Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jimmy Webb, Barry Mann, and Paul Williams: The Soundtrack of Your Life

By Randy McNutt

Perhaps the night before Easter isn't the best time to schedule a concert, yet on April 23, 2011, hundreds of people came to Dayton, Ohio's Victoria Theatre to hear three veteran songwriters sing their songs. My view from row J, seat 3, was nearly perfect. From there I watched as Barry Mann, Jimmy Webb, and Paul Williams sang, laughed at their failures and successes, told the stories behind their hits, and entertained the grateful and enthusiastic crowd.

     Everything about that night seemed magical. Amply lit in the misty spring night, the theater stood out like a big white diamond--a gorgeous piece of Victorian architecture with plush and cushioned seats and a wide balcony. The acoustics were equally good. And the singers--well, they weren't just any singers. These guys had written so many hits that it would take many two-and-a-half-hour shows to hear them all.

     The one-of-a-kind program in Dayton was called the Soundtrack of Your Life. And, for us, it was aptly named. Initially, operators of the Victoria wanted to host a Jimmy Webb concert, and then they decided to expand the show. Webb and Williams had worked together before. But the three of them on stage together, well, that was something else. As Webb explained after the show: "Believe me, we enjoyed doing it even more than you enjoyed seeing it."

      The music icons' visit to my home state did more than entertain. It boosted my spirits. Only two days earlier, I had opened USA Today and scanned the music charts. On one chart, the numbers one and two songs both used a certain obscenity in their titles to get attention. I thought, Give me a good melody and an interesting lyric. That's all I need.

      I heard good melodies in abundance at the Victoria. Just hearing the writers sing their original songs in their unique voices made me feel hopeful about the future of songwriti
ng and performing. No fancy video needed, thank you; no gimmicks, either. A voice and a piano did the job. If these three writers (and perhaps others of their era) could keep performing their material in concerts, I told myself, then perhaps more young songwriters would emulate them and the music business would be better off for it.

      I admit my bias. I've always been fascinated by songwriters, and I've collected their often obscure recordings, from Margo Guryan to Chris Gantry. From them I've learned there's no substitute--in style and voice--for songs sung in their original form. Regardless of vocal ability, only a songwriter can generate a certain feeling in his song. And I also admire any writer who has the courage to perform in public--particularly the hits, for people have preconceived ideas of how those songs should sound.

     Williams opened the show using only a pianist to accompany him. Funny and self-effacing, he recalled his beginnings as an actor in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, when he appeared in The Loved One and The Chase. At age 27, the former Ohioan was living in Los Angeles with his mother and writing love songs with Roger Nichols. Ultimately this led to the Carpenters recording some of his material, including "We've Only Just Begun." (Originally composed as a bank commercial, Williams noted, the song has been sung at countless weddings.) For us that night he also sang "Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song," recorded by Three Dog Night (the Carpenters rejected the piece); "Rainy Days and Mondays," the Carpenters; and Helen Reddy's "You And Me Against The World." Williams even sang a few bars of The Love Boat theme, which he wrote with Charlie Fox. Williams laughed and admitted that some people still recognize him as Little Enos from Smokey and the Bandit.

    Next, Jimmy Webb strode onto the stage and took a seat at the grand piano. The son of an Oklahoma preacher became a pop music sensation in the late 1960s when he composed Glen Campbell's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," and other hits. The Fifth Dimension cut Webb's "Up, Up And Away," and Webb never looked back. In banter between songs, he explained how in the wilder days of his youth he often told acquaintances, "Let's make a record sometime." Few people ever took him up on his offer. Richard Harris did, though, and Webb went to England to work with the actor who would sing "MacArthur Park" and "Didn't We." Webb didn't sing those two songs during his performance, but the audience knew all the ones he did do, including Garfunkel's "All I Know." During a pause between songs, Webb said a songwriter singing his or her songs is all about "singing from the heart--it's the interpretation that counts." What a treat it was, too, hearing "Phoenix" as he intended it, complete with melancholy chords and his soulful vocals.

     Finally, Barry Man sat down at the piano and began singing "On Broadway." Dropping anecdotes between songs, and using only the grand piano at first, he continued to sing forgotten melodies, from Edie Gorme's "Blame It On The Bossa Nova" to Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again." He mused that an English condom company wanted to use the latter in a commercial, but he and his wife wouldn't allow it. Hearing him discuss his music, I was struck by his depth and career longevity. He was no novice when he and wife-lyricist Cynthia Weil wrote "Kicks" and "Hungry" for Paul Revere and the Raiders in the mid-1960s, and Mann is still writing hits. (He acknowleged his wife's vital contributions, and introduced her. She was sitting in the audience.) After some time had passed during Mann's performance, his band--four musicians and a powerful accompanying female vocalist--joined him. His version of "(You're My) Soul And Inspiration," the Righteous Brothers hit, came off well, as did the newer "Somewhere Out There," the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." As Williams pointed out toward the end of the show, "Lovin' Feeling" was BMI's most-played song of the twentieth century and the most-performed song in the BMI catalog. Mann smiled and told the audience that when he and his wife first played it for Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, they reacted cooly. Hatfield asked what he was supposed to be doing while Medley was singing at the beginning. "You can be running to the bank," producer Phil Spector told him.

After the show, I met the three songwriters with a small group of people who also attended the concert. The three were gracious, friendly, warm, and thankful. They took time to discuss their songs with individual fans, and signed LPs, CDs, and concert programs. As I watched them sitting there, talking and recalling old times, I thought: These guys didn't have to do come to Dayton, especially on the day before Easter, yet they took time to sing and meet the people. Then I recalled something that Mann had mentioned during the program. He said it's the recording artists, not the professional songwriters, who usually hear people's personal reactions to the songs. Songwriters, he said, are left in a vacuum, having no idea how much their songs have meant in people's lives. He then read a letter from a woman who had served as a nurse during the war in Vietnam. She told him that "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" was everyone's theme there--the only hope. "I will try to get through this," Mann said as he began to read, knowing the emotion it would rekindle in him.

      Perhaps this is why Barry Mann, Jimmy Webb, and Paul Williams came to Dayton to perform, and why they would like to take their show to other venues across the nation.

     After all, music is all about creating a personal connection with people, and singing from the heart.