By: Stephen Rose
John Sebastian is another example of a performer who had everything in place for a successful solo career, but was never able to recapture the commercial heights he attained with his first group, the Lovin’ Spoonful, or take full advantage of the fame he received from his unexpected show-stopping performance in the film Woodstock.
John Sebastian was poised to lead the vanguard of singer-songwriters emerging in the early seventies – which included Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young – however, due to legal hassles the release of his first solo album was delayed for a year and a half while the suits and lawyers representing competing record labels fought in court over who owned the rights to his music.
There is a certain romantic idealism associated with a career in music that is out of touch with the reality of the music industry – corporations in the businesses of pumping out recordings for profit. The chance of a musician becoming the next Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix is no better than the chance of the next computer engineer becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates – and being a working musician is a much tougher gig! It is said that making a career of the arts is not something one does simply because they would like to, but something one only does because they must.
John Sebastian was born in 1944 in New York City and grew up in the company of artists and musicians. His father was a much-recorded and technically accomplished classical harmonica player. His mother wrote scripts for radio programs.
Sebastian grew up in the Greenwich Village section of lower Manhattan, where he applied the knowledge of harmonica learned from his father to the music of the folk revival that was blossoming in his neighborhood in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
By the age of 16, John Sebastian was performing in local coffeehouses and folk clubs. When he was 18, he started working as a sideman in the Even Dozen Jug Band, a group heavily influenced by Jim Kweskin. In 1964, the Even Dozen Jug Band made a self-titled album for Elektra Records before splitting up. [The Even Dozen Jug Band also included David Grisman, and a young singer named Maria d’Amato who would later change her name to Maria Muldaur after joining Kweskin’s group and marrying its lead singer, Geoff Muldaur.]
Before forming the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian worked as a sideman on several recordings – playing harmonica on sessions by folkies like Tom Rush, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. He also played bass on Bob Dylan’s first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home.
[As an instrumentalist – primarily playing harmonica – John Sebastian has accompanied a wide range of artists including Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Doors, The Everly Brothers, Art Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, Graham Parker, Dolly Parton, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Prine, and Bonnie Raitt.]
In early 1965, while the “British Invasion” dominated the American music scene, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, two folkies based in the Greenwich Village, teamed up with two rockers from Long Island, Steve Boone (bass) and Joe Butler (drums), to form the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sebastian and Yanovsky had briefly worked together in a bohemian folk group called The Mugwumps, playing local coffee houses and small clubs. [The Mugwumps included Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, would later join with John and Michelle Phillips to form The Mamas & The Papas.]
Sebastian recalls, “The Spoonful brought together two different mentalities, and both were essential to what the band became. Zally and I came out of the hipster Village sensibility, but Steve and Joe knew the reality of playing danceband rock & roll in the bars of Long Island. So they’d say, ‘Guys, we gotta play this faster or people won’t dance’ or ‘Look, you can’t play blues all night or nobody’ll care.’ Those were basic, common sense rock & roll band things that we needed to hear. Without what the rhythm section brought, the Spoonful might have been just another bad white blues band that never got out of Greenwich Village.”
The name Lovin’ Spoonful was inspired by one of John Sebastian’s primary mentors, Mississippi John Hurt, from a song called the “Coffee Blues” – a tribute to Maxwell House Coffee (“good to the last drop”). In the song’s introduction Hurt says “a spoonful of Maxwell House is just as good as two or three cups of other coffee.” During the chorus he repeats the line, “just got to have my lovin’ spoonful.”
The Lovin’ Spoonful wrote most of their own songs and played all the instruments on their albums (a rarity during an era when session musicians were routinely called in to provide backing instrumental tracks during recording sessions).
Their sound – probably best characterized as good-time electric jug band music, rather than folk rock – resulted in a string of hits that would dominate the charts and establish them among the great acts of the mid-sixties era.
The group’s first recordings were made for Elektra Records in exchange for the company giving them amplifiers. They recorded four tracks in early 1965 that were later released in 1966 on the Elektra compilation What’s Shakin’. Two of the tracks are John Sebastian originals: “Good Time Music,” and “Don’t Bank On It Baby.” They also cover Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown,” and “Searchin” by the Coasters. [The compilation also includes tracks from The Butterfield Blues Band, Tom Rush, Al Kooper, and pre-Cream Eric Clapton.]
During a residency at the Night Owl Café in the Village, the Lovin’ Spoonful decided to sign a contract with Kama Sutra Records (a subsidiary of MGM). Working with producer Erik Jacobsen, the band released a series of folk-flavored pop hits, that beginning with their first single, the Sebastian-penned “Do You Believe in Magic,” began a string of seven straight singles that went to the top ten. [The independently-produced master of “Magic” sat in Erik Jacobsen’s satchel for months, eventually accumulating rejection slips from every major label in New York. Only after Phil Spector caught their show at the Night Owl and considered producing them did things begin to change. Kama Sutra finally released the single in August 1965.]
Propelled by John Sebastian’s autoharp, “Do You Believe In Magic” reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, The Spoonful followed “Magic” with “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”, which reached #10; and “Daydream,” which went to #2. Other hits included “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” (another #2 hit); and the hard driving “Summer in the City,” which reached #1 and went gold (August 1966). Later that year, the #10 hit “Rain On The Roof,” and the #8 hit “Nashville Cats” completed their first seven consecutive top ten hits, all produced by Erik Jacobsen.
They toured almost constantly during this period and were one of the first rock bands to perform on college campuses almost as much as for teenage concert goers.
[The Spoonful were so successful they even had an influence on The Beatles, as Paul McCartney wrote “Good Day Sunshine” in direct response to their song “Daydream.”]
In 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s song “Pow!” was used as the opening theme of Woody Allen’s first feature film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily. (They also have a brief cameo in the film.) Also that year, John Sebastian composed the music for Francis Ford Coppola’s second film, You’re a Big Boy Now. The Lovin’ Spoonful played the music for the soundtrack, resulting in several of the band’s classic songs including the movie’s title track, the instrumental “Lonely (Amy’s Theme),” and one of John Sebastian’s most heartfelt ballads, the hit single “Darlin’ Be Home Soon,” which reached #15 on the charts.
[In 1966, in response to the massive popularity of The Beatles first two movies, filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider decided to do an American version of A Hard Day’s Night, as a weekly television program. At first, the producers determined the easiest path forward was to get an already established band and build the series around them. They zeroed in on the Lovin’ Spoonful, as the band definitely had a certain zany, lighthearted spirit about them. However, after an audition process, the producers decided using a real band would be more trouble than they expected. For one thing, the Spoonful were writing their own music at this point, and the show was not interested in giving up the publishing rights to the songs written for the show, so it really did not make sense for either parties. The producers instead turned to open auditions for the show, using the now famous ad in Variety, and the program went on to become the smash hit, The Monkees.]
Zal Yanovsky left the band in May 1967, primarily due to a drug bust in San Francisco. He and Steve Boone were arrested for possession of marijuana, and pressured by the police to name their supplier. Yanovsky, fearing deportation to his native Canada, fingered his source, which lead to the band falling out of favor with the hip community. [The drug bust fueled a simmering controversy in mainstream circles regarding the band’s name, which some believed was a reference to heroin abuse.]
Yanovsky’s replacement in the group was Jerry Yester, formerly of the Modern Folk Quartet, and the producer for The Association. [In 1969, Yanovsky released a solo album, Alive and Well in Argentina, produced by Jerry Yester. He then retired from music and moved back to Canada, operating a restaurant in Kingston, Ontario until his death in 2002.]
In September 1967, the group released their fourth album, the ambitious Everything Playing. It was the first attempt for a rock band to record an album on the new Ampex 16 track tape recorder, resulting in several progressive new singles such as “Six O-Clock,” “Money,” “She’s Still A Mystery To Me,” and “Younger Generation.”
John Sebastian left The Lovin’ Spoonful in June 1968 to go solo (after considering, but ultimately rejecting, an offer to join a trio of his friends who went on to become Crosby, Stills & Nash). Warner Bros. Records seemed like a logical home for Sebastian’s solo recordings, as the label was at the forefront of signing artists who were part of the emerging singer-songwriter boom. [Other Warner Bros. artists during this era included Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa, Rod Stewart, Gordon Lightfoot, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and Van Dykes Parks.]
John Sebastian was eager to do an album with some of the musician friends he’d long admired. With the Spoonful, he explains, “Although it had been a tremendously popular thing, what we were finding at the point at which we were sort of on our last record was it felt like we were at the upper limits of our own musical abilities. I wanted this opportunity to play with the same guys I’d been playing with when we were all broke.”
His first album was produced by Paul Rothchild, who met John Sebastian back when he was a sideman in the Even Dozen Jug Band, and produced some early Elektra folk recordings which Sebastian participated in. [Rothchild also produced the Doors’ Morrison Hotel album in November 1969, recruiting John Sebastian to play harmonica on the song “Roadhouse Blues.” Sebastian is credited on the Doors album as G. Puglese, an old family name.]
Sebastian’s solo debut, titled John B. Sebastian (released on the Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise) featured Dallas Taylor (drums), Harvey Brooks (bass), and Paul Harris (keyboards). It also had notable guest appearances from Stephen Stills (guitar on “Baby, Don’t Ya Get Crazy”), David Crosby, Graham Nash (high harmony on “What She Thinks About”), pedal steel player Buddy Emmons (featured on country-ish “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”), and Buzzy Linhart (vibes on the jazzy “Magical Connection).” Danny Weiss, the guitarist from Rhinocerous (who had a hit with “Apricot Brandy”) also played on “Baby Don’t Ya Crazy,” which featured The Ikettes on harmony. Other highlights include the upbeat opener “Red Eye Express;” a solo acoustic remake of the Spoonful’s “You’re A Big Boy Now;” the experimental “How Have You Been;” and a trippy instrumental “Fa-Fana-Fa.” The album closes with the heavily orchestrated waltz, “I Had A Dream.”
While in Los Angeles waiting for the album’s release, John Sebastian got an unexpected kick-start to his solo career when his producer, Paul Rothchild, called and suggested that he attend the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in upstate New York. Sebastian was not scheduled to perform at the festival, but after the delay caused by the rainstorm, he was asked by Chip Monck (the MC), to play an acoustic set while the rain was swept off the stage. He borrowed a guitar from Tim Hardin and delivered a memorable set of songs which seemed to capture the atmosphere of the moment perfectly. His inclusion on the Woodstock soundtrack (released May 1970), and in the documentary film (released August 1970), catapulted John Sebastian into one of the most recognized singer-songwriters of the year.
Unfortunately, his album’s release by Reprise was tied up in court a year and a half by MGM who wanted to release it as a Lovin’ Spoonful album. MGM contended that the Lovin’ Spoonful, though now defunct, owed it another album, and that it had the right to release Sebastian’s LP. While the case was being decided in court, MGM released a sonically inferior bootleg version of the album, taken from a second-generation master.
Eventually, the courts decided in Sebastian’s favor, and the album came out in January 1970. However, the unauthorized release of the MGM version, combined with the delay in issuing the release, diluted the album’s impact and hurt Sebastian commercially.
“It hurt everything,” emphasized John. “It made for confusion that didn’t need to be there. Who knows, it might have done a little better [if MGM hadn’t put out its LP]. But the important thing was losing that year and a half. Because music, especially our popular music, changes so fast that the shelf life on a style can be six months, and I was very aware of that. It was one of the first [albums] of the sort of singer-songwriter guys out of the box, but you couldn’t realize it by the time the album came out, ’cause so many other guys with the same approach by then had gotten out there.”
Fortunately, Sebastian’s music remained unaffected, and John B. Sebastian became his most commercially successful solo LP, reaching #20 upon its release.
He also continued working as a sideman, playing harmonica on the song “Déjà Vu,” with Crosby Stills Nash & Young (released March 1970).
Unfortunately, MGM wasn’t finished harassing him. In July 1970, while performing at a festival in New Orleans, John Sebastian was asked to fly to New York and do a show for a crowd near the city of Woodstock whom were in need of entertainment. Primitive equipment was used to record the concert and MGM released it without his consent under the title John Sebastian Live.
“Again, here was this odd situation where I was faced with the release of an album that comes out, and nobody knew that it was a bootleg because it’s got MGM’s name on it,” recalled Sebastian. “They put it out and they again hoped to sell a few more before the final curtain on their tenure as my record company ended.”
“When I saw this album was out, I already had a few things in the can for my next album. Paul Rothchild and I were looking at this album together, because we were kind of the two creative heads at what had been my solo career up to that point, and we said ‘Oh my God, this is bad enough that we have to make another album. We have to make something so people can see what I can do live.”
Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live John Sebastian was released in April 1971 as an alternative to the MGM bootleg. Paul Harris, who also played piano on Sebastian’s debut, provides his only accompaniment.
“I didn’t feel like I wanted to go out and get some big symphonic background or anything, and so the ‘Cheapo Cheapo’ part of it was sort of flying in the face of what was going on in rock at that point, which was very inflated. And so, I just said, ‘Look, let’s just go out, real cheapo, one guitar with Paul Harris, and we’ll record it. So, out of that experience, that live album was made. I was very much playing things that worked well on a single guitar with a simple piano accompaniment, and having fun with the audience.”
The album included several Lovin’ Spoonful classics, including “Lovin’ You,” “Younger Girl,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “Nashville Cats,” “Younger Generation,” and “Darlin’ Be Home Soon.” Other highlights include “My Gal,” and “Waiting For A Train.”
On his next studio effort, “The Four of Use,” released August 1971, John Sebastian was at the top of his game throughout the album. It was his most polished and consistent effort to date, loaded with tracks that should have received favorable reviews and radio airplay.
“By this time, my wife and I had really become a couple. We were probably, at that point, beginning her pregnancy, or were inches away from it. It was a very, very happy time in my life and so I was writing quite a lot about my happiness for these songs,” recalls Sebastian.
“I enjoyed making that album tremendously. In some ways it was kind of a selfish album. I was just permitting myself to go wherever I wanted to, including letting this seventeen-minute side of a record by kind of a continuing continuum, or a kind of adventure. But, it certainly was not a very big seller.”
“Over the years, I have been thrilled by the number of people who have come up to me and said that they were a couple when ‘The Four Of Us’ came out and they very much enjoyed it when it came out. I have received a number of very warm compliments about the album, but at the time I was taking a lot of flack for that album.”
There are no weak tracks on The Four Of Us, although the title track – an experimental four-part suite which occupies all of side two – is an interesting departure from John Sebastian’s more typical radio-friendly fare. Satisfying individual tracks are “Apple Hill,” “We’ll See,” “I Don’t Want Nobody Else,” and “Sweet Muse.” Other highlights include the opener, “Well, Well, Well,” “Black Snake Blues,” and “Black Satin Kid.”
The Rhino boxed set, Faithful Virtue: The Reprise Recordings, includes the single “Give Us A Break,” released in February 1972. The flip side is an instrumental called “Music For People Who Don’t Speak English.” It was a song John Sebastian wrote for his son because he didn’t speak English yet.
“He was little,” John said. “Also, the song is sort of a second cousin to ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ soundtrack. We felt it was kind of French.”
[The Rhino box also includes John Sebastian’s complete set at Woodstock, plus several tracks recorded October 4, 1969 at Bill Graham’s Winterland Arena in San Francisco, CA.]
Sebastian’s next album, Tarzana Kid, was released in September 1974. It was a reunion with Erik Jacobsen, producer for the first three Lovin’ Spoonful albums. Guests on the sessions include Lowell George, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, and David Lindley. Sebastian’s old friend David Grisman plays mandolin on the instrumental “Wild Wood Flower.”
Tarazana Kid is an easy album to appreciate with a relaxed back-porch acoustic vibe. Sebastian performs a nice remake of the Spoonful’s “Wild About My Lovin’,” and performs several covers, including Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo;” and Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.” Other highlights include the jugband piece “Friends Again;” the acoustic blues of “Sportin’ Life;” a country number “Stories We Could Tell;” the funky instrumental “Harpoon;” and “Singing The Blues.”
John Sebastian’s last album with Reprise was a surprise hit in the spring of 1976 that came about as a result of an offer to write the theme song for the television program “Welcome Back Kotter.” The program premiered in September 1975 and became a huge success, prompting Warner Bros. to release the theme song as a single the following year. The song became the biggest hit of Sebastian’s career, reaching number 1 on the charts in May 1976 and going gold.
The accompanying album is a pleasant affair with an adult contemporary feel about it containing many songs of comparable quality to the title track. Sebastian recaptures some of his old Spoonful magic on “She’s Funny;” swings the blues on “Warm Baby;” drops in some country twang on “A Song A Day In Nashville (featuring Jeff Baxter on pedal steel);” remakes an old Spoonful hit into a late-night chillout on “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It;” and laments “I Needed Her Most When I Told Her To Go.” The album – and his brief career with Warner Bros. – concluded on an appropriate note with an instrumental that allows him to stretch out on harmonica one last time with “Let This Be Our Time To Get Along.”
For the next 17 years, Sebastian performed concerts, made guest appearances on other artists’ records, and did occasional soundtrack work.
In 1993, the independent Shanachie Records label finally put out his fifth studio album, Tar Beach. He then teamed up with a group of old friends and returned to playing the jug band music he had started with back in Greenwich Village more than 30 years before, forming a group he called John Sebastian and the J-Band and issuing I Want My Roots (1996) and Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost (1999).
As part of the Lovin’ Spoonful, John Sebastian was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 2007, Sebastian teamed up with old friend David Grisman and released Satisfied. (The two met 41 years earlier as members of The Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964.)
Steve Boone, Joe Butler and Jerry Yester released 1999’s Live at the Hotel Seville (produced by Jerry Yester), the first new Lovin’ Spoonful album in three decades.
Do You Believe in Magic (TAMI Show, 1965)
You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice (Hullabaloo, 1965)
Summer in the City (1966)
Rain on the Roof (1966)
Darlin’ Be Home Soon (1967)
She Is Still A Mystery To Me (1967)
Darlin’Be Home Soon (Woodstock, August 16, 1969)
Darlin’ Be Home Soon (Winterland, San Francisco, July 21, 1970)
Daydream (BBC, October 16, 1970)
Travelin’ Light (Soundstage, Chicago, December 30, 1974)
Nashville Cats (1986)
You and Me Go Way Back (1986)
Late Night With Conan O’Brien (1995)
Jug Band Music (Canadian Music Hall of Fame, March 1996)
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind (Canadian Music Hall of Fame, March 1996)