Jimmy “Wichita Lineman” Webb to Play Cohoes Music Hall

Tony Bennett once told me his career and reputation were all about the songs. That was more important than the artist who sings them.

“Well, good for him,” says Jimmy Webb almost sarcastically. “I don’t know. Mick Jagger wrote a song called “It’s The Singer Not The Song.” I personally think it takes a kind of magical almost supernatural bonding between an artist and a song to create a kind of other thing, another entirely other sound. And that sound is what becomes a hit.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Webb himself, you certainly know his hits. He wrote Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” and “The Highwayman,” the song that became the signature for Waylon, Willie, Kris, and Johnny and most recently for The Highwaywomen. Webb has written an unbelievable number of hits for an incredibly diverse group of stars.  He’s helped define artists in diverse genres from Art Garfunkel to Linda Ronstadt. And his songs have been covered by everyone from Guns ’n’ Roses to Kanye West. On Saturday night, November 23rd, his touring show “An Evening with Jimmy Webb” featuring him on piano plays the Cohoes Music Hall at 7:30 p.m.

“Less than 24 hours ago, I woke up from a sound sleep and went into the living room and put my iPhone down on my grand piano and played for about a half hour because I was working anyway,” says Webb about how he exercises his muse. “I was lying in bed and piecing together these chord changes and saying that would be nice. I could base a whole song on that. That’s the way I think, and that’s a song if I could just get that down. I think it’s harder in your 70s to get up and do that, but the alternative is terrible because if you turn over and go back to sleep, that’s gone. You’ll never get that back, particularly if you’re over 50.”

Coming up with the lyrics can be more laborious. “I’ll be working on key lines and sometimes that key line will come to me. It takes me a lot longer to remember my repertoire these days than it used to, but I’m sure there’s one or two in there that I roused myself from some other activity and either made into or finished something I couldn’t seem to finish.”

SlipCover, his latest CD, shows us a Jimmy Webb stripped down to his naked muse. On it he plays other people’s compositions on piano as instrumentals by such great artists as Jagger/Richards (“Moonlight Mile”), Billy Joel (“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”), and Paul Simon (“Old Friends”). His versions are lush and reflect his early background. Webb is the son of a preacher. “My original training was in church, and I incorporated various styles of playing as I went along in the Las Angeles music scene.

“In my late teens I began to get more into classical music itself and realized how deep the pool really was, and I began to draw more on classical music, both for inspiration and for some of the piano techniques heard there that frankly I was never taught. I’d just listen to something, and I’ve been blessed with an ability to sometimes cop that and use whatever I hear. To a lesser degree it all boils down to the way I play the piano, and it’s pretty much solidified at this point in my 70s.

“I played a lot with the Wrecking Crew. I wasn’t an official member, but I use them on all my dates, particularly Larry Knechtel. He taught me a lot of the intros. He famously played the intro to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the big solo in the middle, and he kind of taught me the studio side of things. I’ve always been, believe it or not, heavily influenced by Ferrante and Teicher.  Used to love all their records.”

If Webb had never written another song, his “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” would secure his place in musical history. It captures the feeling of futility and loneliness of a failed relationship as well as any pop hit of the 20th century. And it marked the high-water mark in a unique relationship Webb had with Campbell who performed the number on his last tour as he slowly disappeared into Alzheimer’s disease.

“A lot of times fate brings a certain artist together with a song. In my case with Glen, we found a certain sweet spot where we could work together and create the same trick more than once. We were just very, very lucky, And I was lucky to have known him. He was by the far the most – how shall I put it – the greatest singer that I will ever get a chance to work with, and I think it will be a long time before we see another musician with as much talent packed in one frame as Glen had. He recorded other people’s songs, and I went on to work with other artists, but it was a wonderful interlude in our lives. We were able to share that time together, and it was very, very important in our lives.”

“An Evening with Jimmy Webb” at the Cohoes Music Hall, Saturday, November 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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