Song Swarm: By The Time I Get To Phoenix
This is a reworked and extended version of a post from March 2010. Back then it was 23 stops to Phoenix; now we have 81.
By The Time I Get To Phoenix is not even my favourite Jimmy Webb song, much as I love it — there are songs on the Jimmy Webb Collection Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 I love more. But I cannot think of many other songs in pop music that traverse interpretations and genres as effortlessly as this. Here I am offering a bunch of versions that cover pop, country, soul, jazz and easy listening.
By The Time I Get To Phoenix sounds like it belongs in any of these genres. And even when interpreted by artists from the same genre, it is an immensely flexible a song. Just compare the soul versions by the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Erma Franklin, Isaac Hayes, the Intruders, Lloyd Price, the Mad Lads, Billie Stewart, William Bell, The Escorts, and New York City. So I think one can listen to all the versions here without necessarily getting bored.
The first version of the song was recorded by Webb’s mentor, Johnny Rivers, in 1966. Since then it has been covered many time. Apparently there are more than a thousand versions of it.
Rivers’ version made no impact, nor did a cover by Pat Boone. The guitarist on Boone’s version, however, picked up on the song and released it in 1967. Glen Campbell scored a massive hit with the song, even winning two Grammies for it. In quick succession, Campbell completed a trilogy of geographically-themed songs by Webb, with the gorgeous Wichita Lineman (written especially for Campbell) and the similarly wonderful Galveston.
Another seasoned session musician took Phoenix into a completely different direction (if you will pardon the unintended pun). Isaac Hayes had heard the song, and decided to perform it as the Bar-Keys’ guest performer at Memphis’ Tiki Club, a soul venue. He started with a spontaneous spoken prologue, explaining in some detail why this man is on his journey. At first the patrons weren’t sure what Hayes was doing rapping over a repetitive chord loop. After a while, according to Hayes, they started to listen. At the end of the song, he said, there was not a dry eye in the house (“I’m gonna moan now…”). As it appeared on Ike’s 1968 Hot Buttered Soul album, the thing went on for 18 glorious minutes.
The fine version of soul singer Doug Haynes changes the perspective: here she has gone to Phoenix, and Doug is making the call where the phone is just keeps ringing off the wall. Wanda Jackson’s version, titled By The Time You Got To Phoenix, is really an answer record (turns out, she is not that unhappy to see the dude gone). The Harden Trio don’t change the lyrics, as Haynes does, but offer the twist of the female voices singing from their perspective and the male lead taking the traditional leavers’ narrative.
There are those who scoff that it is physically impossible to complete the song’s itinerary — Phoenix, Albuquerque, Oklahoma — in a day. But I think the itinerary makes perfect sense, presuming it starts in Los Angeles.
He gets to Phoenix when she is normally getting up from bed. From LA to Phoenix it’s about six hours drive. Assuming she rises around 6am, our friend left LA at around midnight. By the time he hits Albuquerque, our narrator thinks she’s about to have lunch; more or less at 1pm. From Phoenix to Abuquerque it’s another six hours. That gave our friend time to spare to reach the city of Walter White. By the time he makes Oklahoma she’ll be sleeping. The distance from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City (guessing that this is his destination) is about eight hours drive. Setting aside aside breaks for food, rest and ablutions, by the time he hits Oklahoma it will be past midnight, when she will indeed be having a tear-interrupted sleep. The timeline fits.
One act that was not going to make any such journeys any time soon was The Escorts. These soul singers were incarcerated in a New Jersey jail. In 1968 one inmate, Reginald Haynes, started a singing group which would become The Escorts. They were discovered by producers and went on to record two albums. Their version of Phoenix is from the first of these, 1973’s All We Need Is Another Chance which became a hit, selling 300,000 copies. After his release, Haynes tried to launch a solo career; that attempt was cut short when he was unjustly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Read the remarkable story here.
Back to the music, I do like the well-executed 1930s radio pastiche by The Templeton Twins. And the best individual moment in this collection might be The Pips responding to Gladys Knight‘s announcement that she was leaving with a sad, “Oh no” on their live version from 1970’s All In A Knight’s Work LP. Also check out Jermaine and the Jackson 5 doing the song on The Tonight Show in 1974; Jermaine takes the lead and Michael harmonises.
So, apart from Isaac Hayes’, which version is your favourite? I think I like Al Wilson’s best. Or the Four Tops’. Or Erma Franklin’s. Or Pete Shelley’s discoish take. Or Nick Cave’s. Or Thelma Houston’s majestic version from 2007. Or, of course, Glen Campbell’s. Or maybe the 2010 version by the song’s writer, with Glenn Campbell on backing vocals and, I think, Mark Knopfler on guitar.
The collection comes in two parts. You will need both. PW = amdwhah
1966: Johnny Rivers • 1967: Glen Campbell, Santo & Johnny • 1968: Vikki Carr, Marty Wilde, Georgie Fame, The Lettermen, Marty Robbins, Roy Drusky, Charlie Rich, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Mills Brothers, Four Tops, Joe Tex, Ace Cannon, Roger Miller, Harry Belafonte, Andy Williams, Nat Adderley, Johnny Mathis, Al Wilson, Herbie Mann, Solomon Burke, Raymonde Singers, Eydie Gorme, Peggy Lee, Toots Thielemans, The Magnificent Men, The Intruders, The Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett, Wanda Jackson, The Harden Trio, Frankie Laine, Gloria Lynne, Jack Jones, Tony Mottola with The Groovies, Ray Price, Bobby Goldsboro, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra • 1969: José Feliciano, Dorothy Ashby, Billy Stewart, Oscar Peterson, Burl Ives, Andy Kim, A.J. Marshall, Erma Franklin, Henry Mancini, Isaac Hayes, Lloyd Price, The Springfield Rifle, Family Circle, The Mad Lads, The Dells (in a medley with Wichita Lineman), Al Caiola, William Bell • 1970: Stevie Wonder, Autumn & Barrie McAskill, The Manhattans, The Templeton Twins, The Ventures, Jimmy Smith, Main Ingredient (in a medley with Wichita Lineman),Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Willie Tee • 1971: Jimmy Webb, Fabulous Souls • 1972: Shirley Scott • 1973: New York City, The Escorts • 1974: Jermaine and the Jackson 5, Doug Haynes • 1975: Peter Shelley• 1976: Junior Mance Trio • 1977: Isaac Hayes & Dionne Warwick (with I Say A Little Prayer) • 1986: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds • 1995: Reba McEntire • 2007: Thelma Houston • 2010: Jimmy Webb
Previous Song Swarms:
These Boots Are Made For Walking
Sunday Morning Coming Down
Like A Rolling Stone
Papa Was A Rolling Stone
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Over The Rainbow
Georgia On My Mind
Light My Fire