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By The Time I Get To Phoenix
“I had an old girlfriend and the relationship wasn’t going too well. So I just resolved to show her a thing or two and move back to Oklahoma. That was a pretty stupid thing to do, and didn’t do much in the way of punishing either, of course. But it created a very interesting song.” (1) Jimmy Webb, on the story behind By The Time I Get To Phoenix.
Jimmy Webb started his songwriting career at Motown Records. "I walked into the offices at Jobete (a music publisher), and Vicki, this big woman who sat behind the reception desk, said, 'Honey, you must be lost.' And she had a good laugh, and I sat down and talked to her for a while, and she ended up taking one of my tapes into the inner sanctum of the office at Jobete and playing it," he said. "I could hear it playing through the door, and after the song, the door opened, and a young, black man named Frank Wilson stuck his head out the door and said very, very softly, 'Would you come in here, please?' And that was literally the moment -- it was like the allegorical moment, if you will, when the door opened for me." (2)
Motown Records had just signed Paul Petersen, the former child TV star from The Donna Reed Show who recorded a few top teen hits in the early sixties for the Colpix label. Motown approached Webb and told him they needed a song for Petersen. “So, I wrote By the Time I Get to Phoenix. And they didn't like it for him. They didn't like it for anybody. They ended up cutting it with a couple of different people and not really being happy with it. When I left the company they gave me the song and said, 'You can take this one with you.' And I said, 'Okay, I will. I like it.'” (3)
Unhappy at Motown, Webb was approached by the man who signed him to Motown, Marc Gordon, who had just signed a group for Johnny Rivers’ Soul City Records, the 5th Dimension. Rivers knew the big money in the music business was in producing artists and publishing and he was looking for a songwriter. Gordon provided the tape of a new discovery. Gordon told Rivers, “You’ve got to listen to this guy, he’s a great songwriter, he’s really unusual,” Rivers recalled. “So, I had this tape and I was listening to it, but the songs were not my kind of thing. They weren’t real bluesy or funky rock, they were more pop and Broadway sounding. It’s really funny—you need to listen to all the songs on a tape because you never know. I started to get up and turn it off a couple of times but I went, ‘Eh, I’m going to keep listening,’ and the last song on that tape was By The Time I Get To Phoenix. So when I heard that, I went, ‘Whoa, what a great song!’ It just jumped out because it was such a great classic song. I called Gordon and said, ‘Hey, I want to meet this guy.’ He gave me Jimmy’s number and I called him. ‘Hey, let’s get together, I want to hear some more of your stuff. I really loved your tape and like your style of writing, especially this song, By The Time I Get To Phoenix. I want to cut it.”’ (4)
A recent picture of Jimmy Webb courtesy of jimmywebb.com.
Rivers bought out Webb’s contract at Jobete and brought him into the studio to record By The Time I Get To Phoenix. Webb joined Wrecking Crew regulars—Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Osborn (bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar) and Larry Knechtel at a session in July of 1966 to record Phoenix for Rivers’ Changes album. Rivers knew the song was a hit. With his current single, Poor Side Of Town riding up the charts, Rivers called Al DeLory, record producer and string arranger for Glen Campbell. Rivers, who knew Campbell from his work with the Wrecking Crew, told DeLory he had a hit for Campbell. “Why would you give us this record?” DeLory asked. “This could be a number one for you!” Rivers responded, “Al, you can only have one hit at a time. Run with it!” (5)
The story splits into a few versions depending on the source. According to The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman, “Coming into Western 3 one day for another session as a sideman with the Wrecking Crew, Glen happened to notice a record album lying on a table. It was by Johnny Rivers and contained a track that caught his eye called By The Time I Get To Phoenix.
Out of curiosity, Glen decided to give the song a quick spin on the studio’s turntable. Within seconds of listening, the one-day Rhinestone Cowboy experienced a life-altering epiphany. A feeling he’d never had before. He knew—instinctively knew—that this semi-obscure album track was going to be not only his next single but also his first bonafide pop hit. Rushing to meet with DeLory in Capitol’s Studio B the next day, Campbell couldn’t wait to share his discovery. ‘I’ve found our song, Al.’” (6)
Webb told his version of how Campbell discovered the song. “Glen was driving down the street and heard Rivers singing it and decided that he would cut it. Actually, what he said was ‘Hell, I can sing that song better than that fella.’ That’s just the way Glen is.”’ (7)
Enlisting the help of Wrecking Crew members, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Al Casey and Mike Deasy, Campbell recorded the song in late 1967. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on October 28, 1967 and reached its peak position #26 on December 16. (8) (9)
In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Webb had these reflections on Phoenix. "Well, it's more of a song about something I wish I had done than something I really did, in that I did not get in my car and drive back to Oklahoma to punish this young woman for not reciprocating my love and affection. In fact, a guy approached me one night after a concert, and he had a map, and he had all the times, and he had a stopwatch. And he showed me how it was impossible for me to drive from L.A. to Phoenix, and then how far it was to Albuquerque and then -- in short, he told me, 'This song is impossible.' And so it is. It's a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.” (2) “Sometimes as a writer you come to a decision like that and you just flip a coin,” the composer responded in the 2011 book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music. “You could try By The Time I Get To Flagstaff’, but does it work as well?”
The success of Phoenix started Campbell on a roll. With songs penned by Webb, Campbell hit #32 in 1968 with Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife, #3 in early 1969 with Wichita Lineman and #4 in the summer of ’69 with Galveston. (8)
Glen Campbell hosted The Midnight Special on NBC on October 24, 1975.
Photo courtesy of NBC/Getty Images.
After the Grammy Awards in February of 1968 (Campbell won for Best Pop Album and Best Male Vocal Performance while Webb won song of the year with Up, Up And Away), Campbell called Webb about writing a follow-up for Phoenix, specifically “something about a town.” Webb told this story about the moment in his memoir The Cake And The Rain. “I told Glen I appreciated his interest but I had just about exhausted the Rand-McNally phase of my career.” But with Campbell almost pleading about something geographical, Webb answered the hard-driving country star by working on a song for him the rest of the day. (10)
“I called Glen and Al (DeLory) and told them about Wichita Lineman, a song that might need a last verse. They wanted it right away.” A few days later, Campbell and Webb met at Webb’s place to review Webb’s catalog and listen to the “roughs” on Campbell’s take on Wichita Lineman. “You know this song isn’t really finished,” I reminded him. “It is now,” replied Campbell. (11)
With the bass intro from Carol Kaye, the song followed with upper register strings leading into Campbell’s vocal, Webb described the moment as a “match for the melody that must have been made in heaven.” For the missing third verse, Campbell borrowed Kaye’s Danelectro bass playing the melody note for note. Inspired, Webb had one more thought about the song.
“I turned to an old Gulbranson organ sitting on the opposite wall. I kept it around because of the electronic presets on it,” Webb recalled. He played some notes that sounded like a “satellite or some other high-powered electronic device.” Campbell loved it and wanted to record it. “It sounds good,” Webb cautioned, “but the organ weighs a ton.” Campbell, a get-things-done guy, had the organ moved to the studio where Webb overdubbed the notes that night. “You can hear it to this day, sounding a little like the Northern Lights, like vibrating signals from outer space moving upward and downward in fourths and fifths.” (12)
The final city song of the trilogy was Galveston, originally intended by Webb as a Vietnam War protest song. The central theme is about a soldier separated from friends, home and especially his first love. In Webb’s words, it’s “about a guy who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.” (13)
Hawaiian singer Don Ho first recorded the song using Webb’s lyrics while staying with the song’s original slow pace. When Ho appeared on Campbell’s Goodtime Hour, he introduced the song to the host suggesting that the song could do better with Campbell’s country touches. Campbell liked what he heard but not without placing his personal touches on it. Campbell changed the lyrics and the pace turning Webb’s lament into an up-tempo hit. While Webb originally wrote of a man “dreaming of escape from war to return to a place where no one was shooting,” Campbell sang the lyrics about a man “who was at war for the sake of the town he loved,” by changing the lyrics from Webb’s “I put down my gun / And dream of Galveston” to “I clean my gun / And dream of Galveston.” (14)
On November 26, 1968, Campbell recorded Galveston in Los Angeles with members of the Wrecking Crew, Al Casey (acoustic guitar), Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums). The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart on March 1, 1969 and peaked at #4 on April 12. (8) (9) Along with two other Campbell songs, I Wanna Live and Wichita Lineman, Galveston reached #1 on the Country chart. (15)
Glen Campbell died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on August 8, 2017. Jimmy Webb still performs. He published his autobiography The Cake And The Rain in 2017.
The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour began as a summer replacement for The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.
The show ran for four seasons on CBS from January 29, 1969 – June 13, 1972.
There were a total of 91 episodes recorded.
1) Chicken Soup For The Soul, Link.
2) Gross, Terry, NPR, Fresh Air, Jimmy Webb: From 'Phoenix' To 'Just Across The River,' February 10, 2004. Link.
3) McIntosh, Dan, Songfacts, May 16, 2011, Link.
4) Ragogna, Mike, From Whisky A Go Go to the Royal Studios: Conversations with Johnny Rivers, December 31, 2013, Link.
5) Webb, Jimmy, The Cake And The Rain, 2017, Page 189.
6) Kent Hartman. The Wrecking Crew, iBooks. Pages 332-333.
7) Armonaitis, Dan, Sound Observations, For Nearly Two Hours, Songwriting Giant Jimmy Webb Was Still On The Line, March 11, 2013, Link.
8) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 101.
9) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
10) Webb, Jimmy, The Cake And The Rain, 2017, Page 210.
11) Webb, Jimmy, Page 211.
12) Webb, Jimmy, Pages 211-212.
13) Webb, Jimmy, recorded live at The Living Room for WFUV’s Marquee Member show, YouTube video, Link.
14) Hann, Michael, The Guardian, Glen Campbell: a universal voice who defined American manhood, August 8, 2017, Link.
15) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Page 53.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Silver Screen Collection.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss