Richard Harris - MacArthur Park (1968); Irish Actor Harris Takes the Song You Loved To Hate To # 2, Inspiring Tons of Cover Versions Including One By Will Lee Who Crushes It Live On Letterman
Photo: Tourism Media. MacArthur Park, L.A., California
Gems From the Singles Box
"MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of 1968. Harris has been know to say that although he was not a singer, he approached the song as an actor and he gave it his all. The songwriter Jimmy Webb, who also played harpsichord on the Harris track, had a long and successful career penning hits for the likes of The 5th Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"), The Brooklyn Bridge ("Worst That Could Happen"), and many hits for Glen Campbell (including "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Wichita Lineman", and "Galveston"), just to name a few. But Webb really outdid himself when he wrote "MacArthur Park".
Photo: Larry Ellis/Daily Express
When "MacArthur Park" was released as a single, it was one of the longest songs ever to reach the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. For comparison, "Hey Jude" by The Beatles was a long one, too, clocking in at 7:11 while most hit singles fell around 3 minutes, plus or minus. When "MacArthur Park" was played in rotation at most Top 40 stations in May and June of 1968, the reaction was huge. Webb has explained that he wrote the song about a failed relationship, in which they had spent a good deal of time in the actual MacArthur Park in LA.
Listen to Richard Harris' version of "MacArthur Park"
Listeners fell into several camps regarding the lyrics, either good, bad, or laughable. The metaphoric lyrics were certainly open to interpretation, but something about the record piqued the interest of musicians, record collectors, basically the entire music community. Once ignited, that passion has continued for over 50 years to this day.
Second Hand Songs lists nearly 200 versions of "MacArthur Park" including well over 100 vocal covers; the remaining are instrumentals. Chartwise, only Donna Summer's disco version did better than the Harris original, scoring a #1 in 1978. Interestingly, when Richard Harris peaked at #2, the record that kept him out of the #1 spot was "This Guy's In Love With You" by Herb Alpert.
Fun Fact: In Alpert's long career (he's still going), "This Guy's In Love With You" was his only vocal performance and he had to be talked into it by the song's composer, Burt Bacharach. But, I digress.
Sampling some of the many covers is both fun and informative. Many of them are over-wrought as you might expect. On the other hand, Dionne Warwick sounds a little too relaxed, never letting down that veneer of cool sophistication. Diana Ross, who cut a version with The Supremes, sounds positively supreme. In the Motor City, the Four Tops scored a Top 40 single with their live version. I'm a fan of Levi Stubbs and his group, but I would rather hear them go even heavier on the soul and less reverential to the original.
One of the most surprisingly excellent versions was done by Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins as an instrumental guitar duet. Longtime fans of Atkins would expect such from a guitar master, but while Reed had guitar prowess of his own, he was known more for his singing on hit country songs like "Amos Moses."
Of the many covers of "MacArthur Park," a few others stand out. Glen Campbell's version contained a somewhat unexpected treat; Campbell himself plays an electric guitar solo during the instrumental break.
One of the best cover versions comes from a live performance by Will Lee with Letterman's studio band. As detailed below, Letterman gave the guest musician slot to a special performance of "MacArthur Park" and augmented the usual studio band with so many additional players that the assembled musicians began to look like an actual orchestra, lending credence to the name The CBS Orchestra. The studio band adopted the name when they moved over to CBS from NBC.
This version is such a tribute to the Harris original that Lee even sings "MacArthur's Park" as Harris (mistakenly) did. Lee would be the first to tell you that he's no Richard Harris, but man 'o man he does the song proud. Plus, he has a tremendous falsetto.
Lee is like a music super hero. It starts with playing bass and other instruments as a session musician with credits on literally hundreds of albums; he also produces many more. In that same vein, Lee is the music director for multiple artists' concerts, the kind with a house band (such as the Love Rocks NYC annual benefit concert). He has also played in David Letterman's studio band dating back to Letterman's daytime show (1980). Lee co-founded the world's premier Beatles tribute band, The Fab Faux, in which his participation continues to this day. Somehow, with all that, he found time to write and record three solo albums.
Many thanks to Will Lee for this description from his YouTube page:
My version of how it went down: This great and controversial song penned by Jimmy Webb, was something David Letterman originally had in mind for us, The CBS Orchestra, to do as a “bumper” song (going in and out of commercials). We tried it out at rehearsal one night and I think Paul went back to Dave and reported that it was sounding pretty good. At that point, Dave said “Let’s do it as a feature”.
A little history: This song has been in my life for decades. I was nervous and humbled to be asked to sing it, even though, unlike the seasoned pros that have handled it in the past who had multiple takes, or at least lots of rehearsals, before presenting it to the public, we had one chance to get it right.
In my opinion, Richard Harris defined MacArthur Park, with his flawless performance on the huge hit version and nobody will ever come close. There have been outstanding cover versions by, among others, Glen Campbell, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Donna Summer, Waylon Jennings, Sammy Davis Jr., Maynard Ferguson, even Weird Al Yankovik. In fact I sang it way back in 1971 in college, as a duet with Mike Gerber in a performance with the University Of Miami Jazz Band, under the direction of Jerry Coker. In 2006 Jimmy Webb and I, with full orchestra, backed Will Farrell at Carnegie Hall doing a comedic version for Trudy Styler and Sting’s Rainforest Benefit. More recently, I was performing MacArthur Park with a trio I was doing with drummer Chad Smith and GE Smith! I knew I had to do my homework for this. It’s The Late Show with David Letterman!! You get one attempt. There are no “do overs”. I tried everything possible not to have to use the headset “Britney Spears” microphone and asked the sound sound crew to try every other alternative, but nothing was smooth enough for me to sing from that first position in the orchestra and then later over at the big cake.... Probably the thing that calmed me down the most was the fact that I had come up with the idea to invite Jimmy Webb himself to be there to perform the song with us. He was more nervous than I was! He hadn’t played that harpsichord intro since the original recording session- he felt so pressured, I ended up trying to comfort him! Dig Felicia Collins' burnin' guitar solo! Paul Shaffer sez: I think Dave had always pictured it as a feature, but initially he just mentioned it to me as a title he’d like to hear. I brought it in as a bumper first, then it became a feature the way you said. Once it did, Dave became adamant about wanting the entire 6 1/2 minutes of the original arrangement. Again I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but 33 years of television training caused me to look for a cut. With your approval, we took out one repeat of the instrumental, maybe 40 seconds. Should have done the whole thing. I am reminded that Vivino did the chart for the sweet soul medley. Can you post that somehow? Anyway, Malone did this chart, And it was one of his best. We booked enough musicians to represent all the sections of Jimmy Webb’s orchestra, just a little smaller, and using string synth to augment the strings. When you asked me to get Jimmy to play, I was able to tell you I had already booked him. You could leave that out if you want. Jimmy suggested that he play harpsichord, as he had on the original, with Larry Knechtel on piano. Jimmy also asked if Felicia could wail over the instrumental, citing a Glen Campbell live video in which he did so. Felicia loved what Glen had played and use the dish as her template. I came up with the cake idea, as if you didn’t have enough to worry about. You kept referring to it as “the comedy”, but I was sure that, while it brought a smile, it was inspiring. Jimmy's wife agreed. Afterwards, when Jimmy and I were talking about your performance, and I said, “And how about that last note?” He said, “it took three women on the record to sing that last note!” How was it to do this? SCARY! But I had to go for it.......!
One measure of a song's success is when someone records a parody version, and "MacArthur Park" got one of the best. Weird Al Yankovich, who began his career with schtick like converting "My Sharona" into "My Bologna" over many years, developed the song parody into an art form on his own. His "MacArthur Park" parody, "Jurassic Park," works on several levels; he carefully duplicates the music and even the phrasing of the Richard Harris original while writing all new lyrics that tell the story of the movie Jurassic Park. The music video uses claymation to send up the movie.
Bonus Video: Watch the video of Al Yankovic's claymation version of "MacArthur Park"