There is a point on Jimmy Webb’s self-released Live and at Large: Jimmy Webb in the U.K. where the singer-songwriter turns to the audience and says, “If you think this is going to be a whole evening about anecdotes about dead people, you’re basically right.” And while Webb’s rich singing and emphatic piano playing make his performance reminiscent of his hero Burt Bacharach, it’s the experiences he shares with the audiences that make him unique. In person, Webb is no less an endearing raconteur as he tucks into a midday meal of eggs and pancakes at the Oyster Bay eatery Taby’s Burger House. Webb is just a short drive away from the Bayville home he shares with Laura Savini, his wife of three years who is vice president of marketing and communications for WLIW21 New York Public Television and the station’s public face come fundraising time. While the past few days have been busy between rehearsing at home with Linda Ronstadt for the duo’s upcoming Long Island shows and entertaining his sixteen-year-old daughter in visiting from California, the gregarious Webb is an intriguing and insightful dining companion.
Sporting a blue work shirt over a grey tee, Webb occasionally brushes his gray hair away from his face as he amiably shares viewpoints and stories. The conversation goes from his thoughts on being an old-school artist in the 21st century model of the music industry, (“Nowadays you have to find different places to market your music. What is Starbucks? It’s a coffee shop. And who would have thought you’d be able to buy music along with a cup of coffee?”), to the important role played by radio when he was starting out, (“You had black kids listening to white music and black kids listening to white music. And you had more understanding an appreciation of the other guy’s point of view. Now what you have is people just listening to their point of view and they don’t have empathy for anyone else’s point of view because they’re not being exposed to anyone else’s.”)
The son of a Baptist preacher, the Elk City, Oklahoma native got his break after being hired by Motown as a staff songwriter when he was only seventeen. By this time, Webb had been regularly composing music since he was thirteen, studiously writing follow-up songs to hits of the day for himself and then comparing them to the official ones that were eventually released.
“When I reached the point of around fifteen or sixteen years of age where I felt my follow-ups were comparing favorably to the ones I was hearing on a professional level on the radio, I thought I could actually do this and maybe being a songwriter wasn’t just a dream,” confessed Webb. Reality came in the success of hits that the 20-something started writing for Johnny Rivers, The Fifth Dimension, Glen Campbell and actor Richard Harris. The Chairman of the Board even took a flyer on “Didn’t We,” an in-concert favorite that was often accompanied by a generous introduction mentioning Webb’s name.
“Frank Sinatra would perform live on stage and introduce it by saying, ‘And now ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to do a song by that wonderful kid Jimmy Webb.’ He called me that wonderful kid until I was 48-years-old,” explained Webb before adding, “But when he used my name, especially in places like Las Vegas, word got around quickly that Sinatra was talking about this guy Jimmy Webb. Before long I was this anomaly, a songwriter with a rep who didn’t perform and wasn’t with a band.”
And while it would be easy for the composer of well-known hits like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park” to rest on his royalties, Webb credits much of his current creative impetus to Savini, who first met him during a 2003 interview for the Metro Guide she was conducting during a residency gig he was performing at Feinstein’s at the Regency.
“There she was in this gown all dressed up and this proverbial bolt of lightning hit me. From there I used my wittiest banter on her,” Webb recalled with a grin. “I will say Laura made me earn my way into her heart, which was fine with me because I’m a pretty conservative guy when it comes to romance.”
With Savini encouraging him to start putting out his own music, Webb had to overcome misgivings about this new music industry paradigm often held by musicians of his generation.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of artists my age and it’s funny how there’s this love/hate relationship we have with labels where we’ll curse them out for being crooks and keeping most of the money we make, but meanwhile there’s this psychological comfort in feeling that being a signed artist ensures us a certain degree of security,” Webb explained. “I used to think anyone who didn’t have a label deal and put out their own music was a loser. That is until I discovered how lucrative it was.”
Nowadays, the 66-year-old Webb is very much in the midst of a comeback dating back to the release of 2005’s Twilight of the Renegades. Since then, he’s released a trio of albums with the most recent being last year’s Still Within the Sound of My Voice. In addition to that 2013 release Webb has his own Facebook page, a website and is working on a memoir he expects to publish in 2015 along with a new solo outing.