Glen Campbell had finally started having hits of his own. After Guess I’m Dumb flopped, he recorded Buffy St. Marie’s Universal Soldier — an odd choice for the conservative Campbell, but a commercial one, reaching number forty-five in the charts — before having a major hit with John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind.
But it was the song he recorded after that which made him a fully-fledged star. By the Time I Get To Phoenix, a cover of a song written by Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Johnny Rivers. Campbell’s version, produced by Al de Lory, became one of the biggest hits of all time, turning the song into a standard and making Webb (who also had a hit around the same time with Up, Up, and Away performed by the Fifth Dimension) the hottest young songwriter in LA.
At the time, Campbell and Webb had not even met, but the two met soon after at a session, and hit it off. As Campbell and de Lory wanted a follow-up to Phoenix, Campbell called Webb shortly after that first meeting and asked him for another song with a town in the name, or failing that “something geographical”.
Webb had never written a song for a specific artist before, and was unsure of what to do, but Campbell needed the song quickly, so he sat down and thought about a drive through Washita County, and seeing someone working at the top of the telephone wire poles, and thinking about how lonely a job it must be. Webb at the time wanted to write about ordinary working people, but not to make their ordinariness a negative factor — he wanted to show that ordinary people have hopes and dreams, and thoughts that are more than just about their job.
Changing the place from Washita to Wichita in order to improve the scansion, Webb came up with a harmonically ambiguous verse that changed key halfway through from F major to D major and never properly resolved, and a Morse code-like instrumental part, representing the signals travelling down the telephone wires. The first two verses came quite quickly the same afternoon that Campbell called, but Webb was stuck for how to finish it, and after several telephone calls from the studio asking if the song was done yet, he eventually said he’d send over what he had so they could see if they liked the song — if they did, he’d finish it up for them.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to. Campbell and de Lory liked the song enough that they just went with what they had. The finished recording features Campbell singing the first two verses, followed by a “guitar” solo (actually played by Campbell on Carol Kaye’s six-string bass, hence the deeper and more resonant sound than normal) just restating the verse melody, before Campbell repeats the last two lines of the second verse and the song ends with an extended instrumental fade.
After Webb didn’t hear back from Campbell about finishing the song, he assumed that the song had been left aside, but in fact the “unfinished” song had been earmarked as Campbell’s next single. The simplicity of structure was precisely what was needed. Like Wichita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix had no middle eight or chorus, and told a very simple story using only verses. By leaving the song unfinished, Webb had inadvertently refined the formula that had worked on the earlier song — although he still made sure that the next “geography song” he wrote for Campbell, Galveston, had a middle eight.
de Lory’s production and arrangement, which combined organ and high strings with bright staccato piano to emulate the sound of electricity in the wire (and which foreshadows the staccato instrumental figure in Webb’s next big hit) created a unique soundscape, wrapping Campbell’s country-tinged voice in a lush backing closer to Pet Sounds than to Hank Williams.
The result was a massive crossover hit, which reached number three on the pop charts but number one on both the country and adult contemporary listings. After this, both Campbell and Webb were at the top of their professions. Campbell would go on to be not only one of the most successful singers of the next few decades, but also a star of both TV and film. Webb, meanwhile, would write more hits for Campbell and for others, and become known as one of the best songwriters of his generation.
Even after this, though, Webb still sometimes didn’t manage to place his songs with the artists he wanted to. The Association, for example, who were looking for another hit (and would largely fail to find it) turned down a song Webb tried to get them to record, considering its seven minute length excessive. That song, when recorded by Richard Harris, went to number two in the charts and became another standard, although with a slightly more mixed reputation. The Association never recovered from turning down MacArthur Park.
Composer: Jimmy Webb
Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar, bass), James Burton, Al Casey, Donnie Lanier (guitars), Carol Kaye, Donald Bagley (bass), Jim Gordon (drums), Dick Leith, Bud Brisois, Virgil Evans, Roy Caton, Jim Horn (horns), Richard Hyde (woodwinds), Bill Kurasch, Ralph Schaffer, Leonard Malarsky, Robert Sushel, Jerome Reisler, Tibor Zelig, Wilbert Nuttycombe, Samuel Boghossian, Joseph DiFiora, Jesse Erlich, Anne Goodman, Sid Sharp, Bob Balts [FOOTNOTE: This name, or something similar, appears on the AFM sheet, but the typing is slightly smudged. I’ve been unable to find any information on any players with similar names, so I’ve placed him in the strings on the balance of probabilities, as he’s listed with string players.] (strings), Norm Jeffries (percussion), Mike Melvoin and Al de Lory (keyboards),
Original release: Wichita Lineman/Fate Of Man Glen Campbell, Capitol 2302
Currently available on: Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD
What a truly great, and truly unique, song this is. I usually describe it as “the greatest love-song ever written about telephone repair”. I’d love to add it to my acoustic set but I’ve not yet found a way to play the instrumental figure at the end of the verses.