Written by Jimmy Webb, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was originally recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965. It was covered by American country music singer Glen Campbell on his album of the same name. Released on Capitol Records in 1967, Campbell’s version topped RPM‘s Canada Country Tracks and reached number two on Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles chart. Also, it won two awards at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards.
Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) named it the third most performed song from 1940 to 1990. The song was ranked number 20 on BMI’s Top 100 Songs of the Century.
Moreover, Frank Sinatra called it “the greatest torch song ever written.”
The story behind the song
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is about a love affair Jimmy Webb had with Suzy Horton, whom he began dating when they were high school students. She caused him considerable anguish when she ran off to Lake Tahoe to work as a dancer. It got worse when she married another guy. It inspired Webb to write “Worst That Could Happen,” a hit for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1969. That marriage failed, and in 1993, Horton became Suzy Ronstadt when she married Linda Ronstadt’s cousin, Bobby. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Suzy remained friends after her marriage to Bobby Ronstadt. Their relationship, which peaked in mid-1965, was also the primary influence for “MacArthur Park”, another Webb composition.
Webb stated that the song was not intended to be geographically literal.
“A guy approached me one night after a concert […] 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.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.”
Webb called the song a “succinct tale” with an “O. Henry-esque twist at the end, which consists merely of the guy saying, ‘She didn’t really think that I would go,’ but he did.” Although the protagonist in the song left his lover, Webb did not leave Horton.
Here are the lyrics of the song that say it all…
By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before
By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all
By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go