Gary James' Interview With Drummer Joe Butler Of
The Lovin' Spoonful
They released seven albums in four years and the first seven singles went Top Ten. You'd turn on the radio in the mid-1960s and you couldn't help but hear "Do You Believe In Magic", "Daydream", "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind" and "Summer In The City". The group we are talking about is The Lovin' Spoonful. We recently spoke with The Lovin' Spoonful's drummer, Mr. Joe Butler. Joe has been inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame and The Long Island Music Hall Of Fame. He was recently honored by the Great Neck Arts Center as "Artist Of The Year".
Q - Joe, last March I went online and it was reported that you had died. How does a rumor like that get started and why did they pick on you of all people? Any idea?
A - They also said I was the richest man to ever make music, own buildings.
Q - You should like that!
A - Yeah, but it is an amazing thing what's happening to information.
Q - Is there any truth to this story that you're thinking of retiring from the music business altogether?
A - Never. Not 'til they pry my cold dead fingers off the microphone. I fought too hard to get up there. It was the first fame. I was in construction. I did theatre. I took over the lead in Hair on Broadway from the guy who wrote it. They did a nation wide search. I got the job. I did it for six months. Diane Keaton was my leading lady. We still get together and raise money for Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Corps. It has thirty-eight songs. More before they cut it down for Broadway. My play has a dozen songs. It's merciful. But I have this three little arc I sing and I'm 76 and I get to a 17-year-old. You know, there's a 17-year-old in all of us. So, I did a lot of things to get that mic back into my hands and get The Spoonful back together. I was in a repertory company where our play won Pulitzer prizes. I studied theatre with theatre groups, Vincent D'Onofrio. He was my scene partner for a year and a half. We did everything. So, even when I was doing construction and running crews at jobs, I was always pursuing, perfecting my ability to be on stage and to be a performing artist. Still writing songs and frustrated. To retire? I'd rather leave it out on the field. What is happening is the negative side of traveling, you make the two lists, you know? What are you happy with? Happy shit. No good shit. The traveling is starting to fill up the shit list. It's because you're relying on air travel. You could be stuck, sent to a hotel and never know if you should have gotten in the car the night before and driven the god-damn six hundred miles, you know? So, the traveling becomes more of the job. The onstage work, which by now we're all really good at, is a pleasure, at least for me. I never have bad dreams. I never have stage fright. What I have in my dreams is I can't get to the gig. Somehow the thing is busted or I've forgotten the auto harp or I left something and it's gone. Being onstage is a sanctuary. You get to do what you're good at and I've certainly rehearsed enough.
Q - I've heard from other singers, they pay them for travel. The singing is free.
A - Well, it's close. Singing, when you want to sing, is a little different than singing on command or singing on cue. And sometimes, we rarely do two shows, but when we do I would have preferred if we could have done the show and not have to do two. But I remember a number of times when people did four and six when I was learning. Forty on, twenty off. Singing. Drumming, Playing. All the time you put in to get to a level. But in the main, yeah, it's nice to do something for people because I know my job up there. My job is not to show off or get off myself. My job is to be the conduit for the material so that the people can feel it and understand it and have a break and be told a story that's interesting and with little hits they can discover for themselves through lyrics. I'm a very good songwriter now, but it took me years to understand something coming from an angle where it's not so direct and obvious. That way the people can get it. They know what it is. They discover it for themselves. John Sebastian wrote a majority of the songs. I participated in almost thirty percent of the songs. None of the hits, but I was always writing. But, I sang some of the hits and I was always singing. The honor and the privilege of having that microphone, having that stage or that podium or soapbox, is a responsibility to do for them what you can do. Do a damn good job. I'm a really terrific singer. I'm terrific. I can't paint. I can build pretty well, but I'm a really good singer. I can sing in any style. I have a huge vocal range with my falsetto. But it's there for the people. I'm not doing it for myself. I'm making it perfect so they hear something really good, and not so they say, "Man, what a singer!" So they'll hear something that's really as perfect as I can get it.
Q - I guess you answered one of my questions. I was going to ask you how difficult it was to get out from behind the drums and front the band. It sounds to me like it was a pretty easy transition, right?
A - It was. I had a band in Long Island called The Kingsmen. We were out of East Hampton, South Hampton, West Hampton. I was stationed out there. I put a band together and eventually got connected with Skip, Steve Boone, who's older brother is in The Spoonful. His brother Skip hired him for the band. We worked all these different places as The Kingsmen. By all the different places, we worked in Tony Marino's Palm Terrace. I pass these places now. Some of those buildings don't exist. I was a weatherman in the Air Force. I used to scramble F-101s to anybody that didn't identify themselves, UFOs. All sorts of things.
Q - Sounds like an interesting job.
A - I put a band together, first military guys and then changed it over, but I was drumming and singing the whole time. In the group The Kingsmen I fronted the group many times and we had another drummer sitting in. So, I was always comfortable singing up front and I had been doing that before anyway. I was in bands since I was 13 with a guitar, accordion player and another guy playing drums, and then I would double on drums. So, I had experience being up front with a guitar, without a guitar and fronting and singing leads in songs. As a matter of fact, when we brought the band to New York, by then Steve was traveling in Europe, Steve Boone. He wasn't in the band anymore. We played in places like Herb McCartney's Boden Square where we did the Twist. Classy. I'm telling you, the lady's dining, book society. We played in Pinckney's Inn, which was for migrant workers where the guy would give us whiskey on typewritten labels. We played in all sorts of places. We played in some of the gay places where they had to have a woman or two on the dance floors, out in the Hamptons. We had played so much that after awhile we hired VFW Halls and threw dances. We made a fortune. I was making $75 a month in the Air Force. I was probably bagging a grand a month. This was way back in the early '60s, doing Motown songs, doing Johnny Cash, doing Buddy Holly, doing Ray Charles, doing Little Richard, doing Ritchie Valens. Doing all the hit songs in cover bands. That's how we learned. When I brought that band into the Village, we changed the name to The Sellouts because by that time so many Folk songs were becoming hits and we were doing them in a Rock idiom. We were in fact the first Folk/Rock band, there was no name for it that ever existed before The Byrds, followed by The Spoonful. They just had a hit first. They became labeled as that, pigeon-holed as that. I always thought their style, most people's style were always more eclectic than the way they were pigeon-holed per decade. You know, the '50s Doo Wop, the '60s. But anyway, I had a manager in two weeks and a record deal in a month.
Q - That's what's so different about the time you were coming up in the business. There were places to play. Bands no longer enjoy that situation. Those places don't exist anymore.
A - They don't exist anymore and people pay to play. It's not the same and I am in a position now at my age to be able to do this. It's startlingly unique. There's not many people (who can do this). I have a modest taste for things. All the people that went into excess are dead. Mamas And Papas, now it's just Michelle. Denny, John, Cass... Scott McKenzie, who I love. What a dear man. What a terrific guy. We loved each other because we made each other laugh. Whenever we got near each other we'd seek each other's company and shun the other people. I don't know why he was so funny or why he thought I was so funny. He filled in. He played with 'em. In all the years they never performed that much. When they performed and John was not down and not doing it, he would do John's part. When Denny was down and wouldn't go on the road 'cause he was doing something else, Scott McKenzie would do Denny's part.
Q - In the old days singers and musicians could hone their skills in the clubs that existed. They can't do that today.
A - There are places in Austin. There are places in cities and some in New York, but you're not going to make a nickel. You won't make any money and neither did we. I don't know that the same things are available in terms of getting a record deal or getting bigger audiences. I don't know. There wasn't that many then. You'd look around and see a thousand people and some of them were immensely talented. I know because in my play I cast the band and I test the actors and some of them are really good. I don't know how they're going to earn a living. I just have no idea. We have our following now. My niece sings and writes, but I don't know how to tell her what to do. I know my knowledge base is on a whole other set of realities. We could work the oldies circuit and we get younger people, but we know we have our share of the chrome domes and the cotton heads. We know we have our share of the older people and they have disposable income. We played in a huge complex south of Las Vegas, so far south it's like six degrees warmer, but they paid thirty bucks a head and it filled up three nights in a row. Filled up! Appreciative. Gracious. Just folks. So appreciative. Just trying to do a good job for them, singing good, talking to 'em and making them the star of the show. I don't need to be the star of the show. I know how good I sing. I know I can do it. I got it. I don't know how people do it. It's changed. To get started now I'd probably give up. I wouldn't be able to be that strong now.
Q - You used to see Jazz drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson.
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - You came to the conclusion that you weren't as good of a drummer as those guys.
A - I knew that, yeah. I used to see Art Blakey do the press roll. Or I would see Buddy Rich do the single stroke roll where at 13 he broke the record. Nobody could do it as fast as him. I used to see these guys and I knew I couldn't. Then I saw Tito Puente. He always had a girl hanging on his arm when he was playing and singing. It was stand-up. So, I used to have my drums set up very high, playing over them. That I knew I could do. That contrapuntal stuff was amazing. I learned all the Latin dances. Guys like Xavier Cugat never stopped smiling and the women were all over them.
Q - Being a great musicians has never been a requirement for being successful in the Pop/Rock music business.
A - I think there's an innate talent in people if they get a chance to use it, if they have it and they develop it and a drive. I was driven at 12, 13 to get in a band and have a set of drums. My father gave me a place in the garage with a space heater to play drums. I didn't have records. I played to every song on the radio. I had no idea what I was doing. Nobody ever taught me anything. I learned. It was a drive. I had to do it. I was there at the birth of Rock 'n' Roll. When that started I wrote the lines of the songs as fast as I could. The neighbors were complaining. The School Board called twice. They said they thought I was a fool. My studies were slipping away. "He's thinking only about those Rock 'n' Roll records he plays." There's a drive there that supersedes logic. People go under because of it. They become junkies or they give in and become miserable. I did fifteen, twenty years in the construction business. I learned a lot. I became proud of myself, but when I would hear songs on the radio that I had done and not gotten a penny for, we didn't get a penny 'til 1991. Not five cents, not ten cents, not one red cent. Nothing. So we went after them. This is years after the real money flood. This is after fame. When there were substantial sales, which there are now, we do get royalties on. But that was systemic. Many people didn't make any money and people who were very driven with the same drive died. Suicides. Slow suicides. Giving up on yourself and just withdrawing 'cause you can't do it. You can't make a living at it.
Q - Your mother lost a singing contest to Frank Sinatra. Did she ever talk about that? Did she ever have any contact with Sinatra after that?
A - No. Not at all. She said he looked so bad. He had so many pimples he looked like a raspberry. His face was so broken out. She followed him. She picked the songs. She didn't even know the damn song. She picked "Stormy Weather". She was a total amateur. By that time Frank Sinatra had sung for a year in his parent's bar or whatever. More than that. She wasn't deterred. She thought he didn't stand a chance. She was beautiful and young, but she lost to him. Of course in her declining years she would tell the story and she would say, "And I won!" (laughs) So, if you wait long enough your dreams come true.
Q - You say that in the 1960s record company executives were in and out of clubs, scouting for talent.
A - They did.
Q - How did they know what the public would latch on to? It was all a guess, wasn't it?
A - Of course, but it was an extrapolation, which is more than a guess. It's a scientific guess based on some evidentiary stuff that gives you a feeling, a good propensity, a good chance that you're right. It's like weather that we used to do in the Air Force. We didn't have satellites. Everybody had to report what was going on where they were. It was sent on teletype. We had to draw maps. Some of 'em were amazingly good at it. They discovered amazing talent. There were a lot of people who were not good that they passed over. When we hit the Village they were looking at Herb Cohen, who was my manager first. He said he could replace anybody in the band but me. When I tried to make a deal to join The Spoonful I had to get somebody else in my place, which I did and it didn't work. By then I had become the act, you know? Nevertheless, Herb Cohen was on the street and there were people from the record company on the street, but we were passed over. It's like Bob Hope, who said, "It's a religious holiday whenever they give out the Oscars. For me it's Passover." The Sellouts had a couple of songs and I had a couple of songs and I just did get them from our early producer at Jacobbon's. Some of the songs I sent him. Some of the pictures. We had a record deal as I say within a month, but The Spoonful could not get a deal. No one would pick up on it. They didn't understand. It was maybe a little too folky. I don't know what they didn't understand. Our producer paid to have five songs recorded. Three of them became Top Ten hits. Those recordings. (laughs) Do you know what I mean? Not that we re-recorded them. Those recordings. Three of them became Top Ten hits. Couldn't get arrested, as they say. It was amazing. The manager, Bob Cavallo didn't know what to do. He sold out. He sold us to a publishing company, Koppelman And Rubin, who wound up getting funded by the Le Frak family and wound up owning almost all the god-damn publishing in the free world. Good businessman. They screwed us. As I said, we never got a penny. Charlie Koppelman was instrumental in doing a lot of things. He got Bobby Darin to record some of Tim Hardin's stuff, "If I Was A Carpenter". He was a mover and a shaker and a good guy, but we never got any money. Nothing.
Q - The Spoonful didn't record for Mercury Records, did they?
A - No. I did.
Q - Herb Cohen was responsible for you getting that deal?
A - Yeah. We made the deal. Herbie brought this guy down and made a deal for The Sellouts. The idea for The Sellouts was we were folkies that went Rock. By that time we were doing "Lemon Tree", "House Of The Rising Sun". The only thing we loathed is "Michael Row The Boat Ashore". We weren't doing that. Even The Sellouts were beyond that. We were doing some Harry Belafonte things. We started doing more Folk because we were in the Village, but it was a Rock idiom. I was banging the drums. We had a bass player at that time who I've seen recently. A dear guy. One of the things he could do with two steps, with the bass in his hand, he could go into a back flip and land on his feet. If you can do that it doesn't matter how good you can play. That's not true. He was a good player. (laughs)
Q - And a good showman!
A - Yeah. An amazing athlete. He did that and the audience would go ape-shit. We moved into the Village after playing a couple of places. N.Y.U. was trying to run it. Many nights I slept there. It's like the joke, what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless. But if I needed a place to stay there was a back way in and I had my pillow in the drum and a blanket to muffle the bass drum, cut out. I would take it out and sleep on the stage. We got a salary. We didn't work for nothing. But we also at times saved bottles. We sold 'em back to the delis. My grandfather taught me that. He was a watchman on a construction site. I made friends with some of the guys on the construction site. I said, "Look, do me a favor. Leave the bottles right here and I'll pick 'em up." So we would go by and were selling bottles. That's when someone's in a band. It's tough, that kind of commitment. Those are strong bonds. If they're broken you're equally raw 'cause they're broken. It happens to everybody who dreams of something and gets it, maybe success or fame or recognition. It's hard not to think you're very, very special. (laughs)
Q - Do you ever go back and look at yourself on The Ed Sullivan Show?
A - Sometimes, yes.
Q - What goes through your mind?
A - I'm gratified that I knew what I was doing at that point. I learned a lot from the first television shows, seeing myself play drums. I wasn't flailing my head like the way Ringo did and I became less animated. I let the camera do more of the work and played more. I created something for all Rock drummers that were having to mime to records on television. It was quarter inch felt pads cut to fit the drumheads. Also a pad that would be in an arc shape that would go on the cymbals so you could actually hit them with the sticks. So, when you're miming, you didn't look like you're faking to a record. Even a vocal could be faked or mimed easier than drums. I remember bringing them with me and more and more people discovering them. Finally they had them for all the drummers. You had to play 'live' on Sullivan and that was dangerous, which we did a couple of times. That was dangerous because your producer couldn't mix the sound. They had to mix the sound and they were mixing for Frank Sinatra. You hear The Stones under their mix, Mick is out there like he's singing a ballad. They didn't mix for Rock bands. Your producer could be there, but he'd wind up being in a fight with the guy, "Put that up to five!" You couldn't do it. When you did mime on some of the television shows where you had to mime, whether it was Dick Clark, or I don't know, sometimes you could play 'live'. You had to mime all those television shows in Los Angeles. Those pads were one of my contributions to make drummers look like they're actually hitting the things.
Q - After performing for forty million people on the Sullivan show, what did The Lovin' Spoonful do? Did you go back to your hotel? Did you go out for a drink? Did you go on to the next gig?
A - Well, my family was there. I'm not really sure. Ed Sullivan was a big deal. You were established. You could launch a record from The Ed Sullivan Show, and people did. Sold a couple of million copies from exposure. That was the time when there were seven channels. It's not like now where everybody's demographic. The kids watched with their grandparents. Families watched together. And that's why Ed Sullivan was a variety show. They'd have a kiddie act and a juggling act and an elephant act and sweep off the poop and slide on the drum riser and play Rock 'n' Roll. If they had the elephants they'd put on a curtain closure and Ed Sullivan would go out with Topo Gigio. By the way, Ed Sullivan was not a bad straight man. When he had straight man lines, he would do the right thing. He'd deliver the lines. He was actually pretty good as a straight man. He didn't get enough credit for that. But his mind was wondering. He introduced me twice. He introduced me first. He said, "Joe, where are you from?" I said, "Great Neck" He introduced everybody else and then he said, "And Joe, where are you from?" I said, "I'm still from Great Neck, Ed." (laughs) This was done on a single stage. Only curtain closing here and there to cover things they had to do. It was quite an accomplishment for 'live' television. It was like a comedian where Johnny Carson laughs and has him come and sit down. Ed Sullivan called us over and foolishly I stayed for a moment and then I left. I should have stayed on the stage. The other guys stayed.
Q - Did you ever meet The Beatles?
A - Yes, every one of them. I met George and John when they came to our show. They they came back to our hotel with us. When The Beatles were coming to do their first concert in New York, Zally (Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky) got into Manny's Music. I was with him. We got into their drums before they were sent over to Shea Stadium and on Ringo's tom-tom we taped four joints. One for each of them. Pot. On it we said, Welcome to America with three Ks, with three exclamation points, and I drew the heart and spoon which is my logo that I drew on my drumhead. We wrote "The Lovin' Spoonful." The when George and John came to see us at the show; we stayed at the Mayfair Hotel or whatever it was, a fancy hotel, George said, "I brought you guys some pot, but Patty and I smoked a joint and I forgot it, to pay you back for your kindness in New York." In those days pot was the medium of exchange. It was Hippie wampum. So, it was brought. We talked with John. And then during the Shea Stadium show when "Summer In The City" was number one, we wanted to see The Beatles. It was the second to last time they ever played. By the way, their show was the set from The Cavern. All the songs I had done with The Sellouts on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver", they never did. George said, "We're always moving ahead. We didn't have time to learn those out of the studios, to do them as a band." So, I had done many of those songs. We went there and suddenly Steve and I get recognized. We were told it was going to be fine. The Stones were supposedly going to watch the show. If they were not worried about being in the audience, why should we? They didn't tell us with security they turned the lights on. So, the girls went ape-shit and came at us. We had been attacked many times. We were under the seats and they were coming at us with scissors, taking bits of clothing and hair. Suddenly the cops were there, pulling us off. I hear Brian Epstein say, "Officers, listen. Have them come with me." He had heard about it. He was up the stairs and we went with him and he said, "Is anybody else from your group here?" I said, "Yeah. Zally came, but he's dressed like a monk." For some reason, nobody spotted John (Sebastian). We were all invited down to the dressing room where we hung out with them while they got ready for the show. Paul was kind of glad-handed. Ringo was not happy. I think he would have preferred if nobody was there. We would go back into the shower and smoke a little. There was some pot going. When we walked out with them as they were walking down the hallway to the dugout to take the stage they turned around and all did this Roxy kick. It was the funniest thing. It was like it was from Magical Mystery Tour. We walked out with them, behind them, and as they went out the dugout doors and started to get spotted there was a roar that went up that must have been like in the Roman Coliseum. As I heard this roar, something caught my eye and I looked up to the right as they were jogging out on the field with their instruments. I saw a girl thrown out over the first rail and down and someone had caught her hands, someone else caught her and they dragged her back up. Soon as she was down, she was jumping up and down again like nothing happened. She would've been dead. I'm saying this is some strange shit. And who was kept waiting in the dugout? The Rascals. And they were, my friend, pea green with envy! (laughs) If looks could kill. They were so pissed off that we got to hang out in the dugout before The Beatles went on.
Q - Did you ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - No. I never met Jim Morrison. When they were getting their deal they did a private show for us. I'm sure it pissed them off. Because we had a couple of hits we declined signing with Jac Holzman of Elektra Records. We saw him going around on a bicycle to Folk shops with his records. Paul Rothchild, who recorded us, had them do a private performance for us. I'll tell you the truth. I thought there was a lot of sameness to the music. I'm sure they were really pissed off that they had to do that. We were the only people there watching.
Q - Did you ever meet Janis Joplin?
A - I had dinner with Janis Joplin one time and a couple of other people and it was down in the, above The Bitter End. There's a restaurant there. Anyway, she was cackling and she was high. It was not pleasant and I mean I just felt sorry for her.
Q - Did you meet Jimi Hendrix?
A - Jimi Hendrix, I lent him money once to get his guitar out of hock and went with him to the place. The pawn shop is still there and he did pay me back. We'd had a couple of hits and I was a fan of his. I went around watching him with a couple of acts. I watched him with The Isley Brothers. I watched him with a Country act. He could do anything. So, I knew him a little bit better than anybody else.
Q - Did it mean anything to you when you were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame? Or The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame? Or The Long Island Music Hall Of Fame?
A - Yeah, of course. By the way, The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame covers all genres of music and the first group in it was The Hoboken Five with Frank Sinatra. So, The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame is really interesting. But getting ready for The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is difficult. It was held in The Waldorf and there was no room for anything. We were sitting where the dishes were bused. I was hanging out next to Ray Charles and by that time he was a little, skinny, diminutive man. The dishes are crashing around us. There was no room. It was a lousy set-up for anything. But of course, it means a lot. It's a nice honor because it's the only honor. When my daughter went to visit they were really sweet. I called them and let them know. They met her at the gate. They helped her get into the V.I.P. section. They gave her merchandise, took her down to see the archives. Said things like, "You know, your father helped build this place. This is his house. You're always welcome here." Really sweet stuff. Nice stuff.
Q - That's good to hear!
A - (laughs)
Q - When people are nice, it's always good to hear that.
A - People are always nice to us. The Spoonful stuff is all life affirming, positive music. It's not really down stuff.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.