Few songwriters have reached the stratospheric heights as that of Jimmy Webb. By age 16, he was working for Motown Records. At age 20, he wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which later was a smash for Glen Campbell
and would become one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century.
With a litany of hits that included “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Highwayman” and “MacArthur Park,” Webb’s compositions have been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to R.E.M.
“Being a songwriter seems to have been stamped on my diaper in heaven or something,” the 66-year-old Oklahoma native said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, nor do I know how to do anything else.”
It’s a wealth of experience he plans to talk about Tuesday for a master class at Rodeo Opry sponsored by Oklahoma City Community College. The event is free and open to the public. That evening, he will perform at a sold-out show to close out OCCC’s cultural arts series.
An elder statesman of his art, Webb has taken a leadership role in railing against violations of copyright law. On the board of directors of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, he doesn’t shy away from ASCAP’s aggressive, sometimes controversial, pursuit of royalties for its members.
“If they really want to come after us songwriters and destroy us, we’re going to fight them,” he said. “I don’t mean to overdramatize it, but they’re trying to wipe us out.”
Perhaps paradoxically, the rough times for songwriters come when there are more of them than ever before, largely thanks to the Internet and ever-cheaper digital technology.
“I think one of the more ponderable questions of the age would be: Why does everyone think they can do this?” he said. “I’m not being snotty. I know I’m not the greatest songwriter who ever lived and I know I got very lucky when I was a kid. I try to be realistic about what has brought me my good fortune. But you probably have 10 to 14 million songwriters out there today.”
As for the why, that might just be Webb engaging in old-fashioned songwriting rhetoric. After all, he said,
one of music’s most endearing mysteries is how it forges deep
connections with so many people.
“You don’t ever envision your music having as much to do with people’s lives as it does,” he said.
One of the best things about performing, he added, is hearing from fans about how his work has impacted their lives.
“It’s almost like being in a confessional,” Webb said. “They connect [the music] to something specific in their life. Here’s a guy I never saw before and he is telling me he never would’ve gotten married to his wife if it wasn’t for ‘Wichita Lineman.’ There’s some sort of miracle at work here, because this music actually goes out into the world and it does things.”
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