10 Hidden Gems from the Jimmy Webb Songbook

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 09.10.13 in Lists

If you know the songs of Jimmy Webb, chances are it’s because of Glen Campbell, whose string of city-titled Webb tunes in the late 1960s — “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” — became American country-pop crossover classics. That’s just the tip of the iceberg among Webb-penned tracks that can be found in eMusic’s vaults, though. Beyond the dozens of versions of those three songs is a fascinating range of material that testifies to Webb’s status as one of popular music’s greatest living songwriters. On his new star-studded-duets album Still Within the Sound of My Voice, Webb went deep into his catalog to rescue a few forgotten numbers. Inspired by his efforts, we’ve gathered some others you may not have heard.

Zumpano, “Rosecrans Boulevard”

A.C. Newman's pre-New Pornographers band reached way back into the Webb archives on their 1995 Sub Pop debut. Originally done in 1967 by Johnny Rivers (who played a major role in Webb's early career), "Rosecrans Boulevard" is classic Webb unrequited romanticism, with a melody awash in catch-you-off-guard key changes and dramatic crescendos — clearly an influence on Newman's subsequent work.

Waylon Jennings, “If You See Me Getting Smaller”

Ol' Waylon

Waylon Jennings

It's largely unknown or forgotten that Waylon is the only artist who won a Grammy for recording Webb's polarizing magnum opus "MacArthur Park" (in 1969 with the Kimberlys). More lasting, though, is his take on this mid-'70s Webb confessional about retreating from the spotlight, which Jennings recorded at the peak of his career. It's telling that Webb drafted Waylon's best pal Willie Nelson for the version on Just Across the River, his 2010 duets disc.

Renee Fleming, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

Haunted Heart

Renée Fleming

Though no one ever charted a hit version of this exquisite ballad, it tends to summon major-league vocalists: Joe Cocker did it first in 1974, Linda Ronstadt revived it in 1982 and it turned up on a mega-selling Celtic Woman collection in 2010. But there's no topping operatic chanteuse Fleming for vocal star power, even if the crowning touch here is actually the presence of jazz greats Bill Frisell and Fred Hersch on guitar and piano, respectively. (Webb and Cocker sing it together on Webb's Still Within The Sound Of My Voice duet album.)

Iain Matthews, “Met Her on a Plane”

Iain Matthews remained relevant to pop music after leaving legendary folk-rock ensemble Fairport Convention in part through applying the sweet clarity of his voice to songs by such rising early-'70s tunesmiths such as Tom Waits, Jesse Winchester and Mickey Newbury. He tuned in to Webb, too, plucking this obscure cut from Jimmy's 1971 album And So: On for his 1972 LP Journeys From Gospel Oak. If Webb's material hadn't already found a perfect-for-AM-radio vocalist in Glen Campbell, Matthews might have produced a similar run of Webb-penned hits.

Scud Mountain Boys, “Where’s the Playground, Susie”

Though this song reached No. 26 on the pop charts for Glen Campbell in 1969, it didn't imprint on the American consciousness like "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." It got a fresh airing in 1995 when Joe Pernice's band the Scud Mountain Boys recorded a haunting lo-fi version of the tune for their sophomore LP. Sub Pop later packaged that record with the band's debut into this twofer reissue, which also includes their take on "Wichita Lineman."

Richard Harris, “Paper Chase”

A Tramp Shining

Richard Harris

It was, of course, British actor Richard Harris who immortalized Webb's "MacArthur Park," taking it to No. 2 on the charts in 1968. It was the highlight of Harris's LP A Tramp Shining, but Webb also wrote every other track on the album, and some of the lesser-known numbers are quite appealing without the bombast. "Paper Chase" may be the best, an instantly hummable little pop ditty (once you get past the grandiose string intro).

Fifth Dimension, “Pattern People”

Up, Up And Away

Fifth Dimension

The title track to this album, "Up, Up And Away," was Webb's first big breakthrough, literally taking his music all the way to the moon (it was played in space by astronauts on the Apollo missions). But it's far from the only Webb song the Fifth Dimension recorded. Many of them were dripping with a late-'60s groovy hippie vibe, such as this counterculture barb tossed at cookie-cutter "Pattern People." The lyrics are a gas in hindsight, yet it's pretty sophisticated stuff musically, with vocal layers, horn accents and a sharply delineated chorus.

Alice Clark, “I Keep It Hid”

R&B/soul renditions of this early-career Webb tune were recorded by Ray Charles, Margie Day and the (Diana Ross-less) Supremes, but it's the more obscure Alice Clark who knocks it out of the park on her self-titled 1972 debut. Producer Bob Shad had worked with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Janis Joplin before issuing Clark's debut on his Mainstream Records label; how she never caught fire seems a mystery, especially given the power and emotion of this recording.

Declan, “The Last Unicorn”

Thank You


A child singer was a good fit for this theme song from a children's movie, even if Irish sensation Declan Galbraith's 2005 version came more than two decades after The Last Unicorn was in theaters. Folk-rockers America did the film version, but Declan brings just the right touch of wide-eyed innocence to the yearning lyrics. And if he was a teen idol, well, he had a voice that warranted the attention.

Amy Grant, “If These Walls Could Speak”

Lead Me On 20th Anniversary Edition

Amy Grant

Shawn Colvin also recorded this song on her 1994 collection Cover Girl, but its finest reading came a few years earlier from Amy Grant on her 1987 album Lead Me On, as Grant was crossing over from contemporary Christian audiences to the pop mainstream. Her voice is ideally suited to the song's heartfelt message; Webb acknowledged that compatibility when he enlisted her to join him on his song "Adios" from his Still Within The Sound Of My Voice duet album.