Richard Nisley

One of the wonders of pop music–"MacArthur Park"
Pop Culture Released - Apr 01, 2021
Jimmy Webb, the son of an Oklahoma Baptist minister, and of limited song-writing experience, moved with his family to Southern California in 1964, and within three years saw his songs topping Top 40 playlist from coast to coast. Such songs as "By the Time I get to Phoenix", "Wichita Lineman", and "Galveston" made a recording star of an obscure country musician named Glen Campbell. Another of his songs, "Up, Up and Away" launched the career of the vocal group the 5th Dimension. At the age of 22, Jimmy Webb found himself being compared with such legendary song writers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Lennon-McCartney. Nonetheless, many of Webb's songs were initially rejected. Such was the case with "MacArthur Park".

In 1967, Webb was approached by famed record producer Bones Howe to write a pop song for the vocal group The Association, which he produced and happened to be hot at the time. Howe wanted a song similar to a Bach cantata, with different movements and changing time signatures. Webb sat down at his piano and came up with "everything Howe wanted", and so was non-plussed when the producer rejected "MacArthur Park" as too ambitious.

Webb was not one to give up easily. He went around the producer and personally played the song for the Association. However, they too rejected the tune. The song might have been relegated to the dust bin, had Webb not met Irish actor Richard Harris at a fundraiser in East Los Angeles. Webb was there to perform his songs on the piano. Harris, who had just starred as King Arthur in the film "Camelot," in which he sang a number of songs, introduced himself to Webb and suggested the two get together and make a record. Webb didn't think much about it until Harris called and invited him to his London home to audition a number of his songs for an album Harris was planning. As it turned out, Harris rejected every song Webb performed but one–"MacArthur Park." Harris was crazy about it.

Back in L.A. recording dates were set at Armin Steiner's Sound Recorders in Hollywood. Among the studio pros who took part in the two-week sessions were members of the famed Wrecking Crew (pianist Larry Knechtel, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Joe Osborne, and guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Mike Deasy) along with Webb himself on harpsichord. Strings, woodwinds and brass were overdubbed to enrich the sound.

Harris was so happy with the results that he asked Webb to write more songs for his album. Entitled "A Tramp Shining", the album was completed in January 1968, and released that Spring, along with the single, "MacArthur Park." As Webb and Harris had hoped, the single was an immediate sensation. In the U.S. the song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, while topping the record charts in Europe and in Australia. Best of all, the song had lasting power, and was recorded by a number of singers, including country singer Waylon Jennings, whose version topped the country-and-western charts in 1969; and disco diva Donna Summers, whose revved up disco version topped the easy listening charts in 1978. In 1980, Frank Sinatra recorded a stripped-down version of "MacArthur Park" for his best-selling album, "Trilogy."

At seven-and-half minutes, Harris' version was unusually long for a major pop hit. About the song, Jimmy Webb told Newsweek Magazine in 2014 that like so many of the songs he composed in the late 1960s it was mostly about his relationship with then-girlfriend Susie Horton:

"Everything in the song was visible. There's nothing in it that's fabricated.
The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it's a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in (L.A.'s) MacArthur Park . . . Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper."

Final note: Webb and Horton remained friends, even after their breakup (the subject of "By the time I get to Phoenix") and her marriage to another man. However, for Webb, Susie Horton surely served as his muse, because without her he never wrote another number-one hit song.

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