Jimmy Webb Illustrates It’s the Singer as Much as The Song at Cohoes Music Hall 

I’ve learned over a half-century of interviewing musicians that the questions are nearly irrelevant. My job is to listen. Jimmy Webb is a legendary singer/songwriter who has given the world countless earworms in the form of songs for artists he’s helped establish as million sellers. 

 Seeing him perform alone at a grand piano gives me the same kind of thrill I always get when I talk one on one to the people that make our journey through this world a little – no, make that a lot – easier.  

Jimmy spoke to me at Cohoes Music Hall Thursday night, April 14th. The fourth oldest theater in the United States with its gilded and peeling ceiling and ever-present ghosts disappeared. The painfully small audience of about 80 people became irrelevant. It was just Jimmy and me. 

I was a little boy again transfixed by a visit from a distant uncle I don’t get to see often enough, and he was regaling me with stories about Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings, The Fifth Dimension, and Frank Sinatra, all artists he’s given voice to. He was speaking to ME! And from the standing ovations he got, there is no doubt in my mind that he had that same effect on everyone else in that theater. 

He attacked the keys of the grand piano-like Little Richard returning from the grave and cocked his head back spewing out lyrics – a human-machine gun quite literally forcing the words to materialize out of the ethers. These songs were his before they became gifts to the hitmakers we accept as superstars who took them into the public’s general consciousness. 

He called Glen Campbell a genius, marveling at his bravery to do a goodbye tour as he disappeared into dementia. Sometimes Glen would forget and do the same song twice on that last tour, and at one stop the audience in unison shouted “sing it again.” Jimmy told me in an interview a few years ago: “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.” 

Webb told us that as a 75-year-old artist he’s largely regarded as irrelevant by Millenials, but he opened with “Highwayman,” a song he originally wrote for Glen Campbell who recorded it with minimal success for an indie label, but when Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson recorded it a few years ago calling themselves The Highwaymen, it became a huge hit. 

Webb once told me the back story of the song. “They were all down there to help Johnny Cash through rough health kind of scare, and so Glen went down just to help and ended playing “The Highwayman” for the guys Waylon, Willie, Kris, etc. and he said, ‘There are four of you guys. There are four strong voices and different characters on this thing. Why didn’t you guys cut this.’ They sat down and taught them the song. “ 

Webb dismissed his 1960s hit “MacArthur Park” with a derisive comment about the endless questions he gets concerning the meaning of the line about the cake being let out in the rain. In 1968, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas offered him $40,000 a week for eight weeks to play “MacArthur Park.”   

“All I had to do was sit at a piano, and the piano would come out of the stage on a hydraulic lift with dancing fountains behind it. Eight times 40. That was a fortune! Elvis was playing the Hilton International, and they were paying him $250,000 a week, okay?” 

When I interviewed Webb in 2006, I was warned not to ask him about that song which he says today was just because he got tired of explaining what the lyric about cake out in the rain means. “I don’t have any particular hang-ups about it. I’ve gone through a period where I’ve actually started listening to it and going, ‘Oh, that’s actually not so bad.’ I think it compares pretty favorably with other what I’d call hallucinogenic-inspired epics of the period. It makes as much sense as “Strawberry Fields Forever” or Don McLean’s “The Day the Music Died” (actually “American Pie”). 

“Wichita Lineman” arguably was the best moment of the night. Another big hit for Campbell, it contains the line “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” Webb ended the number with the ever-diminishing click, click, click of a single piano key cementing in your mind the image of the lineman on his pole. That song sold 44 million copies. 

He dedicated “Galveston” to veterans: “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying. Before I dry the tears she’s crying, before I see your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston.” 

Half a century into his career, Webb accepts his impact on the stars he’s helped elevate with a shrug. It’s just what he does. And when he comes to visit us, he becomes the uncle who came to dinner. He once told me, “I personally think it takes a kind of magical almost supernatural bonding between an artist and a song to create a kind of another thing, another entirely another sound. And that sound is what becomes a hit.” 

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