Covers Uncovered: ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’

Jimmy Webb is the premier pop composer of our time, and his masterwork 'By the Time I Get To Phoenix' sets a standard that will not soon be equalled. The many covers of this tune are revelatory.

Above, the inimitable Isaac Hayes

Jimmy Webb is the premier individual pop composer (I am excepting songwriting teams such as Lennon/McCartney and rockers Jagger/Richards) of the past fifty years, and his masterwork ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ sets a standard that will not soon be equalled. If the twentieth century has been called the century of the guitar, Jimmy Webb should logically have found another century for his tunes. He only ever composed one song with a guitar, and it‘s not one that many people have ever heard (‘Ocean in His Eyes’ from 1973).

His groundbreaking book about songwriting, Tunesmith, published in 1998, shows Jimmy at a grand piano, his preferred instrument for composition. He also is an occasional collaborator, which means he takes the credit for both music and lyrics on most of his tunes. Now the funny thing about Webb is that his songs have been named both the best and the worst. ‘Wichita Lineman’,’Up, Up and Away’ and ‘Phoenix’ have received accolades from almost everyone, while one of his biggest hits ‘MacArthur Park’ is reviled in many quarters as a cake that should never have been baked. As for me, I think Webb has seldom, if ever, written a bad song. He is too good, too much in touch with what he is doing, so much so that he never writes anything by accident. And by the way, if you‘ve ever heard ‘MacArthur Park’, and who hasn‘t, you haven‘t forgotten it.

Glen Campbell has been widely acknowledged as the greatest interpreter of Webb‘s songs, but his popularity as a singer has greatly diminished since the 1970s, and now, having relinquished his career due to Alzheimer’s Disease, he is rapidly becoming forgotten or mis-remembered by younger music fans. I have to say I didn‘t properly appreciate Campbell‘s talent when he was having his hits with Webb‘s material. For one thing, they sounded like hits. They were three minutes or less of AM radio perfection, and once they got into your brain they were there for good, but at the time the fashion was for FM radio and long, long cuts – I’m talking up to 20 minutes for a single tune.

Now Isaac Hayes was no slouch of a songwriter himself, having been half of the Stax songwriting duo Porter-Hayes, who had written ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Hold On, I‘m Coming’ for Sam and Dave. Hayes was charged with coming up with a solo album after the unfortunate plane crash death of the Stax label headliner Otis Redding. What he came up with was the most successful of all the Stax artists’ attempts that year at restoring prosperity to the soul label.

Hayes didn‘t believe in short songs, despite the hits he had written for Stax. Most of his numbers went five minutes or more, and he brought a gospel attitude towards everything he did, even when he turned that gospel into funk. He had that John Lee Hooker penchant for bringing the deliberately worked-up semi-hysteria of a gospel preacher‘s sermon to standard pop material. Time after time with such unlikely sources as Hal David-Burt Bacharach‘s ‘Walk On By’, or Ruby and the Romantics’ ‘Our Day Will Come’ (which featured a spoken intro where he assumed the role of a soldier going off to war) Hayes took ten minutes or more to say, eloquently, what had previously been said in less than three minutes. ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was 19 minutes long when Hayes performed it; taking up the entire side of an LP (the essential Hot Buttered Soul album). For many years I loved it, but I find myself these days going back to the perfection of Glen Campbell‘s voice, diction and calm. That said, Hayes understood the meaning and potential of rap long before the talentless toadies of the late 20th century glommed on to a way to marry mediocrity and marketing. Hayes was a true rapper, and paved the way for Gil Scott-Heron‘s groundbreaking work two years later in 1970: ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.

Campbell began his career in the late fifties, playing guitar with such noted groups as The Champs, The Beach Boys, and Phil Spector‘s Wrecking Crew. He got his big break as a solo artist by recording John Hartford‘s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ in 1967 and then had a monster hit with ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ the following year. Each of these recordings delivered a Grammy Award to Campbell, who in 1966 had been on the verge of being dropped by Capitol Records for lack of sales. He continued to work with Jimmy Webb for a few years, singing tunes like ‘Wichita Lineman’ (one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever written) and ‘Galveston’.

For me, Jimmy Webb is the Mozart of our times, marrying both words and music in songs that will last for another hundred years. His own rendition of ‘Phoenix’ is a revelation for its understated approach. We’re so familiar with the hit version of this tune that Webb’s original itself sounds like a daring cover. Webb is a perfectionist, who more than anyone has articulated the answer to “what is a song?” In Tunesmith, the modern Bible for songwriters, he said,

“A song is a magical marriage between a lyric (some words) and a melody (some notes). It is not a poem. It is not music. It is in this grey area of synthesis between language, rhythm and sound that some of the most acute of all sensors of human emotion lie.”

‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ has been recognized as the third most performed song between 1940 and 2000. It is also one of the most widely recorded. I am partial to Frank Sinatra‘s version as well, which he put to wax in 1968 on his pop/rock album Cycles. His phrasing is uncanny, particularly in the second verse where he sings “By the time I reach Oklahoma” as no one has done before or since. But hey, there is room in the universe for many great interpretations. Jimmy Webb‘s song is so strong that it enables the singer to bring his or her individual artistry to a song which contains no hooks, nothing but an unforgettable tune and some of the best lyrics ever written.

Glen Campbell’s version

Isaac Hayes’ version

Jimmy Webb’s version