Spoonful’s John Sebastian Turns 79

by Kevin Burton

    Happy 79th birthday to the personable multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter John Sebastian.

   Both his music and his personality seem accessible, based on how he comes off in interviews on You Tube. I mean, here’s a rock and roller who plays the auto harp of all things. He said he learned the instrument to impress some girls at camp. How regular -guy is that?

   With his 1976 chart-topper “Welcome Back,” Sebastian gave voice to the instinct I had then and now to help my fellow blind people any way I can. For that reason alone he has a special place in my heart.

   I knew about Welcome Back before I knew anything about The Lovin’ Spoonful, and the songs and legacy that band left.

   “Welcome Back is the theme song from the 70s TV Comedy “Welcome Back, Kotter” about a school teacher (played by Gabe Kaplan) who returns to his old school to help misfit students who need special attention.  The kids called themselves the Sweathogs.

   “Remedial classes were held on the top floor of the New Utrech High when Kaplan attended and the school had no air conditioning. Hence the name “Sweathogs”. According to the  Angola Transparency blog. 

    I never got to teach at my alma mater, Ohio State School for the Blind, but if God granted me a life’s do-over, that would be a great career path to pick.

   Once during my senior year in high school I was talking to my father about some of my fellow students. “You feel responsible for them don’t you,” he asked.

    That wasn’t literally true, but he was absolutely on the right track.  I have a heart for the blind and for any underdog types really. I can’t listen to Welcome Back without those feelings coursing through me.

   But Sebastian was a spokesman long before Welcome Back.

    In the mid-60s The Spoonful, along with The Byrds and perhaps some others were seen as a direct rebuttal to the British Invasion.

   “They were one of the most successful American bands during the reign of The Beatles,” according to SongFacts. “Like Creedence Clearwater Revival, they found a niche with buoyant, compact songs that offered an alternative to the British Invasion sound.”

   “Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky formed the band after Cass Elliot, who was in a group called The Mugwumps with Yanovsky, introduced them,” SongFacts wrote. “When the Mugwumps disbanded, Elliot formed The Mamas & the Papas while Yanovsky paired up with Sebastian for the Lovin’ Spoonful.”

   “Sebastian and Yanovsky (lead guitar) were part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York City; Steve Boone (bass) and Joe Butler (drums) were veterans of the Long Island bar scene.”

   Sebastian was the lead singer, primary songwriter and driving force behind the band, whose first seven singles hit the top 10.

   The Spoonful’s only number one hit was “Summer in the City.” “Did You Ever Have to Make up Your Mind” and “Daydream” peaked at number two.

   But the band’s signature song is “Do You Believe in Magic.” It’s an essential song, a love song to music and a partial explanation of its place in “a young girl’s heart” and in society as a whole.

   For all the acknowledged excellence of the Beatles, they don’t have a song like “Do you Believe in Magic.”  

   The Lovin’ Spoonful in its original lineup was only active for three years “two glorious years and a tedious one,” as Sebastian put it.

   The group unraveled after Canadian citizen Yanovsky was arrested for marijuana possession and faced deportation.

   “In August 1969, Sebastian made an unscheduled appearance at Woodstock. He traveled to the festival as a spectator, but was asked to appear when the organizers suddenly needed an acoustic performer after a rain break because they couldn’t set up amps on stage for Santana until the water was swept off,” according to Wikipedia.

   You know about the Spoonful songs and Welcome Back. But Sebastian also had some appearances as a session musician (listed on Wikipedia).

.    He played harmonica with the Doors on the song “Roadhouse Blues,” under the pseudonym G. Pugliese. He also appeared on two Doors live albums.

   Sebastian played three instruments on the 1970 Gordon Lightfoot album, If You Could Read My Mind. He played autoharp on “Saturday Clothes,” electric guitar on “Baby It’s Allright,” and harmonica on “The Pony Man.”

   Sebastian played harmonica on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s song “Déjà Vu.”  He had previously been asked by Crosby, Stills & Nash to join their group as a fourth member, but turned them down, leading to their association with Neil Young. 

    Sebastian appeared on the album Stephen Stills (1970), Timothy Leary’s album “You Can Be Anyone This Time Around” (1970) (on which Sebastian jammed with Jimi Hendrix),and on Keith Moon’s only solo album, Two Sides of the Moon (1975).

   Sebastian played the autoharp instrumental break between the second and third verses of Randy VanWarmer’s 1979 hit “Just When I Needed You Most.”

   Sebastian was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful in 2000 but is much prouder of his 2008 enshrinement in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

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