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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2011/04/29
by Mike Gruenberg

Jimmy Webb: Performing at Germano’s Cabaret

In My Life

The beauty of American cities and most cities in general, is in the architecture. Each locale has their own uniqueness that beckons visitors and delights the local populace. Aside from the obvious pride we all have in our individual home cities, another source of satisfaction for all residents of a particular city is the ability to recommend and dine at fine ethnic restaurants. Everyone has a favorite café to call their own in their hometown.

Most every city has a “Little Italy” or “Greek town” or “China town” where ethnic foods are served. Located just a few short blocks from the Inner Harbor of Baltimore is that city’s version of Little Italy. Much like its counterparts in New York or Boston, Baltimore’s Little Italy boasts small, ethnic Italian restaurants that have been pleasing generations of people for many years with excellent home style cooked food. In Baltimore’s Little Italy, there are approximately fifty of these restaurants in a relatively small area. The question that faces each owner of these establishments is to try and figure out how to make their restaurant stand out from the others. They’re all good, so how does one choose which one to go to? As seems to be always the case, this is a question that can be best solved by clever marketing.

Recently, I went to Germano’s Trattoria on S.High Street in Baltimore. That restaurant has been in the area for many years, has been owned by the same family for those years and is known for their style of cooking reminiscent of the foods that can be found in the Tuscany region of Italy. The owners of Germano’s were looking for a way to differentiate their establishment from their competitors. They decided that a good way to distinguish their restaurant from the others in that area was to bring in live entertainment in addition to serving their famous Tuscan influenced dishes. Calling it Germano’s Cabaret, they are now presenting live music as part of a package that includes dinner.

When I heard that legendary composer, Jimmy Webb was appearing at Germano’s, I made sure to sign up early for his show. For those of us who came of musical age in the 60’s, Jimmy Webb represents an important link to that time and he has continued to be a significant force in the music industry even today.

The room designated as a cabaret at Germano’s is situated on the second floor of the restaurant. It looks like 100 people can be seated comfortably there. In front of a window, against a backdrop of the rooftops of Little Italy, there stands a baby grand piano. The owners of the restaurant have wisely invested in a good sound system and efficient lighting so that the performer can be seen and heard from virtually every part of the restaurant. Once our dinner was finished, we settled back for the show.

After being introduced and settling himself in behind the piano, Jimmy says, “If you think this is going to be a whole evening of anecdotes about dead people…you’re basically right.” And with that, he played a song, and then told a story about writing the songs and the people who sang them. Everyone from Frank Sinatra, Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings, Art Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, R.E.M. and many more people become part of a storytellers evening.

For me, a number of occurrences in my life have made Jimmy Webb and his music a bit special. I attended an urban university and as such, we did not have a big-time sports program. The university attracted many foreign students and as such, we boasted a championship soccer team. I recollect that in my freshman year, an article appeared in the school newspaper that our soccer coach was called upon to prepare an actor for an upcoming role in a film called “This Sporting Life.” The film was a story about a rugby league footballer. The actor being tutored by our soccer coach at Long Island University on the finer points of rugby was Richard Harris. This was the first time when I noticed the work of Richard Harris on the screen. So I began to follow his career.

As a devotee of rock music, I spend a considerable amount of time knowing not only the songs and who performs them, but also extraneous information such as record label, producer, session musicians, etc. In the 60’s Johnny Rivers found much success in his live recordings. He also was one of the few recording artists to successfully start and operate his own record company, called Soul City Records. I was a big fan of Johnny Rivers and as such, have an extensive collection of his albums.

Johnny signed a very young; Jimmy Webb to a publishing deal for his new record company and the first song published was “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” which Johnny recorded on his “Changes” album. This was the beginning of a lucrative relationship for Jimmy and Johnny because a new group called The Fifth Dimension released their first album for Soul City, called “Up, Up and Away” in 1967. At the Grammy’s that year, “Up, Up and Away” was awarded song of the year and the album won record of the year. At age 21, Jimmy Webb had achieved an incredible amount of success. Jimmy told us of how it felt to be that successful at such a young age.

The next time I noticed Jimmy was when the most improbable of records became a world-wide hit. The song in question had everything going against it. It was over seven minutes long which seemingly made it impossible for radio stations to play it because they were used to spinning three minute rock songs. It had a lush horns and strings arrangement which at the time was completely the opposite of the prevailing rock music played on the radio which consisted of four/five person power bands. And, it was sung (more spoken) by an actor who just completed a role in “Camelot” and to make matters worse, the words to the song made no sense. Nonetheless,”MacArthur Park” became an enormous hit for Jimmy and Lou Adler, who owned the record company. Jimmy told us great stories about his relationship with Richard Harris at the show in Baltimore. (On the record, Harris sings it as “MacArthur’s Park.”)

Jimmy spoke to us about his work with Glen Campbell who recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston” which were hugely successful for both Jimmy and Glen. Jimmy was leaving after the show for the west coast to go to Glen’s house for his 75th birthday barbecue. Jimmy wanted to be there for Glen’s birthday party. From the show, I found out that “Galveston” was really an anti-war song.

Another guy who has played a prominent role in my music education was Art Garfunkel. Although, they were a few years older, Art and Paul Simon grew up in the same neighborhood in Queens, NY as me. They were legendary guys for all of us and as such, I followed their careers very closely. When they broke up, I continued to collect their individual albums. Art released a number of albums, but only one had a Top 10 hit. That song is “All I Know” and I chose that Jimmy Webb song as the first dance with my wife at our wedding. Jimmy played that song at his performance in Baltimore.

I wish I could remember all the stories and anecdotes Jimmy told us that night. I will point out that his description of his meeting and subsequent relationship with Frank Sinatra is worth the price of admission.

So for me, the intertwining of the unlikely combination of Richard Harris, Art Garfunkel, Johnny Rivers, Lou Adler, Glen Campbell and a very special song became the impetus to attend this 2 hour show performed by Jimmy Webb on a Sunday night in Baltimore while enjoying an amazing Italian dinner. Doesn’t get much better than that!

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