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Blame or thank Jimmy Webb for that song

MusicMusic IndustryRichard HarrisMel TormeBrooklyn Bridge

To tweak a time-honored line from Charles Dickens, it's the best of songs and the worst of songs.

Pop music is full of love-it-or-hate-it milestones, but perhaps no work has inspired more polarized reactions than "MacArthur Park," the seven-minute mini-symphony that Jimmy Webb wrote in the late 1960s about the Los Angeles landmark, a shattered romance and a cake left dissolving in a downpour.

Humorist Dave Barry, who took a survey about least favorite tunes, declared that his respondents named Webb's opus "the worst song in modern history." Critics Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell ranked the version by Richard Harris near the top in their book "The Worst Rock n' Roll Records of All Time." When Rolling Stone took a readers' poll of the worst songs of the 1960s, the same recording came in third.

A universally reviled song? Well, seemingly so, but consider these facts:

When Webb performed the song in MacArthur Park itself for the first time last year, the media covered the event as a major homecoming. Harris' version hit No. 2 on Billboard in 1968 and won a Grammy. Donna Summer later topped the charts with a disco cover. Frank Sinatra, Waylon Jennings and the Four Tops are among the others who have recorded it.

So when Webb plays a three-night engagement with Maureen McGovern at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, will he perform the tune that's brought him decades of fortune, whatever the naysayers think? By now, he's almost afraid not to.

"If I don't do it, I always get into some kind of trouble," he said wryly on the phone last month.

Someone else who loves "MacArthur Park": McGovern, who included the song on her 2008 album "A Long and Winding Road," a collection of covers of 1960s and '70s classics. The singer plans to duet on "MacArthur" with Webb and perform other songs from his now-epic catalog at the center's Samueli Theater.

"All of the songs that he's written over the years have been the soundtrack to baby boomers' lives," McGovern said.

And as that era nears its half-century mark — oh, just come up with your own joke about a birthday cake in the rain.

*

'You gotta stick with it'

Not that it feels like that many years to Webb.

"It went by in, like, 60 seconds," he said about the career that began when he was a teenager. "It's been a great life. You know, they say time flies when you're having a good time."

Judging by record sales, Webb's listeners have had a fine time too. Still, some attendees at Segerstrom may find themselves surprised that some of the songs in his repertoire came from him. The sleeve for the original "MacArthur Park" single declares in prominent font, "Richard Harris sings it; Jim Webb wrote, arranged and produced it." And that has been the story for much of the songwriter's career.

Like Paul Williams, another prolific songwriter who recently visited Orange County for a career retrospective show, Webb has won his greatest fame through covers. After scoring his first recording in an unlikely place — a holiday album by the Supremes, who included his "My Christmas Tree" — Webb contributed hits for Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix"), the Brooklyn Bridge ("Worst That Could Happen"), the 5th Dimension ("Up, Up and Away") and others.

Still, Webb's performance of "MacArthur Park" last year was far from a one-time fluke. Since 1968, he's recorded 15 albums, including a pair of recent collections, "Still Within the Sound of My Voice" and Just Across the River," which pairs Webb with Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne and other vocalists.

"I've actually seen a marked improvement in my ability to perform, and I'm extremely confident at this point," Webb said. "So when I go out, I don't go out apologetically. I mean, I go out to do a show. I go out to tell some strong stories about life as a songwriter."

Some of Webb's favorite stories about songwriting might include meeting Louis Armstrong backstage at age 17 and having the jazz great tell him, "Hey, kid, you gotta stick with it"; nearly having a car accident when he heard Sinatra sing one of his songs on the radio the first time; having James Taylor perform his music at the White House; and having NASA play "Up, Up and Away" on an Apollo mission.

Where does a tunesmith go from there? Webb said his greatest unfulfilled dream is to oversee a Broadway show.

"I might as well say it — it's the most difficult and complex thing to do because it has so many disparate elements, and they all have to function perfectly in sync," he said. "Including personalities."

*

Another American songbook

The staff at Segerstrom, which puts on a series of high-profile musicals each year, can give him some tips in that regard. And so can McGovern.

The singer, who performed the Oscar-winning songs from the 1970s films "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno," has performed on Broadway for more than three decades. In 1981, she debuted in "The Pirates of Penzance," and subsequent roles have included "Little Women," "Nine" and "The King and I."

Recently, she's undertaken a one-woman show, "Carry It On," which features personal remembrances and a repertoire dominated by 1960s and '70s classics. Onstage with Webb in recent years, she's followed the same approach.

McGovern first met the songwriter, whom she calls "a bone fide national treasure," in the late '80s at a Mel Torme concert at Michael's Pub in New York. The past few years, they've performed sporadically onstage together. In addition to "MacArthur Park," she plans to slip Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," at least, into the Segerstrom set list.

"The songs from that time were just considered boomer music, kid music at the time, and you look back and there's a real craft to songwriting," she said. "It's by and large very different from the Great American Songbook, but it's still the craft of songwriting — I mean, Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell, Carole King.

"There's just incredible songwriters with a long body of work at this point to look back and really see the power of their music."

If You Go

Who: Jimmy Webb and Maureen McGovern

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Samueli Theater, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday

Cost: Starts at $79

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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