Although pop-rock legend John Sebastian has never written his autobiography, his one-man show leads audiences through the evolving landscape of Greenwich Village folk music venues, the mid-1960s formation of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and even his contributions to Canadian-American animated films like, The Care Bears Movie. You really had to live through the sixties to get some of the references made at Sebastian’s sold-out Kahilu concert last Tuesday. If you didn’t, well, as the song says, “It’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll.”
Sebastian, 74, opened with a Mississippi John Hurt song called “I’m Satisfied.” He reminisced about watching one of the blues singer’s shows at the Gas Light Café with Zal Yanovsky and observing how college-aged women were attracted to musicians. Sebastian and guitarist Yanovsky formed The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1964. The influence for the band’s name came from a line in Hurt’s “Coffee Blues” – “I declare, I got to have my lovin’ spoonful.”
Sebastian talked about the Spoonful’s difficult early Greenwich Village days while struggling at the Night Owl Cafe. Hoping to attract screaming teenage girls like The Beatles did, they instead had an audience of old Italian men who sipped espresso and played cards in front of the stage. “I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us when we got fired,” remembered Sebastian. The Mamas & The Papas later referenced these pass-the-hat clubs and the Spoonful in the song “Creeque Alley.”
Sans his signature autoharp, Sebastian switched between an acoustic Heritage guitar and a beautiful honey-walnut Veillette electric. He spoke about being influenced by the melody of Martha and The Vandellas big hit “Heat Wave,” and how, if he sped up the tempo, and was careful, it could become the genesis for a new song. In 1965, Spoonful’s “Do You Believe In Magic” peaked at number 9 on Billboard’s charts. Sebastian got the audience to sing along on the closing line “Do you believe like I believe.”
Sebastian said he had great expectations for the group’s success when they landed a multi-week gig at a club in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it was at a strip club called Mother’s, and they shared the bill with a topless dancer by the name of Maria – she even danced alongside of them during their sets. “I could have done this forever,” joked Sebastian of the awkward arrangement.
Like his re-working of “Heat Wave,” Sebastian admitted that he made a few lyrical changes to the 1930’s song “Prison Wall Blues” and came up with the hit “Younger Girl.” “Sometimes songwriters can be good guys, but they can also be kleptomaniacs,” confessed the guitarist. The Spoonful had a steady run of the charts from 1965 to 1967, and eventually broke up in 1969 when psychedelic hard rock bands became the latest craze.
Sebastian led us on journey though the 1970s when he returned to the charts with an unexpected No. 1 single “Welcome Back,” the theme song to the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. He spoke about music he wrote for animated children films like 1985’s The Care Bears Movie – “Nobody Cares Like A Bear.” This and similar tunes appear on a compilation called Short Songs for Shorter People, which he sells exclusively at his concerts like the show at the Kahilu.
Sebastian played a lovely instrumental version of “Walk Right Back,” a 1961 Sonny Curtis tune covered by The Everly Brothers. Sebastian and mandolinist David Grisman featured it on their 2007 album Satisfied. Both were members of The Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964.
Just before the encore, the Kahilu’s Executive Director Deb Goodwin came out to place maile lei around Sebastian’s neck. The green leafy lei is a symbol of respect, peace, friendship and love. Goodwin sponsored the concert, and we’re all glad she brought this music legend our way.
I’m Satisfied | Just Don’t Stop ‘Till You’re All Worn Out | Automobile Blues | Heat Wave | Do You Believe in Magic | You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice | Jug Band Music | Walk Right In | Prison Wall Blues | Younger Girl | Strings of Your Heart| Walk Right Back | Coffee Blues | Lovin’ You | Easter Been Very Good to Me | Nobody Cares Like a Bear | |Welcome Back | Wild About My Lovin’ | My Passing Fantasy | Don’t You Just Know It | Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind | Daydream
Darlin’ Be Home Soon
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby
Read my interview with John Sebastian here: https://bigislandmusic.net/talking-story-with-john-sebastian/