Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb
Michael Feinstein

By Bill Ede

Jimmy Webb was on top of the songwriting world in the late Sixties, with Grammys for both "Up, Up And Away" and "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," and major hits with "Galveston," "MacArthur Park," "The Worst That Could Happen" and "Wichita Lineman." With recording artists Richard Harris, Thelma Houston and the Fifth Dimension, he demonstrated a flair for arranging for orchestra songs he himself had composed, resulting in some of the finest and most complex arrangements this side of Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, fellow songwriters who did much of their work with co-writers. (The only Jimmy Webb song I remember seeing with a co-writing credit was with Kenny Loggins, on one of the latter's late Seventies solo outings.)

For a short time, Webb's music helped bridge a generation gap that was getting progressively wider. His way with an orchestra was appealing to those with big band leanings, while his "songwriting personality" boasted just enough teenage angst to make inroads with the rock `n' roll set. His influence can be heard in the solo work of Todd Rundgren, Eric Carmen, Joe Jackson and countless other singer-songwriters, while acceptance as a recording artist in his own right eluded him until 1993's Suspending Disbelief, his most recent collection of new songs.

In Only One Life, singer Michael Feinstein sets out to show Webb as, in Feinstein's words, " the modern continuation of The Great American Songbook," and he uses both familiar and new songs to help accomplish this. Songs like "Up, Up and Away," "Didn't We" and "All I Know," a 1973 top-ten hit for Art Garfunkle, go a long way toward establishing Webb's credentials, with "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress," which has enjoyed covers by artists as diverse as Joe Cocker and Judy Collins and "After All the Loves Of My Life" (the middle segment of "MacArthur Park") lending additional support.

But it's the new songs that hold the greatest appeal, leaving one with the impression that there may be "lots more where these came from " - a hope that many Webb fans, me included, have held to for quite some time, in this day when recording artists are reluctant to records songs which they didn't write themselves. Webb evokes the Bronx of any earlier time in "Belmont Avenue," which probably reflects his recent writing for the theatre. "She Moves, Eyes Follow" is a paean to female intrigue not unlike "All My Love's Laughter" from an earlier period. "Skywriter" is a fantasy piece that seems to be all-too-soon brought back to earth in the subsequent "Is There Love After You?," a gorgeous song that underscores Webb's adeptness at classic songwriting.

"Time Flies" seems evocative at British Isles balladry, although the arrangement is only too modern, which lend inadvertent credibility to the song's title and theme. "Piano" originally appeared on Webb's own 1973 Letters LP, but sounds so much better here, with Feinstein's trained voice at the helm. It would be interesting to hear Webb try this song again, now that his voice appears to have come into its own.

The CD's centerpiece - and obvious best song - is "Only One Life," which appears here twice. It is as close to a "perfect song" as I've heard in a while and has "Great American Songbook" written all over it. It's a message we all need to hear (perhaps by aging baby-boomers, but neo-Nazis and nihilists as well, if they've the ears to hear) and one that should have us wondering why some of us have such knee-jerk reactions against full-scale pop arrangements on what are usually, but not always, pretty good songs. The Webb arrangements were always more than mere "sweetener," as they are likewise here. They have plenty of personality on their own, although the same can't always be said of Webb's arrangement imitators and there are many. Perhaps this is part of the explanation, or maybe we've just become way too cynical.

Either way, it appears that Webb is not likely to be forgotten any time soon and the unlikely song (not included here) that seems most responsible is "Wichita Lineman," a 1968 hit for Glen Campbell, which has enjoyed covers in the last decade or so by Freedy Johnston, Urge Overkill, the Sand Mountain Boys and, more recently by Cassandra Wilson and the late Johnny Cash.

In Only One Life, Feinstein gives Webb added assurance of his longevity, by giving his songs the first forum of this scale in many years, not only connecting Webb with the great songwriters of the past, but also helping to re-connect him his own past. Hopefully, some other recording artists will take the hint and do likewise, so we won't have so long to wait between future Webb collections, be they by cover artists or by Webb himself.

Michael Feinstein and Jimmy Webb will be in concert at the Louisville Palace on November 12, touring under the title of "Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb."