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Blame or thank Jimmy Webb for that song

The noted tunesmith, who will play a three-night engagement locally with Maureen McGovern, is both credited and mocked for penning 'MacArthur Park.'

April 08, 2014|By Michael Miller
  • Jimmy Webb.
Jimmy Webb. (Joseph Sinnott )

To tweak a time-honored line from Charles Dickens, it's the best of songs and the worst of songs.

Pop music is full of love-it-or-hate-it milestones, but perhaps no work has inspired more polarized reactions than "MacArthur Park," the seven-minute mini-symphony that Jimmy Webb wrote in the late 1960s about the Los Angeles landmark, a shattered romance and a cake left dissolving in a downpour.

Humorist Dave Barry, who took a survey about least favorite tunes, declared that his respondents named Webb's opus "the worst song in modern history." Critics Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell ranked the version by Richard Harris near the top in their book "The Worst Rock n' Roll Records of All Time." When Rolling Stone took a readers' poll of the worst songs of the 1960s, the same recording came in third.

A universally reviled song? Well, seemingly so, but consider these facts:

When Webb performed the song in MacArthur Park itself for the first time last year, the media covered the event as a major homecoming. Harris' version hit No. 2 on Billboard in 1968 and won a Grammy. Donna Summer later topped the charts with a disco cover. Frank Sinatra, Waylon Jennings and the Four Tops are among the others who have recorded it.

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So when Webb plays a three-night engagement with Maureen McGovern at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, will he perform the tune that's brought him decades of fortune, whatever the naysayers think? By now, he's almost afraid not to.

"If I don't do it, I always get into some kind of trouble," he said wryly on the phone last month.

Someone else who loves "MacArthur Park": McGovern, who included the song on her 2008 album "A Long and Winding Road," a collection of covers of 1960s and '70s classics. The singer plans to duet on "MacArthur" with Webb and perform other songs from his now-epic catalog at the center's Samueli Theater.

"All of the songs that he's written over the years have been the soundtrack to baby boomers' lives," McGovern said.

And as that era nears its half-century mark — oh, just come up with your own joke about a birthday cake in the rain.

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'You gotta stick with it'

Not that it feels like that many years to Webb.

"It went by in, like, 60 seconds," he said about the career that began when he was a teenager. "It's been a great life. You know, they say time flies when you're having a good time."

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