Jimmy Webb burst on the national scene in the late '60s as a songwriting hit machine after being signed by Johnny Rivers' publishing company to provide material for The 5th Dimension. After the explosion of "Up Up and Away," more huge pop and middle-of-the-road radio hits followed for Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston"), Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park") and the Brooklyn Bridge ("Worst That Could Happen"). Those songs alone have been covered seemingly zillions of times, to a certain extent typecasting Webb due to the sometimes schlocky MOR overproduction that often accompanied them -- which was in some cases, such as on the Harris albums, Webb's own work. The initial burst of hits slowed by the 1970s, but he never stopped writing, and there are numerous recordings of his songs during the ensuing decades.
It's less well known that Webb has also maintained a career as a performing artist in his own right, one that's taken a mostly divergent course from the shadow of gloppy orchestral monsters imposed on his image by some of those early hits. With the name recognition afforded by his songwriting success, it would seem natural that Webb's move into performing during the height of the singer-songwriter movement would be a prescient one. But his '70s solo albums never took off, despite the fact that most of his albums earned critical accolades and were released by major labels. The original albums don't turn up too often, but after years of unavailability they're nearly all available on CD from Collector's Choice Music. Here's a round up of the first decade of Webb's continuing recording adventures.
Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb: This album is out of character with the albums that would follow it, for good reason. Epic Records apparently had access to some Webb songwriting demos, and decided to try to ride the coattails of his Grammy wins by releasing this album. In some ways, the songs themselves sound like "Jimmy Webb sings Garage Rock," but the overall pop-aimed overproduction by Hank Levine somewhat drowns out the rougher rock edge of the material, to its detriment. Also, being demos, these vocal tracks were never intended for general release and are shaky at times. I'm sure Webb was largely horrified when they were released. Disowned by Webb on release, this album has never been reissued, and isn't even mentioned on his website. There is a 45 on Dunhill from around this time which I'm guessing is Webb's authorized solo recording debut, but I haven't tracked down a copy of it yet. (Epic, 1968)
Words and Music: Webb began his solo career in earnest with Words, after signing to artist-friendly Warner-Reprise. First off, it establishes that he can sing in tune, though it shows that the somewhat limited range displayed on the counterfeit Epic disc is also a fact of life. As usual, though, there ain't nothing wrong with his songs, and this album began the pattern that would follow his recording career: critical accolades, mostly non-existent sales figures. This includes a couple of his classics, "P.F. Sloan" and, as part of a suite, "Song Seller." (Reprise, 1970)And So: On: Released quickly in the wake of commercial indifference to Words, this is a collection of both new and some older songs. It's more elaborately produced than his official solo debut, but the occasionally dense mix never suffocates the songs; when utilized, the orchestration is much more restrained than anything Al de Lory ever imagined for Glen Campbell. The sound quality is much clearer than on Wordsas well. The diverse sources of material drawn on for
Letters: This album starts off with an excellent acoustic guitar version of "Galveston" and maintains a laid-back, less-produced vibe overall. Orchestration is again used sparingly, and there's a few songs that are just guitar or piano. Webb's singing sounds more relaxed, with better range than displayed on earlier efforts. Other highlights include "Catharsis," recorded later as "Mr. Shuck and Jive" by Art Garfunkel and Waylon and Willie, and a rockin' full take on "Song Seller," which scraped into the Top 100 later in 1972 as recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders. (Reprise, 1972)
Land's End: Webb returned with a batch of all-new songs and a new artist-friendly label via David Geffen's superstar magnet (and regular Reprise plunderer) Asylum. The musical backing is less iconoclastic and more standardized early '70s rock, with some heavy-hitters among the players this time, including Ringo Starr, saxman Tom Scott, members of Elton John's band, and Joni Mitchell helping out on backing vocals. It still sounds firmly like a Jimmy Webb album, though... there's no mistaking those slightly off-kilter songs. Unfortunately, the label change and effort at sounding more mainstream did nothing to help get his music to more listeners. (Asylum, 1974)
El Mirage After a short break, Webb returned with an even more slickly produced sound, courtesy of George Martin. It's very much a late '70s pop-rock record, and for my tastes goes too far towards a mercenary attempt at the pop charts... though at least it's not disco. Even though the songs on El Mirage are easily better and more heartfelt, in some ways I enjoy the simple rock 'n roll demos on the Epic LP more than Martin's attempt to turn Webb into America. However, this disc does include the original version of "The Highwayman," which would be a mega-hit in the '80s by the superstar quartet of Nelson-Jennings-Cash-Kristofferson. (Atlantic, 1977)