Jimmy Webb - An exclusive interview with legendary American singer, songwriter and composer ahead of his appearance at Rye International Jazz & Blues Festival on Sunday

Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb

American artist Jimmy Webb first rose to fame in 1967 when his song Up,Up and Away was a hit for 5th Dimension before going on to pen Wichita Lineman for Glen Campbell in 68, a song which transcends generations and has sold a reputed 40 Million copies.

Despite this audacious success, his life and career hasn’t been straightforward by any means.

Webb talks to us from his home in Oyster Bay, New York were he lives with his second wife Laura (who is also his manager).

He has a packed schedule on the Thursday before the Easter break yet there’s an infectious, relaxed rhythm to Webb’s Mid-West voice and you can sense he is keen to talk, so much so that he moves the slot back to afford me more time.

He is interrupting a mini-tour of the US in order to come over for the Jazz concert at the start of May. It seems quite an upheaval but he explains: “I love coming to the UK and London, the BBC, what can you say about the BBC?” and with a little nurturing, offers a peek into what we have in store in Rye: an evening of conversation, Webb at the piano and some wonderful anecdotes.

Jimmy Webb grew up in Oklahoma, the literal ‘son of a Preacher man’ so it was a strict childhood ‘we were the only children that had to bounce a quarter off our bunk on the way to church’ he tells me, a reference to his Father’s time serving in the US Military.

Ironically, he found socialising difficult due to their interminable moving from home to home, so he quickly found solace in books and music remarking that ‘it was a safer wicket to negotiate’ and with the encouragement of his Mother, was playing piano in the Church choir at twelve years of age.

What about the musical partnership with Glen Campbell? The first record Webb ever bought was apparently Glen Campbell’s at the age of fourteen.

Apposite then that they should eventually meet after much persistence by Webb, who goes onto eulogise about Campbell’s voice: “It was freakishly good, it could stretch over five octaves.”

The creative lantern still burns bright for Jimmy Webb. He tells me ‘one of the advantages of being a songwriter is you can take your vocation on your back’, he goes on to say:”When I’m in the studio working with other musicians or performing I’m blissful.”

He’s famed for being the only musician to have won awards as an artist, a songwriter and a composer but he’s philosophical about his choices: “I could have turned left and pursued classical music in a heartbeat, I love it, I listen to it all the time,” Incredibly, despite his musical back catalogue, he says his choice to pursue the singer/songwriter path was a ‘poisoned pill’ and cites the criticism that’s been levelled at him.

“Some people say I spread myself too thin, I don’t agree with that assessment, I have a different view of my career.”

This would also explain why he’s embraced the different artists who have chosen to cover his songs, including: Art Garfunkel, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Donna Summer, who charted at No.1 with a dance version of Macarthur Park.

So what next for Jimmy Webb? He is already working on a new album set for release next year and modestly chooses not to mention that his song When The Loving Was Easy features on Michael Ball’s recent number one UK Album.

If his stance in this interview is anything to go by, we can expect Webb to be controversial and to voice opinion through the music, something he feels many of his contemporaries choose not to do and remain on safer ground.

There seems so much more to ask Webb; I’m intrigued to know more about the Glen Campbell relationship, did they stay in touch after the halcyon days?

He answers with more emotion in his voice: “We stayed close all the way through, it was full of love.” Which points to why their respective children are good friends now.

I wonder if we can look forward to another generation of talented musicianship from the Campbell or Webb stable, however for now we should take the opportunity to enjoy this unique artist.

The evening with Jimmy Webb and special guest, which takes place on Sunday May 5, has been thoughtfully planned with support from Lianne Carroll and Ian Shaw, award winning Jazz artists with connections to Sussex.

Limited tickets available, you can reserve tickets by clicking here

By Stuart Large