31 Days of Faves: Richard Harris – MacArthur Park

#22 Richard Harris – MacArthur Park

Always keep your eyes open for the unconventional. You may discover MacArthur Park.

Rick Sklar, the legendary program director at WABC during its heyday as the premiere popular music station in New York, recounts the day he first heard MacArthur Park in his sadly out of print autobiography Rocking America.

“We sat back and listened. This record was not only long, it was different… As it played, a silence fell over the meeting. Because the door was open, secretaries passing by stopped, slipped into the room, and sat down on the floor, entranced… They wanted to hear it again… The music had reached some special place in all of them… (Even though) short records helped radio stations create the illusion that they were playing more music.. I decided to add MacArthur Park to the WABC playlist.. Within five weeks it had sold over half a million copies.”

The idea for MacArthur park was born in the mind of producer Bones Howe. He approached composer Jimmy Webb, already famous for creating hits for Glen Campbell, asking Webb to write a muti-dimensional composition for The Association. What was delivered felt too unorthodox to the band and they rejected it, later telling a friend, “It may have been one of the biggest mistakes of our career.”

It was when Webb ran into actor Richard Harris, fresh from the latter’s success in the film Camelot, that the MacArthur Park story shifted into high gear. Harris recorded it in London, flying members of the famous LA studio team, The Wrecking Crew in to provide the foundation, adding orchestral elements later.

Sklar’s bet turned out to be solid gold. MacArthur park peaked at number 2 in the US and has been covered by dozens of artists, most notably Glen Campbell and Maynard Ferguson.

Like any work of art, the piece has both its fans and its detractors. Columnist Dave Barry conducted a poll of Miami Herald readers who dubbed MacArthur park “the worst song of all time.” But for many others, the volume goes up on the radio whenever the opening harpsichord strains are heard.

What commonalities does MacArthur Park share with other innovations?

It was the product of personal experience. The lyrics that Miami Herald readers found so hard to process were Webb’s visceral memories of a painful break up with girlfriend Susie Horton.

In an a 2014 interview with New York Newsday, Webb remembered,

“Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. … Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.”

The best of the best contributed to its creation. Webb was already a proven star, at the peak of his powers when he wrote MacArthur Park. He signed on the certified hitmakers from The Wrecking Crew to provide the backing tracks. And Harris knew that the tune was right in his wheelhouse, the ultimate alchemy of artist and muse. What began as a series of melodies, composed on a piano at Buddy Greco‘s home, evolved, thanks to many talented people, into a success.

It had advocates who were willing to take chances. It was said that no record could become successful without WABC’s promotional power behind it. Rick Sklar built that hit machine on records averaging three minutes and thirty seconds in length, many following a strict formula that had its genesis in the creative beehive at The Brill Building. But Sklar was also astute enough to recognize how this unconventional recording connected with his audience. He had to wait a week to play it because Harris’ record label was so uncertain about MacArthur Park’s efficacy that they had not pressed enough copies for record stores.

Many people thought it was a bad idea. The Association was riding a wave of top ten hits when the tune came across their radar. There was similar discord between Mike Love and Brian Wilson, when the latter started reaching beyond surf and hot rod music with the concept album, Pet Sounds. “Don’t F@$k with the formula,” Love is reported to have argued. Paul McCartney credits Pet Sounds as being part of the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The person behind the idea kept the faith. Even after being rejected, Jimmy Webb kept shopping MacArthur Park until he found someone who shared his faith that it could be a hit.

Once it became popular it “scaled”. The tune was a signature song for Donna Summer who took it to number 1 in 1978. Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Greco, The Four Tops, Stan Kenton and Glen Campbell all had it on their set lists. Detroit Television personality Lou Gordon adopted the instrumental break up strain as his theme song. Although he never performed it on stage, Elvis Presley used to parody the song behind the scenes, to the point where it became associated with his brand.

It is still a recognizable “brand” five decades later. In its own way, MacArthur Park is as memorable as Coca Cola, Dairy Queen and Burger King. Mention the name and someone from every generation is likely to have a reaction.

Such was its endurance, that  David Letterman selected the tune to be a featured number rendered by Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra during the final weeks of Letterman’s tenure on The Late Show. Webb himself performed with and directed the band, augmented by strings, horns and woodwinds, with Will Lee recreating Harris’ soaring vocals.

There are thousands of good ideas that emerge from creative minds every day. What makes them great is a combination of talent, timing, perseverance and luck. That last element may seem to be the toss of a coin, but as Louis Pasteur wrote, “Chance favors the prepared mind”.