Gary James' Interview With John Sebastian of
The Lovin' Spoonful
As lead singer of the popular 60's group, The Lovin' Spoonful, John Sebastian made quite a name for himself. His group's sound was labelled "good time music" and for a good two years The Lovin' Spoonful ruled the charts.
It was just one hit after another - "Daydream", "Darling Be Home Soon", "Do You Believe In Magic?", "Nashville Cats", "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?", "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice" and "Summer In The City". But by 1968 The Lovin' Spoonful were no more. The following year John Sebastian went onstage at The Woodstock Festival as a solo act and was an immediate hit with the audience in attendance.
John also wrote and sang the theme for the TV sit-com Welcome Back Kotter.
These days you'll find John Sebastian living in of all places, Woodstock, New York. His newest recording is titled "I Want My Roots" (Music Masters).
We're pleased to present an interview with a genuine talent and nice guy as well - Mr. John Sebastian.
Q - John we always hear that if you want to be active in the entertainment business, you should live in an entertainment capitol like Los Angeles or New York. Yet, you call Woodstock home. Why Woodstock?
A - First of all, I think that is true, if you are a musician, particularly on the come, that you do have to end up in one of these musical centers, some way, to be viable, saleable and so on. I've come to Woodstock because of a series of accidents and friendships. I first came to Woodstock at about 17, invited by Bob Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman. The town was instantly likeable to me. It was Halloween and there were lots of artists and artists models having Halloween balls and dressing up. It was very colorful and cool. Then, for several years I rented here because I was mainly working 'live'. Eventually, I bought a place here.
Q - You performed in a Borders Book Store here in Syracuse to support your last CD. Is that mainly where you perform these days, in book stores or do you still do concerts and theaters?
A - All of the above. This year I've gone to Norway and played fold festivals, played rock 'n roll clubs, played beautiful little 300 seat theaters, played bookstores, and played a ballroom to raise money with Yank Rachell, this wonderful mandolin player, you probably heard on the album. So, it's a fairly wide shot that I have, partially as a result of the fact that maybe I've just been around so long. I get all kinds of offers. I get everything form what you might expect like a club date to the city of Boston inviting me to do a concert during the Tall Ships Ceremony. So, these things sometime kind of fall into my lap. But, there's been a difference the last 3 or 4 years because of the Jug Band (John's current band). I have been purposely seeking out settings which are small and do not cause too much danger to a promoter. I'm not intending to come in there and advertise myself as Joe Lovin' Spoonful and play the seven or eight visible songs the Spoonful had and that's it. I'm interested in more of a new format for me. So, it's a fairly wide group of gigs that come to me as a result of this.
Q - Are any of the musicians in your current band in awe of you because of your past?
A - I think that my past stands me in good stead in that it does have a certain strength for musicians. In other words, musicians know that going back to the Spoonful, what we were doing was not copying. It was original. These are all things that stand you in good stead in the long run. You see, there's another of me that is essentially a musician who enjoys working as both a leader and accompanist. I had begun a friendship with Jimmy Vivino who's the guitarist on Conan O'Brien and he's sort of my co-writer on most of the tunes in the Jug Band project. He and I began playing together with me coming along to support him. So, there wasn't any awe there. We had played a few gigs where he supported me, and now he was asking me to play rhythm guitar and harmonica with his little band, The Black Italians. And then, it was me calling Paul Rishell and Annie Raines to invite them into the band. That setting was not one of awe. It was kind of a camaraderie built out of common excitement about this early country blues, slash modern hybrid, because nothing can truly be old time because we're doing it now. We're not classicists. Although we like to of our work as inspired by these old jug bands. Of course, we'll never have the life those guys had, so our experiences can't really draw on that. So, it's gonna be different.
Q - How did you avoid the pressure of a record company telling you to record a certain style of music that may be popular today?
A - This kind of thing might have worked or been tempting maybe 15 or 20 years ago, say the late 70s, a few years after "Welcome Back". But, the fact is that none of that really happened during that era. I was working fairly steadily, but working in the way that America likes to see older performers working. I think. (laughs) Nothing too visible, but steady.
Q - You performed at Woodstock. (1969) Was it hard to go out on your own after having been part of such a successful group?
A - You have to remember now, I was not being terribly successful at going solo. I was making a nice transition. At a crucial moment, I had to wait a year and a half while two record companies fought over my recording. MGM claiming because the Spoonful still owed a record, that this was something they intended to put out as a Lovin' Spoonful album and me saying this would be incredibly dishonest. There's only one of four members on this thing. Having to wait out that time, I certainly didn't get the feeling of setting the world on fire. But, what did happen is I went to Woodstock as a member of the audience. I did not show up there with a road manager and a couple of guitars. I showed up with a change of clothes and a toothbrush. It just so happened that because most of my friends were musicians I ended up backstage. There was a moment when the stage had filled up with water and it was impossible to put electric instruments onstage. At that time Chip Monck (Woodstock announcer, stage co-ordination) said to me "Look, we need somebody who can go out there with an acoustic guitar and hold 'em (the audience) while we go out and sweep the water off the stage and let it dry up and you're elected." So, I had to run and borrow a guitar from Timmy Hardin and go on. But, it was not anything I had planned for. It was just one of those nice accidents and it resulted in my career then taking another step forward. Now, I was the Summer Concert guy. I played every Summer concert there was.
Q - And then came the "Welcome Back Kotter" song.
A - Yes, but you have to remember that there was a long wait between that first success and so on. I was wildly out of style when that television theme song suddenly pushed its way onto the Top Ten. It was certainly not the record company trying to make that happen. It was record buyers going into their record stores saying "I want to buy the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme song. That's an audience driven single that record companies pray for.
Q - When you were with the Spoonful, you were in your mid 20s when the record companies came calling. Was it easier for a band to get signed in the mid 60s than it is today?
A - Yeah, I think it was. It's simply a matter of numbers. It was an open field. I say it was an easier thing to get a record deal back then, however, I conveniently forget that we were turned down by every record company in New York City, alright? That's a lot of record companies. That's a lot of big ones. We were playing 'em "Do You Believe In Magic?" and looking across the desk and seeing a lack of recognition. Seeing 'I don't get it.' You have to remember what time it was. This was only minutes after Fabian, Bobby Vee and that kind of thing. That was the last thing that many of these business guys had noticed.
Q - I don't understand. This, at a time when you had The Beatles, The Stones, Herman's Hermits and The Dave Clark Five?
A - You only had a little bit of that when The Spoonful were looking for a deal. By the time they had the deal, had the record out, then everything was much clearer.
Q - What strikes me about The Lovin' Spoonful's songs is that they were so upbeat. You genuinely sounded like you were having fun recording them in the studio. Did you enjoy those recording sessions?
A - We were very intent on getting whatever fun we could have on tape. We were trying for that very hard, but part of the credit is due to Eric Jacobson, whose real talents as a producer were considerable and still are. We produces Chris Issak and is still a visible producer. But, it was hard fun. It was the kind of fun that comes from being under pressure. But, it was fun.
Q - And the material is timeless. "Daydream" sounds as good today as when it was first released in 1966. Did you have any idea at the time that the material would stand the test of time?
A - We had no way of knowing what a nice, long shelf life some of that material was gonna have. At the time, we were certainly aiming only for the next few months. That's really what we were trying for, a Top Ten record right now, right then. Everything else is unexpected.
Q - Your music was termed "Good Time Music." Did you like that term?
A - I didn't object to it when it was first used because I understand there's a need for verbal shorthand to describe things that you can't hear. It's hard.
Q - Are all of the original members of The Spoonful still alive?
A - Yes*.
Q - So what, if anything, would stand in the way of a Reunion Tour?
A - Simply the different paths everybody has taken. There is a semi-Spoonful that travels around. I have never really been interested i participating in that kind of a thing. When I left the band I said Look, I am ready to move on. I was interested in playing with some of the other people that I had bee a studio musician with.
Q - The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia has it that both Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie would stay in your parents' home. Were your parents musicians, club owners, agents?
A - My father was a classical musician and my mother was a writer. My mother is still around. My dad has passed on. You gotta remember now, this is late 30s, early 40s. They're living in Greenwich Village. They've got this slightly less than conventional lifestyle. He works in nightclubs. She writes for radio. So, their circle of friends are more of the artistic community than not. By coincidence, because my father had a friendship with several other people that Burl knew...Burl became a friend of Dad's. They were both enthusiastic eaters, and because everybody was broke and Dad was really a good cook, very often they would end up at our house to eat. It just so happened, coming into town, as Burl described it, was a songwriter, a young man from Oklahoma who nobody knew about, but was gonna be one of the important talents in songwriting in what was called the folk music field. This may have also come from a friendship with Josh White that had come out of doing a lot of shows together. Barney Josephson ran one of the first inter-racial clubs in New York City. It was an important one and I can't remember it. Anyway, my dad had a friendship with several people inside this field even though he was a classical musician. Because of an association with the harmonica, very often he would do concerts in which Sonny Terry would be involved. Dad was very often co-billed with Josh White. So, it was there when Burl Ives decided he was bringing Woody to town he ended up sending him over to Dad and Mom's, at my house, and that's where he ended up staying for about a week.
Q - You carried guitar for Lightnin' Hopkins. Did you travel with him? Does that mean you were a "roadie" for Mr. Hopkins?
A - Yes. I never travelled with him. Only when he was in New York. My father was invited to play on a television show when I was 17 or 18 that was an early equivalent of educational television, a Sunday afternoon kind of variety art show. On this particular show they had my father play harmonica and an actor read Dylan Thomas and some other things, an unknown folk singer named Joan Baez and Lightnin' Hopkins. I sat behind the camera and watched this performance, which incidentally I can still watch today because the kinescope survived. So, this was a handshake and a hello and the beginning of being known to Lightnin'. I wouldn't say friendship, because that took time. In fact, I don't know hot intimate I could ever say my life became with Lightnin'. Even though he was staying at my apartment and I was carrying his guitar, maybe I would intercede with a white club owner that he didn't feel quite comfortable talking to.
Q - If you didn't have the J(ug) Band what would you be doing?
A - Boy, that's a hard question. It might be thematic work. It might be theatrical. I enjoy that kind of work. That's really a difficult question for me to answer. The Jug Band was exactly what I wanted to do, and it wasn't my idea. There was a guy from SONY who called me up, quite unsolicited, and said "John, I bet you could pt together a really good jug band." This was in about '93. I said "I could put together the best jug band that you could get i 1993." Somehow, after hanging up with the guy, the idea started to catch fire with me.