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 use of his solo albums for self-expression, kept him from the mainstream. But his solo albums are fascinating, with terrific songs that other artists made into hits, and there’s plenty of interest to pick over.
Picking five favourite albums seems excessive for someone who’s only released 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.
Five Best Jimmy Webb Albums
#5: Watermark – Art Garfunkel
Jimmy Webb had already written ‘All I Know’ for 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. While it’s mostly comprised of Webb originals, there’s a Webb arranged cover of ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, while James Taylor and Paul Simon join Garfunkel for a nostalgic cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’.
#4: Land’s End
After his first three albums failed to break through as a solo artist, Webb switched to Reprise. Land’s End was a sumptuous album with an all star backing including Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, and members of Elton John’s backing band. There aren’t many Webb standards here, but songs like ‘Ocean In Her Eyes’ and ‘Cloudman’ are tuneful and pretty.
#3: And So On
After his debut squandered running time on angry rants, Webb’s second solo album focuses on exquisite song-craft. It opens with the impressionism of ‘Met Her On A Plane’, and features other beautiful songs like ‘If Ships Were Made To Sail’ and ‘All My Love’s Laughter’. The shifting dynamics of ‘Highpockets’ make for a strong, overlooked album track.
#2: El Mirage
Webb’s fifth album features his strongest batch of original songs – ‘Highwayman’ was later a hit for Johnny Cash et al, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’ is an enduring, jazzy standard, and ‘P.F. Sloan’ is reworked from Webb’s debut. The arrangements from George Martin also add another dimension to Webb’s lush songs.
#1: Ten Easy Pieces
Webb revisited his back-catalogue on Ten Easy Pieces, with the advantage of a deeper and more pleasant singing voice. He re-recorded ten of his most popular songs in stripped back versions – 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 – featured on 1982’s Angel Heart, ‘Old Wing Mouth’ makes great use of Michael McDonald as the icing on an over-looked song.
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I’m mostly familiar with Isaac Hayes version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix so when I hear it’s disciplined parent version I always marvel at that a neat and tidy and affecting song it is
Yeah, I’ve probably spent the most time with the Isaac Hayes version too, actually – it’s the first one I heard.
My number one has to be Wichita Lineman, a masterpiece built on the private life of a guy up a telephone pole, fixing something. Try giving this idea to a class of budding songwriters: “Make a song out of THAT”.
More conventional but equally poignant, By The Time I Get To Phoenix is the writer imagining the day of the girl he’s just left. Like Wichita LIneman, it was beautifully delivered by Glen Campbell.
Carpet Man gets the full, gale-force Fifth Dimension treatment as the narrator is invited to the wedding of the girl who’s been messing him around.
And fourth,a song about another songwriter: Phil “P F” Sloan (who wrote Eve of Destruction, among others). Seems like Webb saw Sloan as a sort of younger brother and fellow craftsman. Check out a briliant version by British band Unicorn.
My post was about albums rather than songs, but his legacy really is songs, generally in their cover versions. Nice top 4.
I wasn’t aware of this person or his work, but now that I am, I wanna hear more!
You know his songs though right? Wichita Lineman? Up Up and Away? The one about cake in the rain?
I know Wichita Lineman, but probably not by him. Much research required!
I am a big fan of his songs, but never have checked out the solo work. Will check out some of your suggestions.
Ten Easy Pieces probably is a good choice – you get a nice selection of his most popular songs. Then hit the 1970s if you want to go deeper.
Angel Heart is a great album. Jeff Pocaro on drums. David Paich. Steve Lukather. Basically, it’s Toto.
It’s amazing how he got all those flash bands when he wasn’t a big seller – got Ringo and Elton John’s guys on Land’s End, got George Martin on El Mirage, got Toto and Loggins/McDonald on Angel Heart.