Jimmy Webb credits Johnny Rivers for break in music business

Songwriter to play Manship Theatre

Jimmy Webb, the great American songwriter who wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away,” “The Highwayman,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” “MacArthur Park” and many more, has a deep connection to Baton Rouge, even though his Saturday concert at the Manship Theatre will be his first time here.

In 1966, Webb was a struggling young songwriter in Los Angeles. He earned money by sweeping a recording studio floor, opening the place up in the morning for the likes of poet-singer Rod McKuen and writing what in the music business are called lead sheets.

Webb’s excellent ear for music allowed him to listen to a newly written song and then notate melodies and harmonies on a staff. The resulting lead sheets, including lyrics, earned him $5 a song.

“So, with a lead sheet, you could make a record,” Oklahoma native Webb recalled from his home on Long Island. “In Hollywood, the record business ran on lead sheets. Arrangements were done if absolutely necessarily, if we could afford it.”

Webb met music star and former Baton Rougean Johnny Rivers at a studio on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Rivers had learned the value of good songs and songwriters years before during his visits to New York and Nashville. Webb became the first songwriter signed to Rivers Music Publishing.

“When I showed up on Johnny’s doorstep,” Webb said, “I probably was about 19, 20 at the most. Johnny just said, ‘OK, Go to work. What do you want to do?’ He had a lot of faith in me as a writer. And you’ve got to have that because, if nobody ever lets you do anything, if you’re always being denied an opportunity to prove yourself, you never get anywhere.”

Webb had already written future hit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but it sat on the shelf until Rivers recorded it in 1966. It was Glen Campbell’s 1967 rendition of the song, however, that became a major hit.

Rivers paired Webb with a young singing group called the Fifth Dimension, which recorded of another of Webb’s song, “Up, Up and Away.” It sold a million copies and won two Grammy awards. Another major, Grammy-winning hit arrived with actor-singer Richard Harris’ recording of Webb’s epic composition, “MacArthur Park,” including the lines, “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down.”

Webb credits Rivers for taking him out of the rain.

“Johnny is a key character in my life,” the songwriter and recording artist said. “In a quiet kind of way, he’s helped a lot of people along the way. There’s an element of snobbery in the world of rock ’n’ roll, but Johnny has no part of it. He’s just the same guy who took me in out of the rain and let me go in the studio with the Wrecking Crew (L.A.’s top studio musicians, including Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, Hal Blaine and New Orleans expat Earl Palmer).

But Webb soon left Rivers’ music publishing company to start his own company, White Oak Songs. The split wasn’t amicable and Webb later, from time to time, regretted it.

“But it’s all water under the bridge, as far as Johnny and I are concerned,” Webb said.

In January, Webb served as opening act for Rivers’ 50th anniversary concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. He also joined his mentor on stage in the band, just as he did at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

“We stay in touch,” Webb said. “There’s a lot of love.”

Webb’s own recent albums — 2010’s “Just Across the River” and 2013’s “Still Within the Sound of My Voice” — feature guest star-graced remakes of his classic compositions. All of the guests, including Brian Wilson, Art Garfunkel, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne and Campbell, are Webb’s friends.

His next album won’t be re-creations of his classics, Webb said.

“I’m not going to record ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ again,” he said. “I have the new songs. To be as humble as I can be, they’re as good as anything I ever wrote. Some of them are better. I still have the skills that I had as a kid. I see no reason not to write songs as long as I can.”