In New York, there’s the Brill Building, and in Orange County, apparently, there’s the Center for Spiritual Living Newport-Mesa.
The Costa Mesa-based faith center has been the spot recently to rub elbows with world-renowned songwriters. Last March, Paul Williams, a member of the congregation, put on a show with friends and fellow worshippers, and this weekend, the center — which holds its services and concerts at University Synagogue in Irvine — will welcome a contemporary of Williams whose hits have similarly dominated the radio.
A partial roll call: “MacArthur Park,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “All I Know.” Not every listener could identify the thread that runs through all those classics, but if you guessed “Jimmy Webb,” you got it.
It was a Newport-Mesa connection that brought venerable tunesmith Webb to town. Williams, who serves as president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, invited Webb, a vice chairman of the society’s board, to lead a charity show at the synagogue. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the after-school program Childs-pace and the nonprofit Women’s Journey Foundation, which works to improve the self-image of girls.
“My father was a Baptist minister, so I’m very comfortable playing in sanctuaries,” Webb said. “It’s where I grew up, really.”
Before Webb’s set concludes the show, five members of the community — Harold Payne, Kelly Fitzgerald, Lacey Wood Heston, Melissa Lewis and Mark Wood — will each sing one Webb composition. Patty Turrell, the center’s event coordinator, worked with Webb’s manager to match songs to performers.
Of the five songs, Webb remarked, “Those come off of my short list of best songs I’ve ever written.” On the phone last week from his home in snow-packed New York, Webb discussed the history behind tune and what it evokes for him now:
‘If These Walls Could Speak’
Famous renditions by: Glen Campbell, Amy Grant
Sample lyric: “If these walls could speak / they would tell you that I owe you / more than I could ever pay.”
Webb remarks: “‘If These Walls Could Speak’ started out to be a song about an old house — actually a mid-1860s house that I owned and where I lived with my wife and our children.... [The lyric is partly about] almost the mundanity of day-to-day life in an old house, and really that’s the way it started, and then, as songs will often do, it took on a life of its own. By the time I finished the song, I realized I was really writing a song about myself and the barriers that sometimes arise in relationships, the obstacles to communication.”
To be sung Saturday by: Fitzgerald, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who, on her website, lists Cheap Trick, Eddie Money and Nancy Griffith among the artists with whom she’s shared bills.
Famous renditions by: Grant, Linda Ronstadt
Sample lyric: “Don’t think that I’m ungrateful / and don’t look so morose / adios, adios.”
Webb remarks: “‘Adios’ was written when I left California and moved east, which was about 30 years ago, and it was really meant as a kind of farewell to a whole aspect of my life and, I guess, for lack of a better term, to the California lifestyle and the whole idea of — there’s one line of the song that says, ‘Our dreams of endless summer were just too grandiose’ — you know, kind of coming to terms with real life. So, again, it exists on two levels. It exists as a song about leaving California, and it exists as a song about putting away childish things and taking on the yoke of parenthood and the real responsibilities of life, which, coincidentally, I was about to do in a big way.”
To be sung Saturday by: Payne, a singer-songwriter who has won three Posi Awards, which emPower Music & Arts gives to honor socially and spiritually conscious music.
‘I Keep It Hid’
Famous renditions by: Ronstadt, the Supremes, Ray Charles
Sample lyric: “You know, nothing’s really changed here / but being the way I am / I keep it hid.”
Webb remarks: “I was a teenager when I wrote that song.... It languished for a number of years until Linda took an interest in it, and it became a staple in her performance. It’s not a complicated song. It doesn’t blend different sensibilities, necessarily. It’s just a straightforward song about unrequited love.... It feels a little awkward to me sometimes. I listen to those lyrics and I think, ‘Was I ever that naked and that raw and that completely unhinged over somebody?’ But then again, that’s the real thing. That’s songwriting that hasn’t been camouflaged by years of learning what to do and what not to do and how cool to be and how cool not to be. I wouldn’t say it’s a very cool song at all.”
To be sung Saturday by: Lewis, a singer-songwriter and graduate of the Berklee College of Music
‘Still Within the Sound of My Voice’
Famous renditions by: Campbell, Ronstadt
Sample lyric: “And if you’re still within the sound of my voice / over some radio / I just want you to know / you were always my only choice.”
Webb remarks: “It comes from an old evangelical thing, from the radio preachers of when I was a kid. The preachers would say, ‘For those of you who are within the sound of my voice.’ They used those words, because they weren’t used to the radio as an instrument that would carry your voice to all these different places. There was a novelty to that. But I grew up with that kind of phrase echoing in my head.... You know, it’s a lover reaching out over the media to talk to someone who can’t be contacted any other way now, because they’ve drifted far, far apart.”
To be sung Saturday by: Wood, president of the entertainment and event production company Mark Wood Entertainment
‘Do What You Gotta Do’
Famous renditions by: Johnny Rivers, Nina Simone
Sample lyric: “So you just do what you gotta do, my wild sweet love / though it may mean that I’ll never kiss / those sweet lips again.”
Webb remarks: “I wrote it at Johnny Rivers Music, and there’s a kind of homespun quality to it that I don’t think you would find in my writing anymore: ‘Girl, I can understand how it might be kind of hard to love a guy like me.’ There’s one place in it where it says, ‘You know I love you more than your own kin did,’ which would not be an expression that I would use now, I don’t think. ‘Kin.’ But you know, it kind of roots it firmly in my upbringing in Oklahoma and the kind of patois that I brought into the professional world with me — which was sometimes, frankly, complete Greek to some people.”
To be sung Saturday by: Wood Heston, Wood’s daughter and a former teen leader in the Center for Spiritual Living Newport-Mesa’s youth program
IF YOU GO
What: “Jimmy Webb Live!”
Where: University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 7
Information: (714) 754-7399 or wjc.ticketleap.com/jimmywebb