Jimmy Webb - vocal, piano
Much like his biggest influence, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb is a true anomaly in modern popular music, a prolific and idiosyncratic songwriter who achieved public stardom and professional acclaim as a composer, producer and arranger, rather than as a recording or performing artist himself. Webb's distinctive songwriting style has been responsible for many of the biggest hits in popular music history and the list of artists that have popularized his songs reads like a virtual who's who of popular music. Between 1966 and 1969 alone, the years that firmly established his career, Webb was responsible for writing platinum selling hits such as "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston,"" By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Up, Up And Away," and "McArthur Park," to name but a few. In a world where the non-performing songwriter is primarily relegated to commercial jingles or at best, the Broadway stage, Webb has kept the craft of songwriting in popular music alive for the past four decades. Musical icons like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have recorded Webb's songs, as have many legendary songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Webb's exceptional songwriting abilities have endured throughout the decades and have transcended dozens of stylistic changes.
This is not to say that Webb has not recorded his own albums or performed on stage. Beginning with his elaborately produced debut Words And Music in 1970, he then recorded two less elaborate albums in 1971 and 1972 before signing with David Geffen's Asylum Records, where he delivered his Land's End album in 1974. These albums were critically acclaimed, but as a recording artist, Webb would remain relegated to obscurity, while others continued to take his songs to the top of the charts. He would not release an album again for another three years. Webb performed only sporadically during this era, primarily accompanying himself on piano. His piano playing was carefully modulated and his vocals often understated, but his rare performances proved that few could deliver his songs in such a compelling manner.
Which brings us to 1975, the time of this Record Plant recording. One might expect to find Webb performing much of the material off his most recent album Land's End here, possibly mixing in a smattering of his most memorable hits into the setlist, but that is not the case. With the sole exception of the yearning "Campo De Encino" from his 1972 album, Letters, Webb delivers a set consisting of entirely new songs unfamiliar to all at the time. All the elements that made his songs so attractive to other singers and accessible to fans of melodic pop are readily apparent here. He begins the set with "Christiaan No" and "Early Morning Song," two songs that would soon be recorded by Glen Campbell, who had monumental success with Webb's material over the years. "Rose" an unreleased gem, follows. Romantic and emotional, this is a fine example of Webb's ability to compose beautiful love songs.
It's here that things really get interesting, as the rest of the set is performed as a long song cycle, with each song segueing directly into the next. Beginning on an up note, "One Of These Days" is a bouncy melodic pop song, recalling the best work of Harry Nillson. "When Did I Lose Your Love" is a particularly engaging sad song that had just been recorded by The 5th Dimension, but was never issued officially by Webb himself.
Then comes one of the true highlights of the set, "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress." Webb took the title from a 1966 Robert A. Heinlin science-fiction novel about a lunar penal colony's revolt against rule from Earth. His lyric avoid the sociological aspects of the novel, but his sensitivity and intelligence shines through and his heartfelt reading and precise emotional calibration on this song make this a remarkable listening experience. This too, would surface a few years later on El Mirage and would soon be covered by Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez and Glen Campbell, among others.
The last three songs of the set focus on Webb's reflective side, beginning with another unissued song, "Common Knowledge" and segueing into "Moment In A Shadow" and finishing with "Campo De Encino," from his 1972 Letters album, the only song that may have been familiar to listeners at this moment in time.
He ends the set with an intriguingly beautiful instrumental. Unlike all the songs that proceeded this, Webb does not accompany himself on acoustic grand piano. He instead switches to electric piano here, and as this composition unfolds it becomes apparent that this is the frame of a work in progress. Although nearly twice the length and obviously lacking lyrics or vocals at this point, this sounds like it may have developed into the majestic "Where The Universes Are," which would be fully realized on El Mirage two years later. Surprisingly, near the very end, a light percussion click track and a bass track emerges into the mix before it quietly closes.
Jimmy Webb's legacy speaks for itself. He is responsible for writing hit songs in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. He is the only person in history to have received Grammy Awards in all three categories: music, lyrics and orchestration. Although his own commercial success has never matched that of his work recorded by other performers, Webb has truly earned his legendary status as a genius of mainstream popular songwriting. All in all, this is a rare unadorned glimpse at the man responsible for one of the greatest songwriting legacies in modern music. One of the rare "Live From The Record Plant" sessions that was not recorded before an in-studio audience, this studio recording can also arguably be considered like demos for the unreleased 1975-era Jimmy Webb album that never was.