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Posts tagged ‘Jimmy Webb’

(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

Still melting in the dark

Jimmy WebbJimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.

Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.

The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.

The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.

There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”

* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.