If this show needed a name, it would have been appropriate to call it something like “Jimmy Webb: The Storyteller and Name-Dropper Tour.”
Friday night, Webb, one of the most hallowed songwriters of the 20th century, regaled a crowd of about 100 people at Knuckleheads with an evening of music, history and upscale gossip. The show lasted slightly longer than 100 minutes; at least 60 of those were spent entertaining his audience with tales pulled from a lifetime spent composing some of the most memorable songs in the American pop songbook and pitching them to some of the largest legends in American music. If any songwriter of the past 50 years has the license to tell stories and drop names from his star-spangled history, it is Webb, the songwriter behind some of the biggest pop hits in the last half of the 20th century.
Friday’s show was a solo/acoustic performance. Webb sat onstage at a baby grand piano, told stories and sang 10 of his most famous and popular songs and one or two lesser-known tunes, songs like “The Highwayman,” “Galveston,” “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.”
He confessed before and late in the show that his voice wasn’t up to some of the feats it was required to execute, and he was right. But he was playing to a crowd that was there for something more than a greatest-hits recital. So more than the songs themselves, the point of this show was to give perspective to one man’s storied career and its place in a music world — specifically, the world of songwriting — that has wandered far from its heydays, when quality was paramount, when world-class composers wrote songs for superior vocalists.
Webb delivered some of his best-known compositions, and his versions conveyed their traits and merits, their lyrical and musical panache, craftwork and sophistications. But his stories put most of them into a variety of contexts, some humorous, some historical, some novel and trivial.
He talked of his many friendships and acquaintanceships with stars like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Billy Davis and, the greatest of all, Frank Sinatra, whom Webb still calls “Mr.” He told stories about his time at Motown, about turning down a chance to write with lyricist Johnny Mercer, about bumping into President Clinton, courting British model Rosemary Franklin and auditioning songs for Art Garfunkel. He talked about the rise of the songwriters who could also sing, like Carole King. He recalled his Bible- and gun-toting father, an ex-Marine who got the song “Up, Up and Away” put back in rotation on his hometown radio station in Oklahoma after it had been pulled because of its supposed drug references.
He choreographed a sing-along during “Worst That Could Happen,” a hit for Johnny Maestro the Brooklyn Bridge (the subject of a long anecdote), told a long story about visiting Sinatra’s mansion to present a batch of songs and then accompanying him to Las Vegas many times thereafter. After that lively tale, Webb sang one of the loveliest songs in his catalog, the bittersweet “Didn’t We.” He closed with one of his best and best-known songs, “Wichita Lineman,” made famous by Campbell, a star from another era who is now in a very public battle with Alzheimer’s disease. That was as appropriate a closer as any: a song about a guy on the road on the Plains, working the telephone lines and missing his woman. In this digital age, its story feels as quaint and antiquated as the lifestyles of composers like Webb, who mastered the convergence of poetry and music and got the fame and fortune they deserved for delivering some of the most timeless music of their time.
Setlist: The Highwayman; Galveston; Just Across the River; Up, Up and Away; By the Time I Get to Phoenix; What Does a Woman See In a Man; All I Know; Worst That Could Happen; Didn’t We; Wichita Lineman.