The Lovin’ Spoonful, led by primary songwriter and lead vocalist John Sebastian, was one of the greatest bands of the 1960s, synthesizing pop, rock, folk, country, blues, and jug band music into a unique hybrid purely their own. Simply put, their songs were sunny, happy-feeling odes to life filled with catchy melodies.
The band has been in the spotlight since their first hit single, “Do You Believe In Magic,” came crashing onto the charts back in July 1965. Featuring Sebastian (one of the first rock artists to give the autoharp a prominent role), lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist/songwriter Steve Boone, and drummer/sometime singer Joe Butler, the band had its origins in the early 1960s folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York.
The Spoonful was a talented multi-instrumentalist band with a great songwriter and distinctive, honey-rich voice in Sebastian, although all the members contributed lyrics on occasion. With the British Invasion at full throttle in the mid ’60s, The Spoonful proved that America still possessed great bands.
Nineteen-sixty-six was the golden year for The Spoonful, as 10 singles eventually reached Billboard‘s Top 30, with the first seven singles all making the Top 10, including such standards as “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Nashville Cats,” and the immortal “Summer In The City.” The progressive, state-of-the-art sound on the latter is still quite innovative.
Yanovsky, a zany, often underrated player on his Guild Thunderbird, left the band in mid-1967 after a controversial San Francisco marijuana bust. He was quickly replaced by Jerry Yester, a member of the Modern Folk Quartet and friend of the band since its earliest days (Yester played piano on “Do You Believe In Magic” and did a number of vocal arrangements several years before he became an official member and also performed with The Monkees on their great Headquarters LP).
The band soldiered on, notching several more hits, including “Six O’Clock” and “She Is Still A Mystery.” Yet by June 1968, Sebastian had left the band to go solo, effectively signaling the end of the band as a studio outfit, although one more album, Revelation Revolution ’69, and several excellent singles (think “Me About You” and “Never Going Back”), featuring Butler on lead vocals, appeared.
Sebastian had the greatest solo success, touring constantly with just his guitar and voice. He performed an impromptu, well-received set at Woodstock, and a song of his [“I Had A Dream”] opened the best-selling album that documented the three-day experience.
His debut solo album, John B. Sebastian, charted in the Top 20 when finally released in 1970 after almost 18 months of legal wrangling. The songwriter had signed with Sinatra’s Reprise Records, but a loophole in his previous contract with MGM [the distributor of the Spoonful’s Kama Sutra recordings] had MGM claiming they could release his new material. Indeed, an unauthorized version of John B. Sebastian and a subsequent live concert hit the market for a time, confusing his fans.
Other significant Sebastian albums included The Four of Us and Tarzana Kid [featuring contributions from Little Feat leader Lowell George and Don Everly of the Everly Brothers]. As Sebastian focused more of his energy on TV soundtrack work, he surprised everyone in 1976 with a number one song entitled “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the beloved sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
Sebastian remains an active musician to this day. In the mid-’90s he returned to his first love, jug band music, forming John Sebastian and the J-Band. He has released several instructional videos of his best-known songs, and his latest album [2007’s Satisfied] found him collaborating in a bluegrass setting with mandolin master David Grisman. He was finally elected into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2008.
Sadly, Yanovksy only released one solo album in his career, 1968’s Alive and Well In Argentina. He later devoted most of his energy to being a successful restaurateur in Canada until his death from congestive heart failure in 2002. Fortunately, the guitarist was able to celebrate the Spoonful’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Boone became a respected producer and studio owner in Baltimore, operating Blue Seas Studios on an actual houseboat. Little Feat, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and Bonnie Raitt all recorded some of their best albums there. Boone unleashed his memoir, Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful, in 2014.
Butler largely forsook his drumming during the ’70s, opting to act on Broadway in such off-beat but still music-centered productions like Hair and Mahogany. He also wrote commercial jingles during this time.
As the years went by, Boone, Butler, and Yester were constantly reminded by fans how much they missed seeing the band in concert. After years of legal wrangling with their former label [now shortened to Sutra Records] finally came to a halt in 1991, a reunion inexplicably transpired.
Subsequently, the guys resumed touring [both Sebastian and Yanovksy declined offers], visiting hundreds of cities all over the world and spreading their sunny melodies to younger generations. Drummer Mike Arturi [Butler is often up front singing lead vocals or playing autoharp] and guitarist Phil Smith have kept the band’s lineup steady for over 15 years. 2016 marks the Spoonful’s 25th year as the reformed Lovin’ Spoonful. Visit their official website for all the latest tour dates.
As an aside, a recording of “Free Boys” [a catchy pop song about flying high, written by Butler and Yester that is performed at many of their shows] needs to see an official release, along with some more new music, if only on a download-only EP. The guys are too talented not to miss that opportunity.
If you’re new to the Spoonful, keep reading for a complete discography of their Billboard single chart appearances. Ten of their essential recordings then follow, and every song can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com. The timeless music of the Lovin’ Spoonful definitely isn’t going anywhere.
- Do You Believe In Magic [#9 POP July 1965]
- You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice [#10 POP November 1965]
- Daydream [#2 POP February 1966]
- Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind? [#2 POP May 1966]
- Summer In The City [#1 POP July 1966]
- Rain On The Roof [#10 POP October 1966]
- Nashville Cats [#8 POP December 1966]
- Full Measure [#87 POP December 1966; B-side of “Nashville Cats”]
- Darling Be Home Soon [#15 POP February 1967]
- Six O’Clock [#18 POP April 1967]
- She Is Still A Mystery [#27 POP October 1967]
- Money [#48 POP November 1967]
- Never Going Back [#73 POP July 1968]
- Me About You [#91 POP January 1969]
- Fishin’ Blues [Do You Believe In Magic LP, November 1965]
- Younger Girl [Do You Believe In Magic]
- Didn’t Want To Have To Do It [Daydream LP, March 1966]
- Warm Baby [Daydream]
- Lovin’ You [Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, November 1966]
- Darlin’ Companion [B-side of “Darling Be Home Soon:” Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- Coconut Grove [Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- You’re A Big Boy Now [A-side: on same April 1967 soundtrack]
- Younger Generation [A-side: Everything Playing, January 1968]
- (Till I) Run With You [A-side October 1968: Revelation Revolution ’69, March 1969]
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
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Exclusive Interview: When Bobbie Gentry burst onto the pop music landscape during the trippy Summer of Love with the mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe”, usurping the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? Gentry was an innovative lyricist who wove rural narratives together with ease and poignancy. “Billie Joe”, a brilliant Southern gothic tale sprinkled with controversial subject matter such as young love, a disapproving family, a baby born out of wedlock, and ultimate suicide, scratches the surface of her fascinating, albeit short-lived career. In “Ode to Bobbie G: The music and mystery of a Mississippi Delta Queen”, cowritten with Marshall Terrill, Gentry’s enduring significance and exactly why she abandoned the bright lights of fame for relative obscurity is explored in illuminating fashion with rare insight from her musicians, secretary, producer, and other close friends. Don’t miss it!
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Mark Lindsay, the ferocious former lead singer of ’60s garage rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders, left home at the tender age of 15 to pursue a rockabilly career in southern Idaho. Lying about his age so he could play seedy nightclubs, Lindsay ultimately met the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll during the filming of the iconic ’68 Comeback Special. When personnel changes threatened to derail the band’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, Lindsay and Revere acted immediately and planted the seeds for a swampier, more organic band incarnation perhaps best exemplified on their first gold-selling single, “Let Me.” Dubbed the Rebel Raiders, Lindsay has rarely explored this criminally ignored band era in-depth. That is, until now.
Further Reading: Although originally covered by the Beatles (John Lennon on lead), Smith truly captured the counterculture’s collective consciousness during the summer of Woodstock and Easy Rider with a fiery rendition of “Baby It’s You”, originally written by Brill Building pianist Burt Bacharach. A resounding Top Five single captained by the gorgeous, pre-American Idol Gayle McCormick belting the lyrics with intense abandon, the band inexplicably never had another hit. For the complete lowdown on why fans of classic ’60s rock still hold the performance in such high esteem, head on over to “One Hit Wonder Flashback: The Timeless Allure of Smith’s ‘Baby It’s You'”.
- Further Reading No. 2: Did you know that former Beatle George Harrison followed up his critically-acclaimed solo debut, the triple-LP All Things Must Pass, with another number one record featuring the drumming expertise of compadre Ringo Starr? Surprisingly, Living in the Material World contains one song that remains largely undiscovered by the general record buying public. “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” is a Beatlesque and pop-oriented track that deserved to be a hit single. No stone is left uncovered in the fascinating feature, “Rediscovering a Superb Love Song…”
- Further Reading No. 3: The Beach Boys were at a crossroads in the early ‘70s, exacerbated by Brian Wilson’s dwindling creativity. Fortunately for listeners everywhere, little brother Carl had a remedy. He had propitiously been demonstrating his burgeoning production skills since the soulful “Wild Honey” arrived with minimal fanfare in 1967. Gradually taking over the leadership reins from his elder brother, Carl was more than ready to put his stamp on the band’s 18th long player, along with a little help from two South African musicians with a penchant for hard driving rock ‘n’ roll, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. An in-depth feature on “Carl and the Passions – So Tough” sheds light on an often misunderstood period in the group’s renowned discography. At least for a season, this was not your parents’ square fun in the sun band anymore.
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