Song Of The Day by Eric Berman – The Jukebox Series #18 – Richard Harris: “MacArthur Park” b/w “Didn’t We” – Dunhill 45 RPM Single D-4134 (O2/P2)
“The Jukebox Series” focuses on the 80 records that inhabit my 1963 Seeburg LPC1 jukebox. I’ve had my jukebox (or as I like to call it “the prehistoric iPod”) for a little over twelve years and in that time I’d like to think that I’ve perfected the mix of 45s within.
Along with Glen Campbell and Art Garfunkel, Richard Harris was one of a handful of great interpreters of the songs of Jim Webb. When he wasn’t acting in films like A Man Called Horse, Camelot and, of course playing the part of Albus Dumbledore in the first few Harry Potter films, he made records. While most of his records were dreadful, his first album of Jim Webb songs called A Tramp Shining was a winner, including today’s jukebox classic “MacArthur Park.”
Who knows what was really going on in songwriter Jimmy Webb’s mind when he wrote the somewhat nonsensical lyrics to this song, but one thing for sure is that it is a classic brought to the upper regions of the charts not once, but twice.
The song has its roots in a twenty minute cantata that Webb wrote that ended with “MacArthur Park.” When the cantata was offered to producer Bones Howe for The Association to record, the group declined because they didn’t want to give up that big a chunk of their album to such a long track.
The inspiration for the song came from a breakup between Jim Webb and Susan Horton who worked across the street from MacArthur Park in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles where the two would meet for lunch. The very same relationship also spawned Webb’s song “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
The “cake in the rain” lyric of the song was recently explained by Colin McCourt who used to work for the publisher of the song. When Webb heard that Susan Horton was getting married in MacArthur Park, he attended the wedding but hid in a gardener’s shed so as not to be noticed by the bride. It began to pour during the ceremony and Webb saw the wedding cake through the rain running off the roof of the shed and it looked like it was melting.
The track was recorded at Armin Steiner’s Sound Recorders in Hollywood with backing from members of the Wrecking Crew including Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joe Osborn on bass and Mike Deasy on guitar, along with Jim Webb on harpsichord.
During the recording, Webb kept correcting Harris who continually uses the possessive form “MacArthur’s Park” throughout the song. After a while, Webb realized it was futile and let Harris have his way, resulting in many subsequent covers of the song carrying the incorrect possessive form in the lyrics. Like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” the single was also one of the longer songs to hit the top-ten of the singles charts during the late 1960s, clocking in at over seven minutes. The song also won a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement for Accompanying Vocalist in 1969.
The single was released in 1968 and reached the number two slot on the charts. It was subsequently covered by artists as diverse as Donna Summer (who took it to the top of the charts in 1978 with her disco version), Frank Sinatra, Waylon Jennings, Liza Minnelli, The 5th Dimension, The Supremes, Justin Hayward (of The Moody Blues), Ferrante & Teicher, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who parodied it with his version “Jurassic Park.”
The flip of the single, “Didn’t We” was the opening track to A Tramp Shining, Harris’ album of Jim Webb compositions. Reviewer Bruce Eder had the following to say about this song: “Harris treaded onto Frank Sinatra territory here, and he did it with a voice not remotely as good or well trained as his, yet he pulled it off by sheer bravado and his ability as an actor, coupled with his vocal talents.” (Allmusic) The song was covered by a whole host of pop vocalists during the sixties and seventies including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Thelma Houston, Matt Monroe and Jim Webb.