The Lovin’ Spoonful was the first Americana band, long before the term was coined. Although the original quartet barely lasted three years in the mid 1960s, their music – simple, melodic and largely acoustic, combining elements of blues, country and rock – stood out. The Beatles, in fact, publicly named the Spoonful as one of their very favorite American groups.
John Sebastian was the singer and songwriter; he wrote and sang “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” “Rain on the Roof,” “Darling Be Home Soon” and “Nashville Cats” – and, with contributions from his brother Mark, “Summer in the City,” the band’s biggest hit of all.
Although he’s been solo for 50 years now (“I’ve had kind of a surprisingly long career,” he laughs), Sebastian’s show Wednesday at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo will go deep into the band’s rich catalog.
“I try to get to the Spoonful stuff fast,” Sebastian tells the Catalyst, “so that people don’t feel ‘oh, he’s one of these guys who’s decided he doesn’t do that stuff anymore.’ I’m not one of those guys.”
But the Lovin’ Spoonful, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, was but a moment’s sunlight for John Benson Sebastian.
The New York native was a member of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s; he played blues harmonica on the debut records by both Fred Neil and Tom Rush. With David Grisman and Maria Muldaur, he was a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, followed by a stint in the legendary folk group the Mugwumps – alongside Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty, soon to form the Mamas and the Papas.
His writing for the Spoonful was inspired by the spartan ethos of “jug band music”: Playing acoustic, cheap and sometimes homemade instruments for a loose, organic, uncluttered sound. You played what you had access to. Onstage, he often performed on autoharp instead of guitar.
The members of the Spoonful described their “sound,” at the time, as jug band music.
“That was primarily the press trying to get us to tell them, in four words, what we were doing,” Sebastian says. “We just wanted to be everybody except the Beatles, ‘cause they were taken.
“I don’t know that they would have been able to grasp the fact that we liked Elmore James, and we liked Buck Owens and a lot of great country artists. Our thing was a schmeer, and for me, that’s the common thread between the Spoonful and jug band music. No, we weren’t distinctly country or distinctly bluesy – we were an equal opportunity musical theft operation.”
(Another little-known fact: That’s Sebastian’s distinctive gut-bucket blues harp on “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors).
Sebastian left the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968. In short order, he played, solo, for half a million people at Woodstock; almost joined Crosby, Stills and Nash; put out one of the strongest debut LPs of the singer/songwriter era (John B. Sebastian).
Although the solo career never caught fire with Spoonful-like intensity, Sebastian landed an unlikely No. 1 hit in 1976, with his title song to the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
In more recent times, he was a favorite guest on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, performing a mixture of blues, ragtime and other American musical styles. He wrote a children’s book, JB’s Harmonica, and has scored a half-dozen animated films for children (this music was recently, collected on a CD called Short Songs For Shorter People).
On August 16, he’ll perform in Watkins Glen, N.Y., on the opening day of the 50th anniversary Woodstock concert – the three-day event also includes sets by Santana, John Fogerty, David Crosby, members of the Grateful Dead, Melanie, Country Joe McDonald and other alumni, along with contemporary acts the Killers, the Lumineers, the Raconteurs, Greta Van Fleet, Jay Z and Miley Cyrus.
He says he no longer performs a few of his more idealistic Woodstock-era songs, such as “I Had a Dream” (“I dreamed we all were all right, happy in a Land of Oz”). He just can no longer relate to their blissed-out hippie ethos.
Still, Woodstock was special. “It was about the people,” Sebastian offers. “It wasn’t about the artists, and that was so easily identifiable, that was one of the things that made it very easy to play.”