Last night, I saw Jimmy Webb perform his classic "MacArthur Park," a massive 1968 hit for Richard Harris (and later an Elvis staple and a Donna Summer smash), just voice and piano, at B.B. King's off Times Square. It was wonderful to see how the audience heated up during the "boogie part"—which, reduced to piano, seemed like the work of a brilliant teenager who'd been locked in a room all his life with nothing but the collected works of Chopin and Dave Brubeck.
I couldn't help but be amazed once more at how the Association had so rudely turned down the tune when it was first offered to them—it would have saved their career. Here's the story of that rejection, which originally appeared on Fufkin.com. It's an outtake from my liner notes to Rhino's Association two-CD set, Just the Right Sound:
After Bones Howe produced the Association's Insight Out, he began producing The Magic Garden for the Fifth Dimension, which was composed by Jimmy Webb.
Bones Howe: "While we were doing that, Jimmy kept saying to me, 'I'm writing a cantata for the Association.' I kept saying, 'Jimmy, we've got to finish this record. You've still got two more songs to write for this album.'...
"Finally, we finished The Magic Garden and I went to Jimmy's house and he played me the songs on the piano and it was wonderful. I said, 'As soon as the Association get back [from their tour], we'll get together.'"
Webb was so excited about his song that he hoped the Association would come to his house so he could play it for them. The Association's manager, Patrick Colecchio, however, according to Bones Howe, suggested they meet on Recorders.
Bones Howe: "Jimmy sits down at the piano and I say, 'You've got to listen to this all the way through, because it's meant to be one whole side of an LP. It's got several movements, and every one of them could be opened up and we could put it out as a single.'" There was also connecting music, and Howe thought they could expand on that vocally, as the Fifth Dimension had done with The Magic Garden.
Bones Howe: "Jimmy sits down and he plays them this whole thing from beginning to end, and the last movement is 'MacArthur Park'. He finishes, the guys kind of look at each other, and Pat [Colecchio] goes, 'Maybe Jimmy could go outside for a second and we could talk about this among the guys.'
"Jimmy goes outside, closes the door, and either Terry Kirkman or Russ Giguere says, 'Any two guys in this group can write a better piece of music.'
"I was devastated. It's the old cartoon thing; I see the Grammy on wings, flying away. It's like, here's an opportunity to do something really different that nobody else has done. I thought it was a brilliant idea....
"Then they all began talking about the songs of theirs that they wanted to do on the album. I had to go tell Jimmy Webb that they weren't going to cut his song."
P.S. Howe did get his Grammy, a year later, for the Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In".