March 13, 2017 Leave a comment
Today’s song was a surprise chart smash — twice. The first version of MacArthur Park came about through a serious of interactions. Producer Bones Howe challenged Jimmy Webb to write a radio-friendly song with a classical structure in multiple movements. Webb rose to the challenge, crafting a four-part suite about the end of a romantic relationship. Howe offered it to the Association, but they passed. Not long after that, Webb was playing piano at a fundraiser and was approached by Richard Harris. The actor had just finished a successful run in Camelot and enjoyed singing, so he wanted to put together an album. Webb was skeptical, but the pair hit it off, and he wound up composing and producing A Tramp Shining for Harris. The centerpiece was MacArthur Park.
Famously complicated and filled with rich imagery, the song has been the object of admiration and scorn for nearly five decades. Webb was inspired to write it after breaking up with a long-time girlfriend whom he often met in the titular park. Although the song was released in 1968, he maintains that there were no psychedelic influences. The musical structure was a response to Howe’s challenge, and the images were adapted but literal.
Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.
Despite its multiple movements and seven-and-a-half minute running time, the song was a smash, reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and #10 on the Easy Listening chart.
Even more surprising was its next incarnation. Producer Giorgio Moroder was looking for a classic 60s song to adapt to disco for Donna Summer. He ran across the Harris recording of MacArthur Park and knew he had the right one. He thought the range and dynamics of the song were a good fit for her powerful voice. The song was included in an 18-minute suite on her double live album. A radio edit became an even bigger hit than the Harris version, spending three weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 while the full suite topped the Dance chart for five weeks.