Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Smokey Robinson, Cher, Johnny Mathis, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings: The hundreds of singers who have recorded Jimmy Webb’s songs across five decades include many of the most iconic figures in 20th-century American music.
But no one did more with Webb’s songs than Glen Campbell. When the legendary country singer scored his first Top 10 country hit with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967, it began a lifelong tie between the two men that included dozens of songs and a close personal friendship.
On Sunday, Webb brings his one-man multimedia show “The Glen Campbell Years” to Austin’s One World Theatre. Singing songs such as “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” that Campbell turned into classics, while weaving stories, photographs and even recordings of Campbell into the mix, Webb pays tribute to a major artist whose battle with Alzheimer’s recently ended his long career as a performer. Campbell’s wife recently announced that the singer, who turned 80 on April 22, is in the final stage of the disease.
“I try to illuminate Glen the person, not Glen the guy with Alzheimer’s,” Webb said from his Long Island home last week. “It’s my however meager attempt to communicate Glen’s overarching influence on the whole pop music scene of the 1960s.”
That includes details about the many records on which Campbell played guitar before he became a star in his own right, as well as exploits such as subbing for Brian Wilson on a Beach Boys tour. In particular, the show emphasizes how Campbell and Webb, a seemingly fated singer and songwriter pairing, came to find each other.
“I tell the story of how a 14-year-old kid goes out in the middle of the field and says, ‘God, let me meet Glen Campbell and let me write songs’ — and how that story comes around and becomes reality,” Webb says. “The odds against it were beyond astronomical. But somehow or other, that actually happened.”
In the wake of pop-soul group the Fifth Dimension’s smash hit with Webb’s song “Up, Up and Away,” Campbell recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” after hearing a version pop singer Johnny Rivers had done on a 1966 album. That led to the follow-up singles “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” both of which crossed over from country into the pop Top 10.
There were more beyond the best-known hits. Webb compositions “Where’s the Playground Susie” and “Honey Come Back” also reached the Top 40 with Campbell’s voice behind them. Others were having smash successes with Webb’s songs by then as well, most notably actor Richard Harris, whose melodramatic recording of the seven-minute opus “MacArthur Park” remains one of pop music’s most polarizing classics.
At that point, Webb launched his own career as a recording artist, issuing three deeply personal and adventurous albums on Reprise Records from 1970 to 1972 but never breaking through as a hit maker on his own. He moved to Asylum in 1974 for arguably his best record, “Land’s End,” but he also reconvened with Campbell for an album titled “Reunion” that featured eight Webb compositions.
To this day, it’s a mystery why “Reunion” didn’t kick off another round of Webb/Campbell radio smashes. “It’s a Sin” reached the country Top 20, but four decades later, it stands as the finest album Campbell ever made. Gems such as “Wishing Now,” “Adoration” and “You Might As Well Smile” are potential lifetime-favorite songs just waiting to be discovered by those who love “Wichita Lineman” but have never heard these tunes.
Sunday’s show will feature a song from “Reunion” called “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” that became more widely known through versions by Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Collins. “We’re making some other references to that album,” Webb says. “I felt like I had to at least familiarize people with it, because largely it slipped under the radar. I happen to think it’s the best stuff we ever did.”
The show’s title, “The Glen Campbell Years,” might give a slightly wrong impression, because Campbell continued to record Webb’s material well beyond their early heyday. In all, Campbell’s albums featured more than 40 Webb tunes; that number tops 60 when adding TV appearances and unreleased tracks. Webb says it could be as high as 80, if all of Campbell’s demos are located.
The formally issued recordings include the first appearance of the song “Highwayman” in 1979 — six years before Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson won a Grammy with it. And Campbell continued recording Webb’s songs all the way up to his final album, “See You There,” which included “Postcard From Paris” along with revisitations of the early hits.
“See You There” came out shortly after Campbell’s much-publicized farewell tour of 2011-2012, which was documented in the Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary film “I’ll Be Me.” Backed by a band that included several of his children, Campbell played more than 100 shows while dealing with the increasingly serious symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Although Webb’s show pointedly focuses on Campbell’s career and not the disease, he says he fully supports Alzheimer’s charities, and plans to play his own 70th birthday concert in New York this summer as an Alzheimer’s benefit. On Tuesday, he’ll perform the show in Nashville as a belated 80th birthday celebration for Campbell, with Glen’s children Ashley, Shannon and Cal opening the show. (Ashley may be emerging as a star in her own right on the strength of “Remembering,” a song about her father that she recently featured in a video with home-movie clips.)
“But for this disease, he probably would be playing a concert somewhere today,” Webb said of Campbell. “Even when assaulted in such an outrageous way by this devious and vicious disease, he was still walking out onstage and playing his show. He was doing an excellent job performing with stage-4 Alzheimer’s, which had a lot of medical people scratching their noggins saying, ‘How is this possible?’
“The reason it was possible was because the musical part of him, the core of him that formed when he was a child, was so strong and indestructible that it was the very last thing to fade.”
Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: One World Theatre, 7701 Bee Caves Road