This week’s suggestion is a masterpiece, but it’s puzzled me on two levels since I first heard it; why do we never hear what happened when he gets to Phoenix? The last we hear he is in Oklahoma whilst she is sleepin’ as the song fades and, secondly, why was this song never a UK hit despite some 400 versions being recorded and by stacks of famous names. It’s a mystery I am unlikely to solved. But, anyway, let’s find out about the song.
The song was written by the Oklahoma-born song smith Jimmy Webb whose father was a minister and in his early teens began playing in his father Church improvising to Hymns and then began writing the occasional religious song. In his late teens he bought his first record which was Turn Around, Look at Me by Glen Campbell. He was impressed by Glen’s distinctive voice and it helped improve his song writing. In an interview with Songfacts, Webb explained how he got his break, “I worked for Motown when I was about 17, 18 years old. I was a white face. There were a lot of black faces and mine was a white face. But they always treated me very kindly, treated me like family there and really taught me a lot.” Webb’s first success was My Christmas Tree in 1965 as recorded by The Supremes which appeared on their Merry Christmas album. “They had another kid there who had been on The Donna Reed Show, his name was Paul Petersen, and he had a couple of records. The label came to me and said, ‘We need a song for Paul,’ 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. And 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.’ They liked verses and choruses there. Verses and big choruses. And By the Time I Get to Phoenix is three verses, very simple, very direct storyline. The guy who had hired me at Motown, Mark Gordon, managed the Fifth Dimension, he was signing them over at Soul City, which was Johnny Rivers’ company. I ended up going over there. They bought my contract out, I went over there and I took Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, Worst that Could Happen and a handful of hit songs that were there with me.
Frank Sinatra always cited Matt Monro as the greatest singers in the world and By the Time I Get To Phoenix the ‘Greatest torch song ever written’, praise indeed. Its most famous version was by Glen Campbell who had been touring as a Beach Boy after Brian Wilson’s breakdown. He began his solo career in the States in October 1961 but had to wait just over seven years until the UK public got to hear him and it was with another Webb song, Wichita Lineman which reached number seven. A few months later Galveston followed, a song about a Texas coastal town, but that was first recorded by the Hawaiian singer Don Ho.
Phoenix was first recorded by Johnny Rivers complete with the Wrecking Crew, which Campbell was once a member of, and strings provided by Marty Paich whose credentials include pianist, arranger, composer, producer, director and conductor. Webb tells how Campbell got hold of it, “Glen was driving along the street one day and heard Johnny’s record and thought, ‘I could cut that record and make a hit out of it.’ I think they both cut them in the same room. I remember working in there with Lou Adler on the first one, but I don’t remember working on Glen’s records. I wasn’t always around for Glen’s records. So there are these long, torturous stories for most of these songs that have not had easy lives.” It was after hearing Glen’s version that Webb then wrote Wichita Lineman. “I think that Glen’s voice is perfectly suited to my early songs,” Webb stated.
Within a month of release, By the Time I Get To Phoenix went to number two on the Billboard Country Chart and 26 on the Hot 100 singles chart. That was the first of many of Webb’s song that Campbell recorded. It was one of the most covered songs of the 20th Century being laid down by names such as, Pat Boone (which apparently Campbell played guitar on), Bobby Goldsboro, Frankie Valli, Frankie Laine, Engelbert Humperdinck, Four Tops, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Des O’Connor, James Brown and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
It seems that some people analysed the song too much, Webb said, “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.” In case you were interested as to why it didn’t work, I’ve done the research for you, Assuming he’s left late one evening and headed for the destination mentioned in the second verse, which says, ‘By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be workin’ that means he would have driven for around 12-15 hours and the third verse says, ‘By the time I make Oklahoma, she’ll be sleepin’ so that could be another 12-15 hours. Now, Albuquerque is in New Mexico and Oklahoma City is approx 600 miles east of Albuquerque, but the problem is Phoenix is approximately 420 miles west of Albuquerque and would take around six and a half hours to drive. So, the question is why has he travelled to Albuquerque, then gone east to Oklahoma and then gone back west to Phoenix which is a total distance just over 1000 miles and 15 hours, non-stop, drive. So, yes, geographically, it doesn’t make sense and, on top of that, we don’t even know where he started from. More to the point, the people who complained need to get a life and who cares anyway as it’s such a good song. I don’t think it ever bothered Mr Webb, given how much money we would have made from it.
The girl he leaves was a real ex-girlfriend called Susan (or Suzy) Horton and it’s the same lady who was the inspiration for another Webb song, MacArthur Park (See Single of the Week number two in October 2011). The pair had begun dating when they were High School students and it all went wrong when she upped sticks for Lake Tahoe which straddles the border between California and Nevada, and worked as a dancer. It got worse when Webb found out she had married Linda Ronstadt’s cousin Bobby.
Suzy, who is still married to Bobby, looks back on the on-again, off-again love affair with Webb during the 1960s and early 1970s with sweetness and humility for all the widely cherished music that came out of it. She also said, back in 2013, “I’ve written several answer songs with my side of the story, and hope to make an album of my own someday.” After 10 years, we still wait and wonder.