“There was a poignancy to that moment,” he added, “because I didn’t know if she’d ever sing again. Her voice sounds elegantly beautiful on ‘ All I Know.’ I loved the meticulous way she covered my voice.”
Webb has always written his own music as well as his lyrics, and he is the only artist to win Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration. He is a member of the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His versatility is evident in some of his most popular songs. “Up, Up and Away,” was made into a hit by the Fifth Dimension. “They created their own genre,” Webb said of the group. “They were unlike any of the other black acts of the ’ 60s with their own groove and sound. It was a more sophisticated version of Motown.”
“MacArthur Park” was recorded by Donna Summer, Waylon Jennings, the Four Tops, and Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live fame. Irish actor Richard Harris was the first to record it in 1968. “I can’t tell you the secret meaning of MacArthur Park,” he said. Of the line, “Someone left the cake out in the rain,” Webb offered a clue, mentioning that W.H. Auden wrote, “My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain.”
Webb’s success inspired him to write Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting (Hyperion, 1999), in which he elucidates his method. “It’s about the building blocks,” he said. “I start writing things out. I write pages and pages for one song. I write possible lines. Related rhymes. I put my materials out in front of me like a painter mixing paint on his palette.” On his website, he writes, “I like words. I like the way they clash around together and bang up against each other, especially in songs.”
Webb started out at 16 writing for the publishing division of Motown. “The melody is only the vessel, the carrier of a message. They drilled that into me: What’s the message?”
One of the musical secrets Webb discusses in the book is the importance of chord progressions. “Chords have a subliminal message,” he said, adding that some people are chord-deaf. “It’s like being colorblind. They don’t hear chords.” One of the more subtle aspects of songwriting is choosing one chord over another, he said.
Although the new CD features older songs, Webb continues to write new ones. Judy Collins featured a Webb song called “Gauguin” on her new recording, Paradise. “I still make my living writing songs,” Webb said.
As a member of the board of directors for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the music-publishing advocacy organization, Webb has some strong views about music piracy. “There are a lot of brats out there on the internet who don’t want to pay for music,” he said, adding that his royalties were down 38 percent in the last year. “Other people’s lives depend on that money. It’s not like all the spoiled songwriters are worried about having to give up their Porsches. It’s about First Amendment rights. Most songwriters are not rich. They have other jobs. They’re just getting by. These things we create are ours.”