Saturday, November 12, 2022

John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful


This drawing was inspired by the album art of Chrystal Russell

In the mid-1960s, I bought records by a few musicians as soon as their latest albums were released-The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Unlike the other groups, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s popularity only lasted about two years, from 1965-67. They were a New York city folk/rock band, a musical genre that dominated the music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. The Byrds are widely credited with the invention of folk/rock, but one could argue that the Lovin’ Spoonful were equally instrumental in launching this new genre. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a Bob Dylan song that he gave them the OK to record) is thought to be the first folk/rock hit. It came out in April 1965. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first hit song was “Do You believe in Magic” which was released in July. Even though the Byrds were from LA and the Lovin’ Spoonful from New York, both bands sprung from the early 60’s folk scene.

 John Sebastian grew up in Greenwich Village. His father was a professional concert harmonica player and his mother, a radio script writer. His godmother was Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy), a close friend of John’s mother. His family hosted many musicians at their home, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Lightening Hopkins. John got to know them and their music intimately. I attended a John Sebastian concert in Tucson in the early 2000s. John said Mississippi John Hurt stayed with his family when he was in New York and John learned Mississippi’s finger picking style. He confessed and demonstrated how the Lovin’ Spoonful song “Loving You” was a direct rip off of Hurt’s musical style.

As part of the folk revival, John was in a group called the Mugwumps along with Zal Yanovsky, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. In 1964, they put out one album and two singles. When the group broke up, Cass and Denny joined with John and Michelle Phillips to form the Mammas and Pappas and John and Zal recruited bass player Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler to form the Loving Spoonful. The Mammas and Pappas 1967 hit song, “Creeque Alley”, tells the story of the formation of the two bands.

After their first hit song, “Do You Believe in Magic”, the Lovin’ Spoonful had a string of hits with “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice”, “Day Dream”, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind”, “Summer in The City”, Rain on the Roof”, “Younger Girl” and “Nashville Cats”. They had seven consecutive top ten hits. John Sebastian was the main song writer and lead singer. He often played the auto harp on their recordings and was/is an excellent guitar and harmonica player. Even though the other members of the group were good musicians, John was the dominant force behind the group.

The band was flying high throughout 1966. Joe Butler was in the Broadway production of “Hair”. The group composed and performed the music for Woody Allen’s film “What’s Up Tiger Lily?”. Sebastian composed the music for Francis Ford Coppola’s second film, “You’re a Big Boy Now” with the band performing all the instrumental background. And they scored another hit song from the film, “Darling be Home Soon.” The producers that created the TV show “The Monkeys” built the show around the Lovin’ Spoonful, but "dropped the band from the project due to conflicts over song publishing rights". 

In May of 1967, Zal left the group after getting busted for marijuana possession. He was a Canadian citizen and the police pressured him to either give up the name of his drug supplier or be deported. Zal was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. so he complied. After this incident, there was a counter-culture movement to boycott all of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s records and performances. In an interview Zal said he left the band because he didn’t like the direction John’s song writing was taking it. Zal was replaced by Jerry Yester from the Modern Folk Quartet, but the band was hurt by the drug controversy and only had a few minor hits after that. In 1968 Sebastian left the group to pursue a solo career. I love his first solo album titled “John B. Sebastian”.

I attended a benefit concert for fire fighters at the Tacoma Dome in the 90’s. The bands included America and the Lovin’ Spoonful. America sounded great, with the two remaining members. The Lovin’ Spoonful consisted of Boone, Butler, Jerry Yester and his brother Jim. Joe Butler sang all of John’s leads. The music sounded the same, but Butler was no substitute for Sebastian on the lead vocals. In 2000, the original band got back together for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In the summer of 1969, Sebastian performed at Woodstock and some of it is captured in the “Woodstock” movie. In an interview John said he was not scheduled to perform. He had hitched a ride on a helicopter and attended the festival as a fan and to support his musician friends. He didn’t even bring a guitar with him. After a fairly long bout of rain, the crew needed to sweep down the stage to make it safe for the electronic equipment. They needed someone who could fill in with just an acoustic guitar, so John borrowed a guitar from his friend and fellow folk singer, Tim Hardin, and performed a totally improvised acoustic set.

In talking about the performance, he said it was a magical moment for him. He was wearing a self-tie-dyed outfit and pretty high on pot. In the middle of the set, the clouds parted and the sun came out. His solo career got a big boost from that performance. John had his biggest solo hit, “Welcome Back” in 1976, the theme song to the television show “Welcome Back Cotter”.

When we saw him perform in Seattle, John still had his voice and put on a great show in the small club. I was determined to speak to him. During the break he went to the bathroom and I followed him. I didn’t want to be creepy, so I waited outside the door. When he came out, I said, “John, thank you for your music.” He said, “You’re welcome.” And that was the extent of it. He got back on stage and finished the show. When we saw him in Tucson years later, he had all but lost his voice. He still put on a good show, but his croaky voice did not work well singing the old “Spoonful” songs but sounded appropriate for the early folk and blues songs. 

The Lovin’ Spoonful was truly an authentic American band that pioneered a genre of rock & roll that is still popular to this day.


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The "Girl Groups"


I was in middle school when early rock & roll all but died out and “girl groups” began appearing over the radio airwaves. These groups sprung out of the male dominated Doo-Wop era of the forties and fifties. The “girl group” phenomenon lasted from about 1957 to 1966.The early groups were mostly teenagers who sang together in school and church. “Mr. Lee”, by the Bobbettes was the first song to make the pop charts. These five teenage girls from East Harlem, originally called themselves the Harlem Queens. They grew up in the projects and like the Doo-Wop groups before them, practiced in the hallways and on the playground.

“Maybe”, by the Chantels, was the next song to become a hit. It was a million seller in 1957 and re-released in 1969 after Janis Joplin covered it. The Chantels were five high school girls, ages 14 to 17, who attended parochial school in the Bronx and sang together in the school choir.

My favorite “girl group”, and the act that solidified the “girl group” sound was the Shirelles, four teenagers from Passaic, New Jersey. They began singing together at high school shows and parties, initially calling themselves the Poquellos. They had a sweetness and innocence to their sound, with back-ground harmonies like the earlier Doo-Wop groups. Their first single “I Met Him on a Sunday” was a song they wrote themselves and sang at school parties. Their second single, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, was a cover of a 1957 “5 Royals” song. The Shirelles version was released in 1959, but without a national distributer, only charted at #83 on the Billboard Top 100. In 1961, after they had several hits, the song was re-released and shot to #3. In 1967, the Mamas and the Papas covered the song "Dedicated to the one I Love" which went to #2. This was the first song that Michelle Phillips sang lead on instead of Cass Elliot.  

“Tonight’s the Night”, the Shirelles next hit single, was co-written by lead singer Shirley Owens. “Will You Love MeTomorrow” written by Carole King and her then husband Jerry Goffin was their first #1 song and the first #1 by any “girl group”.  Both of these songs would later make Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest hits of all time. “Mama Said” reached #4 and in early 1962 “Baby It’s You” (co-written by Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Barney Williams) went to #8, It was recorded by the Beatles and put on their first album “Please Please Me” along with another Shirelles’ song, “Boys”, sung by Ringo. In 1969, a group called Smith had the biggest hit with “Baby It’s You”, but I favor the Shirelles’ version. The Shirelles second #1 hit, and their biggest selling single was “Soldier Boy”. Even though they continued to record new material until the late sixties, the Shirelles’ last hit single was “Foolish Little Girl” in 1963, charting at # 4.

Following in the wake of the Shirelles, came a host of other “girl groups” and 1963 was their most successful year. The Chiffons had hits with, “He’s So Fine” and “One Fine Day”(another Carole King/Jerry Goffin song),  The Ronnettes (Phil Spector’s Group) with “Be My Baby”, Martha and The Vandellas (a Motown act) had two hits, “Heatwave” and “Come and Get These Memories”, the Chrystals with “DaDoo Run Run”, and the Angels had a hit with “My Boyfriend’s Back”.

The most popular “girl group” was the Supremes (another Motown act). In 1964 they had two hits, “Where did Our Love Go,” and “Baby Love”. They went on to have 12 number one hits and for a time rivaled the Beatles popularity.

But in 1964, after the Beatles came to America, popular music became dominated by British groups, pushing out and replacing many musical styles, including almost all of the “girl groups”.



Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Surf Rock



When I was in high school in Ferguson, Missouri in the early sixties, I dreamed of traveling to California and living the lifestyle of a surfer.  The southern California mystique was in the minds and hearts of many young people at the time. Rock & roll had nearly died in the early sixties. The hard-edged originality of early rockers, like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was gone and the airwaves were filled with clean cut white singers; (lots of Bobbys--Vinton, Vee, Rydel) and Fabian, Shelly Fabre, Connie Francis etc. Most sang well, but it was mainly sanitized pop music. Two major styles of music sprung out of the void, Motown and Surf Music.

Surf Rock is a southern California phenomenon integral to the surf culture of the early sixties, originating mainly in Orange County. Dick Dale is credited as the creator and pioneer.  His family moved to Orange County when he was a seventeen-year-old senior in high school. Dick began surfing and wanted to play music that represented his experience. He was influenced by the instrumental rock music of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and The Venturers. He played a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and worked with Leo Fender to invent an amplifier that could increase the sound and get a reverb effect that emulated the sound of the waves. This reverb, called the “wet sound”, was built into the fenders amps.  He also made use of the vibrato arm of the guitar to bend the notes and he added tremolo picking, rapid picking that became the signature sound of surf bands.

            Dick Dale and the Deltones song Let’s Go Trippin’ is thought to be the first Surf Rock song. The group introduced it in 1960 at a dance concert at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach on the Balboa peninsula. These concerts became known as “Stomps” because the surfers who attended would stomp on the floor in time with the music causing the old dance hall to shake. The dance, “the surfer’s stomp” was born from this.

            The Beach Boys were by far the most popular surf rock band, even though the surfers at the time would not have considered them to be authentic. Surf music was exclusively instrumental until Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys borrowed the basic sound and added the rich harmonies of the late fifties college circuit groups like the Four Freshman and the Hi-Los.  In 1961 the Beach Boys came out with Surfin’, but probably the first surfing song I heard in Missouri was Surfin’ Sufari, followed by Surfin’ USA and Surfer Girl.

Surf music splintered into two genres, instrumental surf rock and vocal surf pop. By 1963 both types of surf music were getting airplay across the country with hits like, Pipeline by the Chantays, Wipeout by the Safaris, and Surf City (co-written by Brian Wilson) by Jan & Dean. Many non-surfing musical groups jumped on the bandwagon and surf music began to fill the airwaves.

During those long, cold winter months in Missouri, intoxicating waves of surf music entered my ears and washed over my brain. I could only dream of the surfing scene of southern California, but it was a dream that enlightened my imagination and warmed my soul.