How is it that Meat Loaf has never covered “Mac Arthur Park”? The thought crossed my mind the other day while listening to the Richard Harris version, which rose to Number Two on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1968. It’s bombast of Loafian dimensions, all overwrought metaphors and overheated singing, and outrageously long, too. Seems like a natural.
That Richard Harris, Hollywood leading man, should have become a pop star was a long shot to begin with. He was best known for his rugged Irish good looks, his manly man’s movie roles, and his high-living, hard-drinking lifestyle when he got the role of King Arthur in the 1967 film musical Camelot. But he brought a certain charm to the production’s songs, and so it wasn’t long before songwriter/producer Jimmy Webb got the idea of recording him. The resulting album, A Tramp Shining, featured nine Webb songs, mostly backed by strings (and inspired more than a little by Sgt. Pepper), all except for “Mac Arthur Park.” The song had been offered first to the Association, who turned it down. It seems possible that the brassy, upbeat instrumental track Harris ultimately sang over was intended for them, because it’s a bit too high for him. However, the strain at the top of his register adds to the atmosphere of romantic desperation, and in the summer of 1968, the record rocketed up the charts.
Said rocketing occurred despite the ridiculous length of the song—7:22 on the official 45 release. This was several months before the Beatles released “Hey Jude,” which clocked in around the seven-minute mark, at a time when pop radio was highly resistant to anything that ran much over three minutes. But because the Beatles were guaranteed airplay with whatever they did, the fact that Harris and Webb were the barrier-breakers is all the more impressive.
At the time of his collaboration with Harris, Jimmy Webb could have chosen to work with anyone, as he was the hottest property in pop songwriting not named Lennon or McCartney. His songs “Up Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” won eight Grammys between them for the year 1967—the year he turned 21. The next year, in addition to “Mac Arthur Park,” he also provided more hits for Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “Where’s the Playground Susie”) and “Worst That Could Happen” for the Brooklyn Bridge. But his reign at the top was short. He started a singing career in 1970, but his own work never captured record buyers the way his songs did for other people. He returned to the pop charts a few times after 1970 (most notably with Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know”), and has been writing songs up to the present day, as well as scoring movies and television shows.
As for Harris, he would make two more albums with Webb, The Yard Went on Forever (1969) and My Boy (1971). Title tracks from each would make the Hot 100, as would “Didn’t We” from A Tramp Shining, which, if you know another Harris single, is probably the one. He remained a leading man in the movies throughout the 1970s before receding into the twilight of TV productions and supporting roles. He’s best known to the generation of recent filmgoers as the original Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He died in 2002.
There’s even more to say about “Mac Arthur Park,” so before this post gets as uncommonly long as its subject, we’ll pause here before picking up the trail again, perhaps as early as tomorrow, with further thoughts and other versions.