- 25 Oct 22
20 years ago today, Irish actor and singer Richard Harris died in London, aged 72. To mark the anniversary of his death, we're revisiting his collaborator Jimmy Webb's reflections on the Harris he knew...
Richard Harris had a hit in 1968 with 'MacArthur Park', penned by legendary American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb. The pair would go on to work together on Harris' albums A Tramp Shining (1968), The Yard Went On Forever (1968), and My Boy (1971).
In the edited excerpt from a 1993 interview below, Webb discusses his friendship with the iconic actor and singer.
Originally published in Hot Press in 1993
Interview: Joe Jackson
"...You never see stars here in L.A. or in New York City. But you do in Ireland, and that’s why I felt so comfortable there the first time I went over with Richard in the 60s.”
Before that, in 1966, having settled in Los Angeles, one of the first jobs Webb got was working as a contract writer for Joe Beck “right over there on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.”
“I’d come here with many, many songs but no takers then I got that job with Joe and wrote 45 songs for him. And we did get some recorded, like a Christmas song by The Supremes, which gave me the first money I ever got from a record! Then I hooked up with the Fifth Dimension who had a huge hit with ‘Up, Up and Away’ then Glen Campbell’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. And all this happened a year before Richard and I had that hit with ‘Macarthur Park’ so it’s not factually true when people claim that he “discovered” me. I was rolling along very nicely, before we met!”
But Webb reveals that the person who probably influenced him most at the time was Richard Harris, with whom he clearly became besotted.
“He was taking me all over the place, taking me to London, Ireland, and I was going to bars with him, even staying in his house. I loved him and I still love him dearly and think he was a great influence on me, because he was rowdy and loud and assertive and, as I said, I needed to develop some of those characteristics.”
And yet beneath the Rabelasian facade Richard Harris himself also was, and is, deeply introverted, a fact that was highlighted when he published his own book of poetry in 1973 and contributed to the My Boy album one of its most moving songs, ‘All The Broken Children’
“That is absolutely true but this is not a side of Richard Harris he revealed to many people in those days, or does now,” said Webb. “And my first experiences with him were very emotional, sharing music with him, talking about poetry. I met him here in L.A. when he was doing a benefit. So, even the first time I came into contact with him he was raising money for someone else, which is also something he tends not to talk about. But, yes, he was a deeply expressive, emotional man.”
There have been suggestions that Harris used Webb as a surrogate writer, sitting and talking with him about his childhood in Ireland and his deteriorating marriage, then dispatching him off to write the tracks that later became A Tramp Shining. Was that true?
“Well, you know that I’d tried to get the Fifth Dimension to record ‘Macarthur Park’ and things like ‘Didn’t We’ probably related as much to my own love life at the time, as did ‘Dancing Girl’ which I wrote as a result of my first great affair, with Suzy Horton.
“But overall, yeah, we were buddies and we knew each other and I was trying to write an album that was, to some degree, an honest reflection of his life. In fact, I was talking to him the other day and he said he hadn’t listened to A Tramp Shining in years and when he played it recently he wept like a baby. So, obviously it was a part of him that had not been tapped until that time, whether it was through my music or his close connection with the creation of some of those songs. He needed to express himself that way and I still feel he was remarkably successful, in this sense, with something like ‘MacArthur Park’. That song has been done by so many other people, from Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings to Donna Summer but his original recording is still the point of reference.”
Nonetheless, the record has also been described as one of the worst singles ever released...
“Those critics should remember that Richard was not a singer at the time, he was an actor, who’d only recently got a chance to sing in the movie of Camelot.. But even though he was not a singer he managed to create what I still describe as a classic work of art in ‘MacArthur Park’. He had a great, dramatic actor’s sense of how to read a lyric and interpret subtexts and so on and, as an Irishman, he positively loves language. No one should underrate Richard Harris’ contribution. I really do believe it was his interpretation that made the song what it was, and still is. No one else has come even close to capturing what it’s all about.”
Harris’s vocal contribution to the album The Yard Went On Forever was equally crucial, said Webb. Composed during a year of social upheaval in the United States, the album is probably best described as the musical equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a positively gothic song cycle graphically exploring the loss of innocence in love and in politics, a landscape in which everything that is pure has been exploited and polluted.
“Well, I was going through a gothic mood at the time, as a result of the fact that Suzy Horton had married another guy,” reflected Webb. “And what I loved about working with Richard at that point was that his voice could capture that, and all you describe. It’s like writing a movie score in which he can sing and act and emote and, as such, it has to have some epic scale to it, like The Yard Went On Forever. His voice can tackle even those major themes and that’s what he loves doing. So, writing for Richard I was free to be as dramatic as I chose, as panoramic and more stylised than were I writing, say, for Glen Campbell, which I also did at that time. Richard just had that great sweeping voice.”
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