With the famous "cake out in the rain," this is one of the more lyrically intriguing songs ever recorded. MacArthur Park is a real park in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, but that's about the only tangible reference.
Jimmy Webb, who wrote the song, explained in Q magazine: "It's clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that. OK, it may be far out there, and a bit incomprehensible, but I wrote the song at a time in the late 1960s when surrealistic lyrics were the order of the day."
The love affair Webb speaks of was with Suzy Horton, who in 1993 married Linda Ronstadt's cousin, Bobby. Said Webb (in the Los Angeles Times), "MacArthur Park was where we met for lunch and paddleboat rides and feeding the ducks. She worked across the street at a life insurance company. Those lyrics were all very real to me - there was nothing psychedelic about it to me. The cake, it was an available object. It was what I saw in the park at the birthday parties. But people have very strong reactions to the song. There's been a lot of intellectual venom."
Are you convinced there's more to this song than Jimmy Webb is letting on? You might be right. The staff music composer Colin McCourt used to work for the publisher of this song, Edwin. H. Morris. McCourt claims Webb explained to him the song's meaning - cake in the rain and all. He told The Daily Mail April 2, 2011: "Jim was in love with a girl who left him. Months later, he heard she was getting married - in the park. Broken hearted, he went to the wedding and, not wanting to be seen, hid in a gardener's shed.
As the open-air ceremony was taking place, it started to pour with rain and the rain running down the shed window made the cake look as if it was melting.
Interestingly, the man who married the girl was a phone engineer from Wichita - inspiration for another of Jim's hits?"
One thing for sure: When Webb found out Suzy Horton was getting married, it inspired him to write "Worst That Could Happen."
Jimmy Webb, whose songwriting credits include "Up-Up and Away" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," wrote "MacArthur Park" in the summer of 1967. He offered it to Bones Howe, who produced The Association, for possible inclusion on the group's fourth album. Howe loved it, but The Association didn't want to devote that much space on the album to Webb's project, so they rejected it. The song went to Richard Harris, who delivered a lyrical interpretation that was filled with harpsichord (played by Webb) and changing tempo.
Richard Harris was an actor, and though not known for his singing, he had done musicals, including the movie Camelot. His performance on "MacArthur Park" is a very dramatic interpretation that gives the lyric plenty of gravitas.
Harris did release a single in 1967 - "How To Handle A Woman," from the Camelot soundtrack - but had not done an album on his own until A Tramp Shining, written and produced by Jimmy Webb and featuring "MacArthur Park."
Harris, who died at 72 on October 25, 2002, played Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies and appeared in the films This Sporting Life, Unforgiven, and Wrestling Ernest Hemingway.
Richard Harris sang the title as "MacArthur's Park," and since he was the first to record it, that's how most others (including Donna Summer), sang it. When the song's writer, Jimmy Webb, recorded it for his 1996 album Ten Easy Pieces, he sang it as "MacArthur Park."
Webb produced this song for Richard Harris, crossing the Atlantic Ocean several times in the process. Explaining how he got together with the actor, Webb told Songfacts, "I met Richard on stage at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. We were doing like an anti-war pageant with Walter Pidgeon, Edward G. Robinson, Mia Farrow and some other people, and I was doing music. In our off-time we used to like to play the piano backstage and sing and have a few beers, and Richard and I got to be really good friends. And we were just kind of tossing around that thing about, 'Wow, one of these days we ought to make a record.' And I used to say that to everybody, I'd say that to a cab driver.
So one day I got a telegram over at my house on Camino Palmero that said, 'Dear Jimmy Webb, come London, make record. Love, Richard.' And it was the first time I was ever out of the country. I got on a 707 and flew to London and started doing this record with Richard. 'MacArthur Park' was kind of in the pile, but we had a lot of songs that we were interested in doing. And we ended up doing two albums. And a lot of people think the second album was better than the first. The second album was called The Yard Went on Forever.
The first one was called A Tramp Shining. And that takes us to the question, which is, Why would you get an actor instead of a singer? Well, he was a singer. He had just done a very successful top-grossing motion picture, which was a musical version of Camelot. And he had sung all the Lerner & Loewe stuff. I mean, it wasn't perfect, but he had sung it. He had gotten through the score and it was considered successful. And I thought he had done a good enough job singing Lerner & Loewe that I thought I could make a record with him. I didn't think it was that weird - I still don't know why people are so taken aback by it. It's not like some strange thing. I had just done a musical. You know what I'm saying?
He knew every Irish song that he had ever heard, he could sing them all, he did sing them all. His favorite drinks were black velvets, champagne and Guinness. Get a couple of black velvets in him and he'd start singing Irish songs. And I still know probably about a thousand Irish songs that Richard taught me. And we ended up making a successful album - it's hard to find a more successful album than that album. The song itself, 'MacArthur Park,' was covered by probably 150 or 200 artists. Still being covered, including Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, all the jazz artists wanted to cut it.
Now that Richard's gone, he's a little easier to appreciate. He brought a great kind of theatrical dignity to 'MacArthur Park' and to those songs. And if he missed a note or he didn't carry it off particularly well as a singer, he had the actor's ability to step his way through the lyric and to speak some of the lines and basically to carry it off. He played Camelot on the road live. He had a bus and truck company then. And he eventually bought the rights to the Lerner & Loewe score, so he owned the publishing. And he played Camelot on the road for eight years. He told me one day at a bar that he made $65 million playing Camelot on the road. So it's a little insulting to say that he couldn't perform, or that he couldn't sing."
This was recorded at the short-lived Sound Recorders studio in Los Angeles on December 21, 1967, with the top-tier Los Angeles session musicians that later became known as "The Wrecking Crew." The contract lists these personnel:
Tommy Tedesco - guitar
Mike Deasy - guitar
Al Casey - guitar
Joe Osborn - bass
Larry Knechtel - keyboards
Hal Blaine - drums
Webb is listed as the arranger and also as a musician because he played harpsichord on the track. He says that once they rehearsed the song a few times, they recorded it in one take.
Overdubs of the orchestral instruments were done at two more sessions, also overseen by Webb, on December 29 and 30. The vocals were added later.
Donna Summer recorded a very complex disco version in 1978 with her producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Moroder had been searching for a song to rework with summer, and when Harris' version of "MacArthur Park" came on the radio, he knew it was the one, perfect for Summer's vocal range. Packed with synthesizers, horns and washes of background vocals, Summer's version ran 8:27 and was the first part of the "MacArthur Park Suite," which took up the entire D-side of her 1978 2-disc Live And More album (this side was the "More"; the rest of it was live cuts), segueing seamlessly into "One Of A Kind," then "Heaven Knows," and ending with a 1:32 reprise of "MacArthur Park."
The 17-minute suite was great for dance clubs, but not suitable for radio, so Moroder made a tidy 3:54 single edit that went to #1 in America. By this time, the Richard Harris original was pretty much a relic in America, earning just occasional airplay on oldies radio. [Moroder had a hard time finding the song to work from - he ended up getting it on 8-track.] Summer brought the song back to life with a contemporary recording that caught on with younger listeners.
Summer's cover was the first of her four US #1 hits. It earned her an invite to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but instead of performing "MacArthur Park," she sang an unrecorded song called "Starting Over Again," which she wrote with her husband, Bruce Sudano. After Summer's performance, Dolly Parton recorded that song and it became a #1 Country hit.
The Donna Summer version is the only Jimmy Webb composition to hit #1 in America. Webb didn't know Summer was recording it, but was thrilled when she did. He was so happy to finally hit #1, he cut out the Billboard chart and framed it.
This runs 7:20. At the time, it was still rare for radio stations to play songs longer than 3 minutes, so Harris' label, MCA, didn't release the song as a single. But some radio stations on the FM dial (the adventurous new competitor to AM), started playing the song from the album, which prompted MCA to release it. When it proved popular, many AM stations also jumped on it. According to Webb, KHJ, a big rock station in Los Angeles, asked for a short version to play. Webb refused to edit the song, so the station ended up playing all 7:20 of it.
"Hey Jude" by The Beatles came out a few months after "MacArthur Park" and was nearly as long, running a leisurely 7:11. In America and the UK, it was a #1 hit and the biggest-selling single of 1968. According to Jimmy Webb, Beatles producer George Martin told him "MacArthur Park"'s success was a factor in letting "Hey Jude" vamp out past 7 minutes.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Webb said the woman the song is about, Suzy Horton, went on to become a dancer in Lake Tahoe. After Webb "came into some significant money," he flew out there on a private Lear jet to get her back. She did indeed leave with him and they stayed together for three years. "Then it turned into a soap opera," Webb said.
Five different versions of this song charted in America:
1968 Richard Harris (#2)
1969 Waylon Jennings & The Kimberlys (#93)
1971 The Four Tops (#38)
1972 Andy Williams (#102)
1978 Donna Summer (#1)
The Four Tops version was split into two parts, with each part taking up a side of the single. Part II, running 2:59, was the hit.
Other notable covers are by Glen Campbell, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
According to Shiloh Noone, author of Seekers Guide To The Rhythm Of Yesteryear, Webb's original lyrics mention that the cake was laced with hashish, but this was left out due to legalities. Shiloh adds: "I approached Richard Harris in 1978 in Stellenbosch Lanzerac Hotel South Africa where he was relaxing with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the porch after a shoot for the soundtrack The Wild Geese. I approached him directly and said what was the cake that melted in the park, Richard Burton looked at Harris pissed out of his mind and said, 'Oh it's for you Richard he's not interested in us darling'... while Elizabeth almost missed her mouth when she brought the cigarette to her lips. They were all heavily under the whisky, Richard Harris looked at me and said... 'the death of a hippy my boy, the death of a hippy just look at us.'"
The Scottish prog band Beggar's Opera recorded this on their 1972 album Pathfinder as an opus with harpsichord and mellotron. Richard Harris said of this version: "Beggar's added that intense luster and vibrancy that was so needed when first offered to The Association."
In his 2013 The Guardian interview, Webb gave another interpretation to the "cake in the rain." He said it was something he actually saw, adding vaguely, "We would eat cake and leave it in the rain." The image struck him as a great metaphor for "losing a chapter of your life."
There's not much middle ground on this song, as listeners either love it or hate it. In 1992, when Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry asked his readers to send in their pick for the single worst song ever released, the majority chose "MacArthur Park." >>
AJ - Longmeadow, MA
In Harris' version, the old men are "playing checkers by the trees." In Summer's version, they're playing Chinese Checkers.
Maynard Ferguson recorded a 10-minute jazz instrumental that was released on his 1993 album The Essence Of Maynard Ferguson.
Weird Al Yankovic wrote a parody of this called "Jurassic Park" about the blockbuster movie of the same name. It is on his 1993 album Alapalooza. >>
Steph - SoCal, CA
The song is referenced in three separate episodes of The Simpsons. Arguably the most overt reference is in "A Fish Called Selma," in which the name of Troy McClure's agent is "MacArthur Parker." >>
James - Tracy, CA
"MacArthur Park" is a song written by American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb that was recorded first by Irish actor and singer Richard Harris in 1968. Harris's version peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number four on the UK Singles Chart.Is MacArthur Park a real place? ›
MacArthur Park (originally Westlake Park) is a park dating back to the late 19th century in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. In the early 1940s, it was renamed after General Douglas MacArthur, and later designated City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #100.What does left the cake out in the rain mean? ›
I've been asked a million times: “What is the cake left out in the rain?” It's something I saw… But as a metaphor for a losing a chapter of your life, it seemed too good to be true. When she broke up with me, I poured the hurt into the song. -- Jimmy Webb interviewed in The Guardian via Dangerous Minds.When was Richard Harris MacArthur Park released? ›