Jimmy Webb enjoyed a sterling career as a songwriter in the 1960s – his website bills him as “America’s Songwriter”, and it’s not an unreasonable title given his rich catalogue of hits like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. After writing for Glen Campbell, Richard Harris, and The 5th Dimension, he launched a solo career in 1970. But unlike contemporaries Carole King and Isaac Hayes, who made the transition from songwriter to solo star, he was always a fringe figure. His thin, wheezy voice and his interest in using his solo albums for self-expression as well as a songwriting vehicle kept him from the mainstream. But his solo albums are fascinating, with songs that other artists made into hits, and there’s plenty of interest for musical geeks such as myself to pick over.
Picking five favourite albums seems excessive for someone who’s only made eight solo albums of original material, so I’ve sneakily included an Art Garfunkel album of Webb’s songs as my fifth choice. As well as his albums of original material, Webb’s also released several albums reworking his earlier hits.
#5 – Watermark – Art Garfunkel (1977)
Jimmy Webb had already written ‘All I Know’ from Garfunkel’s debut album, so a fully fledged collaboration between the pair was a good choice. Garfunkel avoids the big hits like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and instead offers exquisite interpretations of lesser known items from Webb’s catalogue.
#4 – Land’s End (1974)
After his first three albums failed to break him as a solo artist, Webb switched to Reprise, and produced a sumptuous album with all star backing including Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, and members of Elton John’s backing band.
#3 – And So On (1971)
Webb’s second solo album is more focused on song-craft after his debut dedicated a lot of space to music industry rants. It opens with the impressionist ‘Met Her On A Plane’, and other beautiful songs like ‘If Ships Were Made To Sail’ and ‘All My Love’s Laughter’. The shifting dynamics of ‘Highpockets’ make for an overlooked album track.
#2 – El Mirage (1977)
Webb’s fifth album features his strongest batch of original songs – ‘Highwayman’ was later a standard for Johnny Cash and friends, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’ is an enduring standard, and ‘P.F. Sloan’ is reworked from his debut. The arrangements from George Martin also add another dimension to the lush songs.
#1 – Ten Easy Pieces (1996)
Webb reworked ten of his most popular songs in stripped back versions – while there are backing musicians, the focus is on Webb’s piano and voice. While the almost eight minutes of ‘McArthur Park’ drag in the stripped down format, the rest of the album is filled with treasures like ‘All I Know’, ‘If These Walls Could Speak’, and ‘Wichita Lineman’.
Additionally, one of my favourite Webb songs is from one of his weaker albums – from 1982’s Angel Heart, ‘Old Wing Mouth’ makes great use of Michael McDonald as the icing on an over-looked song.