Image Pop-UpLovin' Spoonful.
Lovin' Spoonful had its heyday in the middle of the 1960s when British groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominated the charts in the United States; it was one of the few American bands to challenge those groups. They released a string of hits beginning in the middle of 1965 that included "Do You Believe in Magic," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Daydream," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "Nashville Cats," and "Six O'Clock."
Influenced heavily by folk music and jug bands, the group was often regarded as one of the best folk-rock outfits of the 1960s, with only the Byrds achieving a higher profile in the genre. Lovin' Spoonful was also known for incorporating many different musical styles into their workhich included blues-based rock, country, and folk musicnd for their warmth and breeziness; their songs were bright and filled with the promise of youth. "We were in a kind of ecstatic state," former band member John Sebastian told the Los Angeles Times. "It was definitely a wonderful place to be writing from. But I don't think you could sustain it through a lifetime."
Sebastian was the leader of the group, and he also wrote the bulk of their songs. Part of the same downtown New York City folk music crowd as the future members of the Mamas and the Papas, Sebastian grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village. His father, also named John Sebastian, was an accomplished harmonica player, and although he didn't teach his son how to play the instrument, which was later to be one of the son's signature sounds, he did introduce him to the world of folk music and rock. "I had a wonderful early life," Sebastian told the Los Angeles Times, "which included people like Sonny Terry, Josh White, and Burl Ives, who was an old friend of my dad. Woody Guthrie slept on our floor. Burl said 'I've got this friend and he's in from Oklahoma and he doesn't have a place to stay.'" In his teenage years, Sebastian played Greenwich Village coffeehouses with the Even Dozen Jug Band.
Sebastian then joined with fellow New York folk musician Zal Yanovsky, who ran in the same circles, to form Lovin' Spoonful. A native of Toronto, Canada, Yanovsky had already played with future members of the Mamas and the Papas in a band called the Mugwumps. By this time, Sebastian had gotten his first taste of recording music when he played harmonica on records by Tom Rush, Fred Neil, and other folk musicians. Sebastian and Yanovsky were joined in their new band by Steve Boone, who played bass, and Joe Butler on drums. At the beginning, as Sebastian put it years later in the San Francisco Chronicle, "We were smoking pot and drinking beer. We were having fun." But once the band started to take off, they got more serious about their music. "Once we started to have actual audiences, then nobody wanted to smoke pot before the show because it was too scary," Sebastian told the Chronicle.
The band's first record deal was with the Kama Sutra label, with which they released their first top-ten hit, "Do You Believe in Magic?" in 1965. They followed with one hit after another until 1967, when Boone and Yanovsky were arrested in California for possession of marijuana. They angered a good number of their fans, many of whom were part of the hippie counterculture, by turning in their drug supplier to get out of doing jail time themselves. Many hippies called for a boycott of Lovin' Spoonful's records, and although it is impossible to say how much this affected their sales, the band did fall apart soon after.
Yanovsky quit the band in 1967. "I should have left a year before then," he told the Ottawa Citizen years later, "but I was making pretty good money and so I sort of stuck it out. But the band was musically in a rut, and I think if you listen to the last album, you would agree. It was like a marriage, but instead of kids we stuck it out for the money." Yanovsky was replaced by Jerry Yester.
When Sebastian left in 1968 Butler took over leadership of the band and struggled to keep it afloat, but it never again achieved the prominence it once enjoyed. Sebastian went on to a successful solo career in the 1970s, during which he wrote the theme music for the hit television show, Welcome Back Kotter. The tune became a number-one hit single. He also made an appearance at the famous Woodstock music festival of 1969. As he told the Herald of Glasgow, "I was there in the audience, I wasn't intending to play Then some one was saying: 'We need you to hold the crowd with this cheap, borrowed guitar while we sweep rainwater off the stage and fix amplifiers.'"
The former group members have no regrets. "It was a very exciting time," Sebastian told the San Francisco Chronicle years later. "It was very challenging. We were doing something that was not instantaneously accepted, but we got accepted in a remarkably short time for something that was somewhat a novel idea [T]he Spoonful always felt that we weren't matinee idols, we were four guys with an idea, or maybe two or three ideas." Asked how he felt about two of the original band members performing with other musicians under the Lovin' Spoonful name, Sebastian was philosophical. As he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "When I left the band, my solution to not leaving everybody in the lurch was that the price of my freedom would be the Lovin' Spoonful name So I guess I don't have too many bad feelings about somebody going around and doing my tunes." Lovin' Spoonful was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Yanovsky has become a successful restaurateur in his native Canada. "I prefer what I'm doing now," he told the Ottawa Citizen. "This is great." Of his former bandmates, Sebastian told the Plain Dealer in 2000, "We are still friendly. We regrouped (in 1980) for Paul Simon's movie One Trick Pony, but that was the last time we played together. And that was the first time we had played together since 1969."
Do You Believe in Magic, Kama Sutra, 1965.
Daydream, One Way, 1966.
Did You Ever, Kama Sutra, 1966.
Hums, Pair, 1966.
What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Kama Sutra, 1966.
Day Blues, Kama Sutra, 1967.
Loving You, Kama Sutra, 1967.
Nashville Cats, Kama Sutra, 1967.
Something in the Night, Kama Sutra, 1967.
You're a Big Boy Now, Kama Sutra, 1967.
Everything Playing, Kama Sutra, 1968.
Revelation Revolution '69, Kama Sutra, 1968.
So Nice, 51 West, 1979.
In the Movies, Sequel, 1991.
The Lovin' Spoonful, Buddah, 1995.
Live at the Hotel Seville, Varèse, 1999.
Daily News (New York), August 8, 1999.
Herald (Glasgow), September 3, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1993.
Ottawa Citizen, March 7, 2000.
Plain Dealer, February 25, 2000.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2000.
Tampa Tribune, March 10, 2000.
"The Lovin' Spoonful," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 15, 2002).
Michael P. Belfiore
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