Today’s song is Wichita Lineman, written by Jimmy Webb. It was first recorded and made famous by Glen Campbell. After some limited early success Webb burst onto the scene in 1966 when Johnny Rivers signed him to a publishing deal. He and Campbell experienced early success in 1967 with By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Campbell’s first big hit [#26 Pop, #2 Country, #12 Easy Listening]. That same year, Webb collaborated with the 5th Dimension, contributing five songs to their debut album including the big hit Up-Up and Away [#7 Pop, #9 Easy Listening]. At the 1968 Grammy Awards, those two songs took home eight awards.
While driving through Oklahoma, Webb noticed the seemingly endless line of telephone poles; in the distance he saw a lineman atop one pole and found the loneliness inspiring. He wrote Wichita Lineman and decided it was perfect for Campbell, who agreed. The result was an even bigger smash, #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 for six weeks on the Easy Listening and for two weeks on the Country charts in 1969. It’s easy to see why. The song is brilliantly composed, with a beautiful series of haunting images (including the perfect “singing in the wires”). Campbell’s delivery is aching but restrained, allowing the power of the song to be in the words as much as the music. Wichita Lineman has been named one of the 500 greatest songs of all time [#195] by Rolling Stone, “the first existential country song,” and “the greatest pop song ever composed.”
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line
Webb was something of a conundrum, writing deceptively simple, insightful lyrics and rich, complex compositions. He wrote a handful of other Top Ten hits including
- MacArthur Park by Richard Harris, a seemingly impossible seven-minute baroque masterpiece that went to #2 in 1968
- The Worst That Could Happen by Brooklyn Bridge: #3 in 1969
- Galveston by Glen Campbell: #4 Pop, #1 Easy Listening [six weeks], #1 Country [three weeks] in 1969
- All I Know, Art Garfunkel’s first solo hit: #9 Pop and #1 Easy Listening [four weeks] in 1973
- MacArthur Park, an even more improbable disco cover by Donna Summer: #1 Pop [three weeks], #1 Dance [five weeks], #8 R&B, #24 Easy Listening in 1979
He also recorded a number of albums of his own work.
Campbell launched a massive career, including three more Top 40 Webb compositions. In the 1970s he was the #8 Easy Listening artist of the decade with five #1s; the #24 Country artist (two #1s) and the #6 Pop artist (two #1s).
Wichita Lineman remains the high point of this productive collaboration and one of the finest songs of all time. Enjoy this transcendent masterpiece today.