Photo credit: 45cat.com
There are some things done in a hurry that just turned into something significant for someone else. This oftentimes happens in the music industry. Some songs were written in a rush but, who knew that these pieces turned out to be the next big thing. That’s exactly a clear-cut part of the writing history of “Wichita Lineman.” Its songwriter Jimmy Webb has always insisted on it being an unfinished song. He further described the stanza as the “biggest, most awful, dumbest and most obvious false rhyme in history.” However, little did he know that his ‘messy’ composition would soon become an all-time favorite classic song. Eventually, the song helped propel Glen Campbell to international stardom in the late ‘60s.
Prior to his another big hit “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Campbell recorded “Wichita Lineman” which came out in 1968. The single topped the country music chart for two weeks while it spent six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. In addition, the song peaked at No. 3 on the pop chart making it the singer’s first top 10 single. On the following year, the track received gold certification from the RIAA.
Last year, the American rock band Guns N’ Roses paid tribute to Campbell through a mellow performance of the late singer’s song. The said homage was part of the band’s Not in This Life Time reunion tour in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Song Writing History
Jimmy Webb wrote the song in response to a call from Campbell who’s looking for a ‘place’ or ‘geographical’ song. At that time, Campbell just had a successful hit, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Apparently, he wants to make a follow up to the song. Webb said that he wasn’t in the mood to write a song about a town that time though. “’I’m not sure I want to write a song about a town right now. I think I’ve overdone that.” In response, Campbell asked, “Can you do something geographical?” And for the rest of the afternoon, Webb went sweating over the song.
He tried recalling a childhood journey across the panhandle of Oklahoma.
“There’s a place where the terrain absolutely flattens out,” Webb shared in an interview. “It’s almost like you could take a [spirit] level out of your toolkit and put in on the highway, and that bubble would just sit right there on dead center. It goes on that way for about 50 miles.”
In the distance, he noticed the figure of a lonely lineman atop a pole talking on a telephone. He described it as “the picture of loneliness”. Webb then “put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand” as he thought of what the lineman was saying into the receiver.
From that vivid, movie-like image lifted out of his memory, Webb got his inspiration in writing the song. However, he’s only half-way through when Campbell called up to follow things up. As Campbell and his producer Al DeLory were at the studio and in a hurry to record a song, they asked Webb to send over what he finished. As a result, the song was notably short. Hence, Webb expected it to be rejected.
The Unexpected Outcome
After a couple of weeks, Campbell and Webb had a surprise encounter. The latter was indeed surprised when Campbell told him that he recorded the song. What he considered as an unfinished song was complemented by Campbell saying, “It is now!” Right there and then, Campbell’s career had a jumpstart. Over the years though, he never forgets to highlight Webb’s role in his success.
“He’s just an exceptional writer. He pours his heart out,” he said. “And I think that’s where the music comes from the heart.”
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