10: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

10: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Story by Jimmy Webb

Song written by Jimmy Webb

Recorded by Glen Campbell, Johnny Rivers, and others

I had an old girlfriend and the relationship wasn’t going too well. So I just resolved to show her a thing or two and move back home to Oklahoma. That was a pretty stupid thing to do, and didn’t do much in the way of punishing her either, of course. But it created a very interesting song. I was a staff writer at a publishing company. It was my first real writing job.

I brought it in for the Motown people to hear. It’s a three-verse form. It just has three strophic verses, so it’s a ballad in the traditional sense. It tells a story, and when the story is over the song is over. So the Motown guys listened to it and said, “Where is the chorus?”

I said, “There isn’t going to be a chorus,” and we had a pretty lively discussion over that. They were pretty much into the chorus, the hook, drum breaks, and bridges, and all the ideas they had about how to make hits. And they were right for the most part. They started talking about pitching it to Paul Petersen then, who was an actor on The Donna Reed Show.

The first session I went to where I heard it, though, was a Tony Martin session. It passed into another sphere of influence and I’m not really sure exactly how that happened. It ended up as a Johnny Rivers Music copyright, and it ended up on his album.

Glen Campbell was driving down the road and heard Johnny’s version on the radio. This was probably just a few months after Johnny had cut it. For a while, there was a stigma for some producers. They wouldn’t listen to any song if it had ever been recorded by anyone. That’s just not a very intelligent way to go about doing A&R because there are going to be some great records that get recorded but aren’t hits. Some great songs have been just left behind. If you think the producers have gotten them all, you’re wrong. Every writer will tell you there are at least a couple that got left by the wayside somewhere.

There are a million reasons why a song does or doesn’t become a hit. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and I think it’s almost supernatural. A hit record is almost a small miracle. There are so many elements. Does the singer sound like he should be singing the song? Is it the right song for him? What about the arrangement? Is it overdone? Is it not big enough? What about the players? Was the drummer too heavy-handed that day? Did he have a hangover? What day of the week was it? What was the temperature in the room? Was it too humid and did it affect the instruments so that it came out sounding flat? Did it have the magic to it that translates to sounding good in a car? What makes a record sound good in a car? It’s not going to be a hit if it doesn’t sound good in a car. The new album of mine, Just Across the River, was mixed to be heard in a car.

Does the song sound like it should come out of this guy’s mouth? I wrote something for Willie Nelson one time. I thought it was going to be a hit. I didn’t hear him say it, but I heard someone who knew him claim that Willie said, “I just can’t hear that coming out of my mouth.” So that’s another factor.

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” actually ends on a chord that is out of the key signature. I wrote it in F and it ends on an A chord, a major third higher. That’s the way Glen recorded it. He arranged the record. A lot of people don’t know it, but Glen Campbell was a great arranger. Most of the songs that he recorded, he contributed to the arrangements, too. He had a flare for arranging and that had something to do with that record’s success, too.

The city I chose, Phoenix, is right on Route 66 and it sounded right on the time-space continuum of the singer traveling on the highway, even though it’s a little distorted, going from one city to the next. Sometimes as a writer, you come to a decision like that and you just flip a coin. You make decisions based on what sounds real. You want something that sounds authentic. You could try “By the Time I Get to Flagstaff,” but does it work as well? Is that one of those tiny little factors that determines whether a song is a hit or not? You bet.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising

She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door

She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’

’Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working

She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call

But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’

Off the wall, that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’

She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud

And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her

Though time and time I tried to tell her so

She just didn’t know I would really go.

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