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Tucson Weekly Book 'Em, Jim-o

Songwriter Jimmy Webb Tells All.

By Dave McElfresh

JANUARY 19, 1999:  LOADS OF AMATEUR pickers and pounders, drool-soaking the newest Rolling Stone updates on their musical idols' careers, over time come to lust after a bit of that spotlight for themselves. And no shortage of mags attempt to scratch that itch: monthlies catering specifically to guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, drummers and songwriters; most with a few too many articles showing how "You Too Can Play Like (fill in the blank)."

Of course, music doesn't need the repetition of another (fill in the blank). It needs players and writers familiar enough with the options of music theory and verse structure to create something unique. Unfortunately, learning numerous chord progressions and poetic meters is usually boringly scholastic. So what's an educationally-poor boy to do but to play in a rock-and-roll band, thrashing away at the same three chords?

Well, the adventurous star-wannabe would do well to snag Jimmy Webb's Tunesmith, a highly readable book that details damn near every aspect of the songwriting craft--from composing, lyric writing and rhyme schemes to legal protection and self-promotion.

Though Webb is best known for '60s songs like "MacArthur Park," "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Up, Up And Away," "Wichita Lineman" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress," he's kept busy writing musicals, composing tunes for his own and other's albums, and constructing the music for several thousand radio and television advertisements. In Tunesmith, the highly qualified Webb rather nakedly walks the reader through every aspect of writing the music and words to an admittedly personal composition entitled "Problem Child," in the process uncovering all the intricacies faced in constructing the notation and lyrics of his--and anyone else's--song catalog.

Webb's love for the composing process is evident by his impressive familiarity with the lives and methodology of songwriters from Jerome Kern to Billy Joel. Even non-musicians will find the book a killer read for its endless stream of anecdotes and inside info on the industry. A few examples:

  • Barbra Streisand, introduced to Webb after TWA bought the rights to "Up, Up And Away," asked if he was "the guy who made a hit song out of that commercial."

  • McDonald's "You Deserve A Break Today" theme was written by Barry Manilow.

  • A Cole Porter song was accidentally licensed for a toilet bowl commercial with the altered lyric, I've got you under my rim.

  • Mike Stoller, of Lieber/Stoller fame, rescued from the shipwrecked Andrea Doria, was met in New York by Lieber who informed him that their "Hound Dog" had become a hit by some new kid named Elvis.

  • Though Sinatra considered "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" to be "the greatest torch song ever written," fellow rat-packer Sammy Davis, Jr. once threw Webb out of his house, demanding that he not come back until he could offer more upbeat, positive tunes.

Not surprisingly, Tunesmith took Webb six years to write; and the longitude of the book's scope, equaled by the latitude of his experience, results in a practical guide to the profession far more thorough than anything found in a garage-full of how-to music mags.

Webb is an exceptionally well-read writer who has obviously spent decades investigating the mindset of his peers and superiors, and he's written the book with the same degree of intimacy that sucks us into the stories of songs like "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." By the time the reader gets to the final chapters, Webb further increases the level of interest by relating his own career story, including when he and his white, blond backup band marched into the offices of a shocked Motown staff in search of a contract, and ended up with a string of hits, beginning with the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up And Away."

Webb's verse guarantees him a mark in this century's musical cement. This book scratches an even deeper signature, given his ability to walk us through literally every internal state of mind and external process required to conjure up a solid, marketable composition. Tunesmith is both a how-to book and a musical autobiography, as well as a personal viewpoint on the present state of the songwriting profession. Those inclined to check out the bracketed writer credits beneath a tune will find this invaluable--and probably the most personal book on music they've ever encountered.

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