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John Sebastian to play Winthrop concert Saturday

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Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will play his classics from The Lovin' Spoonful and solo hits.

This Saturday night, Nov. 3, the Winthrop Performing Arts Center will be filled with sing-along songs that have been part of our lives for nearly 50 years when John Sebastian, former leader and principal songwriter for The Lovin' Spoonful, performs a solo concert.

During the show, fans will take a trip through American music history when Sebastian performs blues, folk and jug band classics intermingled with stories and the classic hits he recorded in the '60s with his legendary group.

I spoke with Sebastian last Friday from his home in New York.

Dow: Take me back to the first Lovin' Spoonful single, 'Do You Believe in Magic.' There is so much joy in that song - it has everything.

Sebastian: We were playing a club called The Night Owl in the Village in New York City. That song really came from the energy we felt from our audience. There was a girl there one night dancing alone in the middle of the crowd just caught up in the music, and Zally (guitarist Zal Yavonsky) and I both spotted her. From that, the song came soon after along with 'Younger Girl.'

Dow: It's incredible to look back at the sheer volume of records released in the '60s all vying for chart position. The Spoonful succeeded in an era that was dominated by The Beatles. On top of that, you influenced them your song 'Daydream' for example.

Sebastian: Yes, Paul McCartney has been very gracious in describing how he was influenced to write 'Good Day Sunshine' after hearing 'Daydream.' Eric Clapton copped to being influenced by 'Summer in the City' when he wrote 'Tale of Brave Ulysses' for Cream.

Dow: 'Summer in the City' was number one for three weeks in August 1966. The credits read John Sebastian/Mark Sebastian/Steve Boone. Is Mark your brother?

Sebastian: Mark is my brother and he wrote the chorus. He really had the core of that tune. I started fiddling around with it because I had a Wurlitzer piano in this trashed out place where me and Zally were staying. That chorus really made writing the rest of the song very easy. I said, 'This is so good, I want to go someplace entirely different for the verse.' For the longest time, Steve Boone had this little fragment that he would play while we were sitting around waiting for takes. We would say, 'Steve, that's not a song! Stop playing that thing endlessly!' We got the studio, we had the chorus and the verse, and Steve started playing the bit again, and we said, 'Oh my God it fits! It works great! All is forgiven.' (laughing)

Dow: 'Rain on the Roof' is an all-time favorite for me. I still get goose bumps when I hear it. What do you remember about writing and recording that song?

Sebastian: I was in Los Angeles. It was my first time living there for a minute instead of just staying in a hotel. A very unusual rainstorm started. The rain hitting the roof made more noise than a house on the East Coast where they actually had to build a house (laughing). We had just played Tara Browne's birthday party. He was the young heir to the Guinness fortune referenced by John Lennon in 'A Day in the Life' 'He blew his mind out in a car.' He was killed in a car accident not long after the party. I was in Dublin and wandered around town and I saw an Irish harp in a music store window. I went in and played it backwards. My reference was the Marx brothers and I didn't realize that Harpo played backwards too (laughing).

Dow: 'Welcome Back' your 1976 #1 song (theme from 'Welcome Back, Kotter') - did you write it to order or was that something you had written and stashed away?

Sebastian: I wrote it to order. I saw the pilot episode and I read a couple of future scripts so I could get the idea of these guys who were at the bottom of the class. They were guys like me. I was a very poor student very dyslexic before it became fashionable (laughing) - so there was something to write on, I felt. I disregarded their title and I told them in advance, 'Don't make me use the word Kotter in this song because there's nothing that rhymes with it except otter.' It's just too far a stretch, especially if you've only got a minute and a half because that's really all the time I had. You've got to get a lot of info in there.

So I wrote a song that was really pretty lousy, but at the tail end of it, I came up with this little round of 'Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back,' and I went, 'Wait, that's the part I save, and now I've got to rewrite the song.' So I did, and the second rewrite was good. That song outsold 'Summer in the City.'

Dow: What is your first music-related memory?

Sebastian: I was about 5 years old, maybe 6. My parents had taken me to Italy for the summer. My dad was a classical musician. We had a house with a library that contained a mandolin. Every day I would spend a little time by myself in this library just plucking this mandolin. There was something about it that just kept drawing me back. When I was about 11, my brother's godfather, a wonderful sculptor, came back with a cheap, flamenco-ish guitar. That was really my first guitar.

Dow: We all know how great The Lovin' Spoonful recordings are, but the band could also deliver the goods in a live setting. There are a few wonderful live clips on YouTube, but I was wondering if any of your shows in the '60s were professionally recorded.

Sebastian: The Spoonful never concentrated on making a live album. The technology at that time wasn't too good as far as live recordings go. But you're right we were happy to take on all comers when it came to playing live, and I can only take slightly less than a quarter of the credit because Zal Yanovsky was such a great stage asset for the Spoonful. He would go out and play a great solo but instead of looking 'haughty' like the English guys, he'd cross his eyes and make stupid faces (laughing), but he was playing just as cool. We had Zal, Joe Butler's energy and Steve Boone's 'mystery man' in the corner who never moves. He kind of had the job that 'The Ox' (John Entwistle) had for The Who - standing still in the midst of the storm.

Dow: In my opinion, Zal was one of the most under-rated guitar players of all time.

Sebastian: Thank you thank you for saying that. Please somebody notice this guy! I can't believe how 'Rolling Stone' year after year does their 'Hundred Best Guitarists' list and Zal is never there. How many of those guys had eight top 10 records?

Dow: What do you remember about writing your second hit 'You Didn't Have to Be So Nice' with Steve?

Sebastian: That song came about a really important time because we were looking for a second single and Steve had the beginnings of that song enough so that finishing it was a cinch. It fit in that it was different from our first record, but it still had the autoharp and it was still a shuffle. Erik Jacobson, our producer, was a very important 'fifth' member and felt that it was a good idea to have a different sound from song to song. We didn't want to be one of those groups where your next hit sounds just like the last one, and this was the closest we came to that scenario.

Dow: Take us back to The Lovin' Spoonful appearing on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1967. How important was that to the group?

Sebastian: It was very important to the group, and I have to say that Ed was not the square that everybody made him out to be. We had been doing lots of afternoon dance-show television. They were all lip-synched as were the first few Ed Sullivan shows. To separate Ed from those other shows he got it right. He felt, 'These guys want to play this American-hybrid music without the middle man.' Without going to England and then bringing it back. He was very clear about it that 'here was an American group,' and it helped us tremendously.

Dow: The Lovin' Spoonful had huge commercial success you had critical success. How did the music business treat you?

Sebastian: Oh, about as well as Lightnin' Hopkins (laughing). Not too well. Kama Sutra records was really gauged for singles and gave us great success in that area. It was difficult for them to absorb this changing atmosphere where entire albums were suddenly part of the equation. The Spoonful had the depth in the albums that it could withstand scrutiny but nobody really paid that much attention.

Dow: Prior to signing with Kama Sutra, the band recorded some material for Elektra Records but opted not go with that label why was that?

Sebastian: At that time (1965), Elektra was mostly known for releasing folk music. We were afraid of getting lumped into that genre of being stereotyped as a 'folk rock group.' In that minute, The Byrds were taking songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, changing the arrangements and having folk rock hits, and it was sort of the in thing. We wanted to be different and were afraid that Elektra would try to promote us as the next 'folk rock phenomenon.' Kama Sutra was distributed by MGM, and we felt we might have better luck with them. Later, Elektra had huge success with albums by The Doors, Love, Paul Butterfield and everybody else. I want to go on record here to all of the people from Elektra 'I was wrong!' (laughing).

The Spoonful meet The Beatles

Sebastian: John Lennon and George Harrison showed up when the Spoonful played the Marquee Club in London (April 18, 1966), and I was invited backstage when The Beatles played Shea Stadium. When I got there, George starts riding John Lennon about me 'Oh, you know you love him, John. You've got his funny round glasses. You're wearing his long sideburns aren't you, John. You think he's the guy, don't ya?' Lennon and I were eventually rubbing each other's sideburns affectionately (laughing). I sensed a real enthusiasm from John and have, since then, heard a rehearsal of The Beatles where they're trying to work out my song 'Daydream.' You hear them going through the chords and George is saying 'No, John, it's a minor 7th.' They play the song for a while with John trying to find the correct chords and then he stops and says, 'Damn tunesmiths!' (laughing).

On The Lovin' Spoonful's performance during their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000:

We thought we were horrible! On those kind of affairs, they always want you to play your biggest hit. That was a particularly hard thing to do for two reasons. First, my voice had dropped several notes because, hey! You're 30 years older and the autoharp hadn't dropped several notes (laughing). In order to play 'Do You Believe in Magic' I had to get on the autoharp and play in an uncomfortable key. Zal said, 'John, we shouldn't worry about what they want. We should do what the Spoonful do. He said, 'We should play The doctor said give him jug band music.' I said, 'That's a cool idea,' but the powers that be really pressured us to play 'Magic.' So we get out on stage and kick off the tune. All of a sudden, I can hear that the bottom end lacks a certain bump from Joe Butler. I look back and Butler is trying to get the attention of the various roadie guys. His bass drum pedal hadn't been on that well. It flew off in the first note. Now, the whole kit sounds dumb without the bass drum. It was never a favored or even decent performance. I always thought it was terrible. The Spoonful were all about having a good time, and we weren't doing that on that day.

Dow: Do you get on with the other members of The Spoonful? There is a version of the group touring around, but you have decided not to do join them. (Guitarist Zal Yanovsky died of a heart attack in December 2002).

Sebastian: Yes, I surely do get along with them, but without Zal, I don't know. I don't know what you can do. One of the reasons why I have never joined in on those is because it would just. Look, I miss Zal every day of my life. I don't think I would want to miss him that much for 45 minutes or an hour every time we would play. But The Spoonful goes on and we're good friends. The Spoonful were not and never have been anything like any other band. People always expected us to be angry after the fact, but we never were. We were always so glad to be there. These guys know more about me in many ways than 90 per cent of your average bears.

Dow: Is there an album that you would like our listeners and readers to investigate? Maybe an album that has been overlooked or neglected.

Sebastian: The Warner Bros. material has become very hard to obtain. And in their wisdom, the complete Lovin' Spoonful catalog is not available. There was a complete John B. Sebastian collection about 10 years ago, but it's very hard to come up with things like 'The Four of Us' or 'Tarzana Kid,' which are fun albums.

An album I'm very proud of that took quite a while to do was 'Chasin' Gus's Ghost.' On that album, I was joined by one of my favorite people in the world - Fritz Richmond, who played washtub and jug. He had been in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, he had been an engineer for Elektra he engineered a bunch of Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt material and stuff that Paul Rothchild was producing. On that album, I also had Jimmy Vivino and James Wormworth, who now play in Conan O'Brien's band. During the recording, I also met Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, a blues duo from Cambridge who have just a wonderfully accurate old timey sense of what we were doing in that case it was jug band music. We also had a mandolin genius from the jug band era, Yank Rachell. My wife came up with the title 'Chasin' Gus's Ghost,' which referred to Gus Cannon (1920s American jug band pioneer) who wrote 'Walk Right In.'

He died in poverty. She said, 'It's like you guys are saying 'Gus, we had it wrong. Come back! All is forgiven!'

Dow: Is that album easily available?

Sebastian: It's easily available at my concerts (laughing). I bring a bunch along. It is something that's getting harder to obtain as the original issue is pretty much depleted. It was released on Hollywood Records. Fortunately, Hollywood's main man was a guy called Bob Cavallo, who managed The Lovin' Spoonful. After the album had its run, instead of letting it disappear, he said 'I'll give you a ridiculously low price take it back,' so I was able to reissue it through my own CD company, J.B.'s CDs.

John Sebastian in concert, Saturday Nov. 3 Winthrop Performing Arts Center - 400 Rambler Road, Winthrop. Tickets are $35 and available at WinArts.BrownPaperTicket.com or by calling 1-800-671-1282.

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