Tune in weekday mornings for Stories of Standards to hear our favorite versions of “Wichita Lineman.” Rodney Franks presents Stories of Standards Monday through Friday at 7:50 and 8:50 am starting Monday, December 20.
“Wichita Lineman” (1968) by Jimmy Webb was initially recorded by Glen Campbell with backing from The Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of session musicians based in Los Angeles, who also went by the names “The Clique” and “The First Call Gang.” This recording reached number 3 on the pop chart and remained in the top 100 for 15 weeks. It also topped the American country music chart for two weeks and the adult contemporary charts for six weeks. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) certified it gold in January 1969. In 2010, “Rolling Stone” ranked this as number 195 on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and by August 2017 the song had sold 357,000 downloads. The first part of each verse is written in F Major, describing the lineman’s job, while the second part, in D Major, describes the lineman’s emotional responses. The orchestration echoed the reference to the wind in the wires’ Aeolian harp effect, while the electronic sounds represent a Morse code effect, such as a lineman might hear. Webb said that Campbell had requested a “geographical” song to follow the previous hit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. Webb found his inspiration while driving through Washita County in southwestern Oklahoma, at a time when many telephone companies were county-owned utilities, and linemen were county employees. He was driving towards a setting sun when he saw in the distance a lineman atop a pole. In 2006 he was quoted in the “Dallas Observer” saying: “I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, ‘Look there’s this great soul, and there’s this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we’re all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings’.” When Webb delivered his first draft of the song, he was surprised to learn that Campbell had already recorded it.
Jimmy Webb (Aug 15, 1946 – present), singer, songwriter, and composer, was born in Oklahoma and moved to California with his family in 1964, where he stayed when his father returned to Oklahoma in 1965 after his mother’s death. He had been playing piano in the family church since the age of 12 and purchased his first record when 14 years old, “Turn Around Look at Me” by Glen Campbell. Webb signed a contract with Jobete Music, Motown’s publishing branch, where his first published song was “My Christmas Tree” for The Supremes. For singer/producer Johnny Rivers Webb wrote “Up, Up and Away” and four other songs on the 5th Dimension’s debut album. With his own recording company Canopy, he produced an album with actor Richard Harris; Webb had written all of the songs, one of which, “MacArthur Park”, reached #2 on the Hot 100 despite being more than twice as long (7 minutes, 21 seconds) as the vast majority of songs being played on the radio at that time. In 1986, with Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Webb produced a cantata “The Animals’ Christmas”, written from the viewpoint of animals. Webb has been producing solo albums since 1993. His first book “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting” was published in 1998; he appeared in the 2008 documentary “The Wrecking Crew”, providing insights into the world of California session musicians in the 1960s. In 2011, Webb was unanimously elected Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, replacing Hal David who had retired after ten years in that position. Webb had been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and was the 2003 recipient of its highest honor, the Johnny Mercer Award. He has said “I like words. I like the way they clash around together and bang up against each other, especially in songs.” He also said, in Tunesmith: “The paramount joy of the craft is that however simply it is begun, it can take the songwriter on a lifelong voyage across many distant and wondrous musical seas.”