Jimmy Webb has written all kinds of music — from the unbridled pop he wrote for the 5th Dimension to the yearning country that Glen Campbell turned into classics to the Donna Summer disco anthem “MacArthur Park.”
Rihanna recently reworked Webb’s classic “Do What You Gotta Do” for use in Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated rap song “Famous,” but moving into hip-hop isn’t what has the Bayville singer-songwriter excited these days. Webb is thrilled about composing a classical piece, Nocturne for piano and orchestra (“Nocturne for “Lefty”), which will make its New York debut Feb. 25 at Molloy College, performed by pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the South Shore Symphony.
“It’s something I had always thought about doing,” says Webb, who counts Tchaikovsky as much as an influence as Burt Bacharach and Hal David or Beatles producer George Martin. “I have always loved the fusion of classical and pop. But conducting has never been my forte. Standing in a studio in front of a bunch of guys? I’d rather be in a den of crocodiles. I was just intimidated by the situation. But now that I’m in my 70th year, I plan to devote some of my time to what I’ll dare call ‘more serious works.’ ”
Webb says he enjoyed the composing process and chose to write a nocturne after playing other composers’ nocturnes for his wife, Laura. “I was explaining to her how nocturnes were basically a little night music and she said, ‘Why don’t you write one for me?’ ” Webb recalls. Soon, “Nocturne for Lefty” was born.
However, Webb approached the piece more like a pop album in some ways. “I saw it as a series of little nocturnes,” he says. “There are changes of mood. I pictured it like a camera moving through a physical landscape. There is a scene of traffic on a thruway, a tropical scene like a village on the beach. There are nighttime scenes and feelings and a waltz that may be its pinnacle. It made me think how joyful it must be to be dancing in the music, to be young and happy.”
Biegel, a composer-pianist in his own right who has worked with other pop music composers such as Neil Sedaka, Peter Tork and Keith Emerson on their first classical pieces, said he was amazed by what he received from Webb. “He was not in any way fearful of tackling a longer form than a song,” says Biegel, a Lynbrook native. “That doesn’t always happen. It’s like asking someone who is used to writing poems, ‘Hey, do you want to write a novel?’ ”
Biegel says Webb’s unusual songwriting technique is what makes his nocturne so exciting to play. “He takes you in areas you don’t expect,” Biegel says. “A traditional composer wouldn’t use that language. He gives it so many twists and turns. He made this nocturne literally a ‘night piece,’ from the point of view of a night owl who hears the sounds of night in different places . . . Jimmy did a fabulous job with this piece. He created a very interesting sound world.”
In addition to Biegel’s performance of Webb’s nocturne, Webb will perform some of his pop music with the South Shore Symphony.
“It’s tremendously exciting for me to be part of this evening,” says Webb, who continues to tour internationally with his legendary catalog of songs. “I’ll be doing about 40 minutes of the Glen Campbell songs, ‘MacArthur Park,’ ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,’ all fitted out for the symphony.”
Wayne Lipton, president of the South Shore Symphony, says he jumped at the chance to perform with Webb.
“I think I’m more excited about this than anything else we’ve done,” says Lipton, adding that he has been a fan of Webb’s music since he heard “MacArthur Park” as a kid in Baldwin. “He is a musical hero of mine. And this night will be very, very special.”
Webb, who will release his memoir “The Cake and the Rain” on St. Martin’s Press in April, says he hopes his performance will help raise the profile of the South Shore Symphony.
“I think it’s important for Long Island to have a symphony,” Webb says. “Maybe we could do some fundraising and I could influence some of my friends and we could all work together to build it up.”
“I used to love the concerts under the stars at Planting Fields,” he continues. “They were such romantic things to be outside there at night.”
It sounds like Webb has the makings for some more night music already in mind.
Though he is relatively new to the world of classical composing, Jimmy Webb has written some of pop music’s most enduring songs, recently landing him in the Top 50 of Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Songwriters. Here’s a look at his biggest hits:
MACARTHUR PARK Richard Harris took a dramatic version of the epic tale of cakes out in the rain to No. 2 in 1968. However, when Donna Summer disco-fied it in 1978, it went to No. 1 for three weeks.
WICHITA LINEMAN Glen Campbell used the gorgeous ballad as the title track of his Grammy-winning album in 1968. The song topped the country chart and reached No. 3 on the pop charts that year.
THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN Originally recorded by the 5th Dimension, the wrenching breakup song became a No. 3 hit for Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge in 1969.
GALVESTON Another country masterpiece that Campbell used as a title track for an album. Campbell’s version topped the country charts and reached No. 4 on the pop charts in 1969.
UP, UP AND AWAY The often-covered pop classic won the Grammys for song of the year and record of the year in 1968 for the 5th Dimension, who also took it to No. 7 on the pop charts in 1967.
— GLENN GAMBOA
WHO Jimmy Webb
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Feb. 25, Madison Theatre at Molloy College, 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre
INFO $50-$100; 516-323-4444, madisontheatreny.org