Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell’s songwriter, talks about bringing his tribute show to Clearwater

The legendary writer of ‘Galveston,’ ‘Wichita Lineman’ and other hits opens up about his late friend.
Published March 14

Imagine if a duet like Shallow had existed in the ’70s, back before Barbra Streisand’s version of A Star Is Born. Can you picture Streisand — or maybe Judy Collins or Dusty Springfield or Cher — belting it out alongside, of all people, Glen Campbell?

“He might have done it,” said Jimmy Webb, a frequent Campbell collaborator and songwriting legend who penned tracks cut by each of those women.

The reason, he said, is simple: Lady Gaga wrote a timeless song.

“I’m very impressed with Gaga,” he said. “She was a songwriter first, and reinvented herself as a performer. She came out of one of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame workshops that we held here in New York and was primarily a songwriter. And I think you can tell that that’s the underpinnings of her career. That’s what really holds it all together, is her songwriting skill.”

Webb, 72, would know. Thanks to his partnership with Campbell, for whom he wrote Wichita Lineman and Galveston, he helped define the lush sound of mid-’60s and -’70s pop and country. Now he’s taking some of the more than 100 songs they did together out on the road, with a show at Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre on March 28.

The show will feature stories, photos and songs from Webb’s decades-long collaboration with Campbell, who died in 2017 following a public battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He refrained from staging such a tour while Campbell was alive, partly because Campbell himself stayed on the road with his family as long as he could.

“It’s not a morbid evening, but it certainly has moments of awe, when one considers the way Glen took up the gauntlet of Alzheimer’s and said, ‘I’m not finished yet,’ ” Webb said.

Inspiring though it was, Campbell’s final tour also had moments of sadness and awkwardness, when he might flub a lyric or repeat a song. Webb, who occasionally performs with Campbell’s daughter Ashley, is emphatic that Campbell wanted to be there, just as Frank Sinatra — with whom Webb also worked — wanted to be on stage in his later years, grappling with dementia.

“I never personally heard anyone say anything other than it was a great privilege to see him one more time,” Webb said. “He wanted to do that tour — in a way, begged to do that tour, to not be sidelined, to have one more crack at it. People may have seen momentary lapses on stage. There were a couple of shows that I know of — and I mean a couple, like two shows — that were kind of messed up near the end. But by and large, he got through the shows admirably.”

Campbell wasn’t Webb’s only fruitful partnership. He wrote hits like Up, Up and Away for the Fifth Dimension, By the Time I Get to Phoenix for Johnny Rivers and MacArthur Park for Richard Harris. He wrote the country tune Highwayman, later recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson — who would adopt the song’s title as the name of their all-star supergroup.

For the most part, Webb said, he’d just lay his songs out for the picking, “kind of like the flea market.” Campbell often got first dibs, because he was always around, and Webb was always playing him whatever he had just written.

“I used to call them the world’s most expensive demos,” he said.

Webb was widely respected outside country music; he spent time in the studio with the Beatles and the Wrecking Crew, and was close friends with Harry Nilsson and Art Garfunkel. His close association with the wholesome, conservative Campbell “put me as a songwriter in a bag where people perceived me as a sort of middle-of-the-road guy, when philosophically and behind the scenes, I was smoking dope like it was going out of style, going to peace marches and writing songs about abolishing nuclear weapons.”

If he came along today, it’s possible he might have gotten swept into Nashville’s corporate songwriting complex. But he isn’t so sure. He once tried writing with Keith Urban, and “it didn’t turn out too well. I’m not great at it. And I don’t think that’s the kind of songwriting that’s paying huge dividends now.”

Either way, he would still have great affection for guy like Glen Campbell.

“Extraordinary friendships are formed in the entertainment business, because the highs are so high and the lows are so low,” he said. “You share a lot of territory together. And you share music, which is a language that’s deeper than words, by far. The communication there is soul to soul.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years

8 p.m. March 28. Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $29 and up. (727) 791-7400. atthecap.com.