What drew together the son of a sharecropper from Delight, Arkansas and the minister’s boy from Eld City, Oklahoma? They were separated by a decade; one conservative, one liberal; one singer, one songwriter; one an establishment country star, the other a long-haired pop wunderkind – the paths of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb first crossed when Campbell chose to record Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967. The Oklahoma kid had written the song as a young staff songwriter at Motown’s Jobete arm, where it was recorded by a most atypical Motor City artist (Paul Petersen, of The Donna Reed Show) and promptly shelved. Johnny Rivers, an early champion of Webb’s, recorded the song, and it came to Campbell’s attention. The rising country star had recently scored with John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” after a prosperous career as a session musician and briefly, as a Beach Boy. “Phoenix” bested “Gentle” on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, netting Campbell two Grammy Awards for his vocals; the album of the same name became the first-ever country album to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. The Webb/Campbell team was off and running, kicking off a string of hit songs including “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Where’s the Playground Susie,” “Honey, Come Back” and more. Fantasy Records’ new CD/DVD set Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb – In Session (Fantasy FAN-34070-00, 2012) offers rich insight into the relationship between these two talented gentlemen, both behind the scenes and in front of the microphone.
The singer and the songwriter met on December 9, 1988 at the studios of Canada’s CHCH-TV for two segments of the interview-and-song program In Session, from which this new release is derived. The joint appearance occurred just months after the release of Light Years, Campbell’s 44th album, which contained eight Webb compositions out of ten songs. The DVD preserves the entirety of both segments, while the CD offers all of the musical performances, save a couple of brief fragments. The format of In Session is a simple one, with both artists offering commentary and then illustrating with a performance. Webb often speaks directly to the camera, and then he and Campbell will banter and offer tidbits about a particular song’s origin before performing it. For the musical portions, Webb takes the piano and leads a small band, while Campbell holds the stage on guitar and vocals. The easy rapport of the two men is very much in evidence as they run through their greatest hits as well as some less expected choices. Naturally, the entire set takes on added poignancy with the knowledge that Campbell is currently fighting Alzheimer’s disease, even as he continues to perform his pop and country hits to adoring audiences on his current Goodbye Tour.
Perhaps ironically, that initial collaboration “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is absent, save for a brief snatch as Webb discusses it on the DVD. Its follow-up, “Wichita Lineman,” is heard in a lovely, spare rendition, a reminder of just how serendipitous a commercial assignment can be: Campbell sought out Webb to craft a follow-up to “Phoenix” with a similar geographical bent. “Wichita Lineman” was inspiration borne from necessity, and overshadowed its predecessor; the album built around the song went to No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, while the single went all the way to No. 1 Country and AC, and No. 3 Pop. (Not wanting to end a good thing, Webb soon provided Campbell with “Galveston.” It, too, went to No. 1 Country and AC, No. 3 Pop!)
In the program, Webb recalls him and Campbell first meeting on the set of a Chevrolet commercial, existing “on the opposite end of the political spectrum,” but “as time went on, [they] became very, very close.” Webb tapped into something in Campbell’s persona that allowed him to write such deeply personal songs, so frequently infused with strains of melancholy, yearning and reflection. Even the songs not written for Campbell, like “Phoenix,” found a successful interpreter in him. Webb and Campbell preface a performance of Light Years’ “If These Walls Could Speak” with the revelation that the song was written for Waylon Jennings. When Jennings declined to record it, Campbell stepped in, cottoning to it from the demo recording. He shares the experience with the television audience of translating Webb’s tricky chord progressions from piano to guitar. Campbell’s playful side is also on display as he pokes fun at Waylon and Don Ho with spot-on impressions.
As illuminating as the spoken contributions from both men are, the songs naturally speak volumes themselves. Just hit the jump for more!
It’s fascinating to hear Campbell approach the songs in these pared-down renditions very different from the familiar, orchestrated album versions. In fact, these performances are in a style quite similar to how Webb approaches them when he performs in concert himself. Webb introduces their take on “Galveston” with an explanation as to its raw, slowed-down arrangement. “MacArthur Park,” surely one of the most misunderstood songs ever, is performed in its full seven-minute splendor, complete with dialogue from Webb asserting his belief that his song is a straightforward love song written about the end of a relationship. Campbell brings an emotional directness to it that cuts to the bone. (In Webb’s 1998 book Tunesmith, as perfect a tome on the art of songwriting as you’ll find, he volunteers that his song “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” “recently found its way onto a respected list of the Ten Most Perfect Songs Ever Written. I add in the same breath that ‘MacArthur Park’ recently appeared in a book about the worst songs of all time!”)
Another intense performance is that of “The Moon.” Campbell sings the poetic lyrics as if they were his own, embodying the character in the song with reverence as Webb’s delicate accompaniment allows him to soar. Campbell embellishes his famous guitar solo on “Wichita Lineman” and tackles Webb’s song “Sunshower” solo, performing it for its composer-lyricist. As Campbell never released “Sunshower” on any studio album, it’s one of the essential performances on the CD. Campbell and Webb discuss their 1969 hit “Honey, Come Back,” though it’s not performed, and Webb reveals that the song was actually a writing exercise for him!
In Session is best appreciated on the DVD, with the complete spoken portions intact. The CD makes for great listening, too, but songs often have introductions, and in one case (“MacArthur Park”) the music is jarringly interrupted for the spoken segment. Lee Hildebrand has contributed a new essay for the package, drawing on comments from Webb about his friend and musical brother. Joe Tarantino has mastered the CD. In Hildebrand’s notes, Webb confesses that “there’s no way it can compare with what has happened with the family, but in terms of someone outside the family, I would have to be the one who feels the most [distress about Campbell’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis].” That’s no surprise. The deep well of mutual respect, affection, camaraderie and innate understanding between Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell shines through on In Session. Any fan of the art of classic songwriting and performance shouldn’t miss this one.
You can order In Session here!