Jimmy Webb Meets the Wrecking Crew
Jimmy L. Webb • April 18, 2017
Technology has changed the recording industry but the thrill that comes from the first time you hear your song performed start to finish never goes away. For me, I have been lucky enough to experience that thrill at least once with none other than the legendary Wrecking Crew behind me.
In my memoir, The Cake and the Rain (St. Martin’s Press, April 18, 2017), I recount my first recording adventures as a teenager – maybe I still feel a twinge of embarrassment as I look back; no formal education, no mentors at this point, just an innate sense that this was what I supposed to do. Somehow, like we all do, I figured it out—“and stuck with it!”
Jimmy L. Webb
Before the day of the session I had copied parts for every musician in amateurish blue ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper.
I showed up at the little studio that day, my Contessas in tow and my heart in my throat. Technicians were running the spaghetti factory of wiring that was necessary to capture a whole orchestra, tripping over earphone boxes and cue lines that linked all the players into a single organism. The musicians jabbered in a completely dispassionate way about their lawns, their wives, their instruments, or the damn union in a huge chorus that threatened to engulf me and push me back into the earth.
I walked into the booth as pale as a white grape and went to where Bob Ross and the guys from Motown sat coolly behind the console. “What do I do?” I asked plaintively. Bob walked me out into the studio where the A-list players were poking and squinting suspiciously at the primitively copied parts with hand-drawn staves on their stands. “Are these the real parts?” someone bellowed conspicuously. Several huge guffaws followed.
Bob and I stood on a two-inch-high podium with a music stand sitting on it. “Uh, fellas, let’s show a little courtesy here. This is our arranger and conductor Mr. Jimmy Webb.” I was a nobody, a seventeen-year-old kid.
There were a few polite little taps of bows against the stands. I looked back into the rhythm section and got a big smile and encouraging nod from the great Hal Blaine. He flourished his sticks and said, “Mr. Webb, do I need to count this off for you? Where do you want this, looks like a ballad, right?” He clicked his sticks together in a moderate tempo and I seized this life ring with a passion.
“Has everybody got ‘This Is Where I Came In’ on the stand?” I asked in my first coherent sentence of the day. Uh-huh. Yup. Everybody had it.
“Yes. Well, uh . . . then Hal you could give us four counts . . . and, uh, we could start.”
The four clicks came like a metronome and the rhythm section came in as one man, all in tune, playing the way I always imagined a band could play: Joe Osborn with his head down concentrating on the bass strings, Larry Knechtel as casual as a rag doll with his long blond hair and movie star good looks playing an exploratory and rock solid piano. Tommy Tedesco with a sunburst Gibson jazz guitar. They were all playing the chords exactly right the very first time.
My heart leaped as halfway through the verse the vibraphone joined in. They could do it! They could read my homemade manuscript. As we approached the big chorus where the Contessas sang “So this is where you’re gonna leave me,” Hal played a nice drum lead-in, something I hadn’t bothered to write, and then, in a feeling that must have been a little bit like that of a skydiver seeing his parachute open the very first time, the strings, twenty strong, and the three big trombones came in right after a harp glissando. It was gorgeous. There was a smile on every face in that room. I looked to the control room; The Contessas were there, faces pressed against the double-paned glass with huge smiles and gigantic blue eyes.
Gil, the record promotion guy for Motown, came out on the floor at the end of the take and said, “It’s a fuckin’ hit!” George Clements had to be scraped off the ceiling. For the rest of my life there would be no thrill remotely approaching the high of hearing a professional orchestra perform one of my arrangements. I still get that narcotic buzz every single time it happens.
After the session, Hal Blaine motioned me over. “Hey, Jim. This is your first time arranging, right?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “You need to stick with this. This is a good thing for you, ’kay?” He looked at all the guys in the control room glad-handing one another and making deals. “I know this is all confusing, but you just stick with the music, ’kay?” His kind dark brown eyes lingered on mine. He smiled and walked away and just left that great big drum set sitting there. Imagine that. He didn’t even stick around to load his own drums.
Pick up Jimmy Webb's memoir The Cake and the Rain on Amazon or wherever books are sold.
On May 3rd, Carnegie Hall hosts A Celebration of the Music of Jimmy Webb: The Cake and the Rain, benefiting the Alzheimer's Foundation. The concert features an all-star group of performers - including Dwight Yoakam, Toby Keith, Graham Nash, Hanson, Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, Shelea, Judy Collins, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., Liz Callaway, Michael Douglas, Johnny Rivers and Ashley Campbell - interpreting Jimmy's beloved catalog of songs. Click here for more info and to pick up tickets.