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Enjoy Magazine

John Sebastian to Perform in Red Bluff

09/27/2016 11:00AM ● By Phil Reser

A Spoonful of Magic

October 2016
By Phil Reser
Photo used with permission

John Sebastian’s contributions, both as the leader of the Lovin’ Spoonful and as a solo artist, loom large on the American musical landscape.

The unique fusion of rock, folk and jug band that he created with the Lovin’ Spoonful helped return American popular music to relevance at the height of the ‘60s “British Invasion” and his influence continues to resonate across musical genres.    

As a composer/lyricist, he wrote an amazing string of impactful songs, including “Do You Believe In Magic?” “Younger Girl,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?,” “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “Rain On The Roof,” “Nashville Cats,”  and “Younger Generation.” During this run, the Spoonfuls placed their first seven singles in the Top 10 and their first nine in the Top 20.

And as an instrumentalist, primarily playing harmonica, he has accompanied a wide range of artists over his career, including Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, Art Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, Graham Parker, Dolly Parton, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Prine and Bonnie Raitt.

His father was a classical harmonica player, his mother a writer of radio shows. He grew up in Greenwich Village, where he applied the knowledge of the harmonica he was given by his father to the music of the folk revival that was taking place in his neighborhood in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. 

“By the time I was 14 or 15, I was in a doo-wop group, and I was playing, you know, a cheap guitar. And then I started playing electric guitar out of that, as I began to play in sort of Duane Eddy-type bands, you know, with sax and guitar and drums and maybe a bass, and then came back to things like acoustic guitars and autoharps.”

By age 16, he was stepping onto the stages of coffeehouses and folk clubs, and by age 18 he was appearing as a sideman on recordings. 

“Being a kid surrounded by jug band, folk music and rock and roll, it was so much of a fertile ground to take all these different influences and incorporate them into something.”

In the winter of 1964-1965, he and lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky began assembling the quartet that would become the Lovin’ Spoonful, eventually adding bass player Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler. 

Sebastian knew blues veteran Mississippi John Hurt personally, whose tune “Coffee Blues” (“I love my baby / By the lovin’ spoonful”) would provide his band with its name.

The Lovin’ Spoonful signed to Kama Sutra Records (an offshoot of MGM Records) and in the summer of 1965 released its first single, “Do You Believe in Magic,” on which he sang lead vocals (as he did on all the group’s singles while he was a member, in addition to writing or co-writing all its hits). 

By 1968, he was working on solo material, plus considering, but ultimately rejecting, an offer to join a trio of his friends who went on to become Crosby, Stills & Nash. 

One of his most famous moments was his unscheduled performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. He wasn’t booked to perform, although plans changed when rain temporarily made electric instruments problematic.

“I was running around, trying to find a guitar. Timmy Hardin loaned me a very serviceable Harmony Sovereign and I did the gig.” 

The result was that his solo career really took off, by being featured on the chart-topping Woodstock soundtrack album and in the documentary film.

Several years later, he was asked to write the theme song for the television series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which premiered in September 1975. It topped the charts in May 1976 and went gold. 

For the next 17 years, Sebastian performed concerts, made guest appearances on other artists’ records and did occasional movie soundtrack work. 

In 1993, his fifth solo studio album, “Tar Beach,” was released. 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, performing and recording with a group called John Sebastian and the J-Band. 

Sebastian was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 with the other members of the Lovin’ Spoonful, which was followed by his entry into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.

He currently tours mostly as a solo performer, in a show featuring both his music and personal stories.

Friday, Oct. 14

State Theater, Red Bluff