Taking the 5th: Jimmy Webb

One of the most respected songwriters of the modern era, Jimmy Webb was just 18 years old when he struck up a friendship with Marc Gordon, of Motown Records’ Los Angeles office, in 1966.

Webb had been hired as a contract writer for Jobete, the label’s publishing company, where he provided made-to-order songs for the likes of Brenda Holloway. He left after a short while to pursue his own dreams, and pop singer Johnny Rivers, a budding mogul, snapped him up. When Gordon and the singing group he managed, then called The Versatiles, came to record for Rivers’ Soul City label, they were put together, serendipitously, with Webb.

The young songwriter already knew The Versatiles. “The first two I’d met were Lamonte McLemore, who was a photographer at Motown,” Webb said, “and Marilyn McCoo, who was being photographed by him for some reason. I remember them talking about their group; they were very nice kids.”
Before too long, you became integral to The 5th Dimension.

Jimmy Webb: Rivers went over to this San Remo Song Festival and was gonna be away for a month or so. He left me in charge of this group, running their rehearsals, playing the piano for them, doing a little vocal arranging for them. Somewhere along the way there, the name The Versatiles just sort of disappeared. It wasn’t anything dramatic – they weren’t The Versatiles any more, they were The 5th Dimension. And they had this kind of oddball way of dressing – like the Mamas & The Papas or The Rolling Stones. They dressed very individually. There was no sense of “band uniform” like most of the Motown acts had. Most black groups did dress all the same, or similarly. Here was this black group that had thrown all that away and were dressing very individually. They had a kind of a new look – something, frankly, I wish they would’ve stayed with.

And here was this beautiful sound of a blend of girls’ and boys’ voices. We had five people, so sometime we could do five-part harmony. We could do very rich, close harmony, from a more traditional era.

“I was struggling. I had holes clean through my tennis shoes. Sometimes I’d cross my legs on the piano bench, and Billy Davis would see these holes in my tennis shoes. He would tease me mercelessly about them and stick his finger through the holes and tickle the bottoms of my feet.

We were all just a bunch of kids, having fun. And when Johnny Rivers got back, I had kind of taught the group this song ‘Up, Up And Away’. I was a little nervous about that ’cause he could be very volatile. It could have been a scene, but he liked the song. He said it was not only a great song, it was a great album title.

‘Up, Up And Away’ was very much like a show tune.

Jimmy Webb: That’s how it sounded to me. I expected nothing from it, and it took off like a rocket.

You and Rivers had a falling out not long after. So how did you end up writing and arranging the entire second album?

Jimmy Webb: I don’t want to paint a portrait here of total anarchy, but he was having problems with this group. That had nothing to do with me. I had my own agenda with him.

Bones Howe brought me in to do arrangements. He wanted Magic Garden to be “The Jimmy Webb Album.” I did the first orchestral arranging I’d ever done in my life – I’d been watching people like Marty Paich and paying very close attention. It was fantastic for me. It was really a step up. It was really another level of education. And we didn’t see much of Johnny Rivers while we were making that album.

Those are thematic songs, ‘Carpet Man’ and ‘The Worst That Could Happen’, about a love gone bad.

Jimmy Webb: Yeah, sort of. A lot of the music I was writing in those days I was writing for Susie Horton. To some degree, it was a conceptual thing. It was a take onPet Sounds or a take on Sgt. Pepper. It was that kind of a market that we were in. People were making those kinds of records.

And they were interesting records, because they harkened back to proper song cycles, so that the album had more of a through line. It had somehow more integrity as an album, which I liked and which I kind of miss. I think that was a very valid art form, the album as something more than a record.

Florence said you wrote ‘The Girls Song’ especially for them.

Jimmy Webb: Yes, definitely. We needed a song for the girls. It’s Jimmy Webb ripping off Burt Bacharach.

And Billy has a lot of solos on that album.

Jimmy Webb: In my world, Billy was the lead singer in the group. Now, the group didn’t like that very much. Everybody in the group wanted their share of the spotlight. From my point of view it was like, “That’s OK, that’s fine, if we’re so successful that we can afford for everybody to do what they want to do, fine.” But Billy’s the guy, in my view as a producer, he was the guy who could deliver a big hit record. And I was kind of outspoken on that subject.

Let me ask your opinion on them individually as singers.

Jimmy Webb: I thought they were very easy to work with, particularly in the beginning when they would just sort of stand there and let me spoon-feed the parts to them. When they got along into their career and they began playing Vegas and stuff, everybody’s ego blossomed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and now Ron wanted to do his sort of operatic thing…. Lamonte was always a bit more self-effacing. Florence definitely wanted to be a lead singer. Marilyn wanted to be a lead singer. Billy was kind of easygoing, because he was so supremely confident in his talent. He knew he was a lead singer.

But I would say that little problems began to surface, little resentments. Sometimes there would be tears in the recording session. Perhaps Florence might not feel she was being given her proper due and that she should have her own song on the album. Perhaps she would go to Marc [Gordon, her husband and the group’s manager] and say, “I think I should have my own song on this album.” I would hear about that.

Florence did your song, ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1970. Did you write it for her?

Jimmy Webb: I don’t remember – I think it came off the Thelma Houston album. I believe I did it with Thelma Houston first. I’m not 100 percent sure, to tell you the truth, it’s been a little while. It was a good song for her (Florence).

Several years went by, and you produced the original quintet’s final album, Earthbound. How did that come about?

Jimmy Webb: It was supposed to be a kind of reunion record for us, even though not that much time had really passed.

I really feel like I sort of lost control of that record. I don’t know exactly how I did. I thought I had a pretty good concept going in, and somehow or other the songs just didn’t seem to come together right. There’s certain parts of it that sound OK, that sound really pretty.

It seems like an attempt at a more R&B sound.

Jimmy Webb: That’s because Billy really wanted to go that way. Billy really wanted to go the R&B direction. I was still thinking Magic Garden. That’s where my head was at.

To put it delicately, there was a lot of in-fighting going on in the group while that album was being made. I remember Ron was bringing his gun to the studio – he used to carry a gun because he had a badge, and he was a security guard (laughing)…. So he’d actually come into the studio wearing a gun, with this real kind of down expression on his face. And I’d go, “Whoa, what’s with Ron tonight? Fasten your seatbelts, this is gonna be a bumpy ride.” He was showin’ attitude, you know what I’m saying?

I think Billy and Marilyn, rightfully, laid claim to being the lead singers in the group.

Jimmy Webb: I wasn’t as clear-headed as I could’ve been. I was kind of into some substance experimentation. I have a lot of regrets about that record. I would love to go back and remake it and make a simpler, more clear-headed record where everybody was trying to at least go in generally the same direction. Because in that case, everybody was just at all points of the compass, pulling for all they were worth.