the wonderful Jimmy in many ways.  In this year when the political spotlight may be on Donald Trump, who turned 70 in June, and Hillary Clinton, who turns 70 next year (her husband reaches the landmark age this week, and another former U.S. President, George W. Bush, did so last month), let’s be sure we save some attention and time for music.  So, happy birthday, Jimmy Webb, and let’s bring back the very informed Gari salute, please; it had the unfortunate timing to be held as a one-off on the hottest weekend day of the year!

Webb songsCabaret singers looking for material should keep Jimmy in mind and visit the Webb website to sight a list of his many works.  Some I long to hear come around again are:

“Little Tin Soldier” a great anti-war song recorded by Barbra Streisand

“Tunesmith” (also the name of his book about the craft)

Webb Tunesmith

“This Is Your Life” — a great carpe diem message

the nostalgic “In Cars” Webb in cars

and, for the adventurous singer, the heartbreaking but complex “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.”

and if you’re planning a holiday show and want something besides the usual suspects, note “Whatever Happened to Christmas?”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.