[16 February 2007]
Back in 1970, John Sebastian was the shit. Born and raised in Greenwich Village as the son of a musician, Sebastian grew up in the ‘50s hearing Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Mississippi John Hurt. In the early ‘60s, Sebastian was a key member of the Even Dozen Jug Band with other now famous—at least in folk circles—band mates like Maria D’Amato (Muldaur), David Grisman, Joshua Rifkin, Stefan Grossman, Steven Katz, and Peter Siegel. This band took old-time music to Carnegie Hall and television before breaking up. Sebastian then was a Mugwump with members of the soon to be the Mamas and the Papas who immortalized him in the song “Creque Alley” (“In a coffeehouse Sebastian sat/ And after every number they pass the hat”).
Sebastian went on to lead the folk rock pop band the Lovin’ Spoonful, who had many big hits during the mid-‘60s such as “Summer in the City”, “Do You Believe in Magic”, “Younger Girl”, “Daydream”, and “Darling Be Home Soon”. The Spoonful also provided soundtracks for the early films of two important directors: Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily and Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Spoonful as members for their many successes.
Sebastian went solo in 1968 and famously played at Woodstock a year later. His acoustic version of “I Had a Dream” on the best selling 1970 soundtrack to the movie opened this three-disc set. Audiences eagerly awaited his debut disc, John B. Sebastian, that was released the same year. In fact the disc was issued by two different big label record companies. Warner Brother’s Reprise subsidiary officially put out the album, but MGM claimed that Sebastian still owed them a record and made and distributed s second generation copy. The Warner Reprise album sold moderately well, but many fans at the time considered it somewhat of a disappointment.
John B. Sebastian has recently been reissued on a crisp sounding new CD, and the telescope of history shows both the assets and the flaws of Sebastian’s effort in great relief. On the positive side, Sebastian proves musically adventurous and covers many different styles well. He does the brassy R&B of “Baby, Don’t Ya Get Crazy” with the Ikettes on back-up vocals. There aren’t many people who can pronounce the word “baby” with more sex and soul than the Ikettes. Sebastian sings a straight-ahead country version of “Rainbows All Over Your Blues” with Buddy Emmons on steel guitar. While Sebastian had flirted with country music with the Spoonful, who had a hit with his tribute “Nashville Cats”, this track lacks all pop affectations. Sebastian does the British Invasion-style fey love song, “She’s a Lady” that echoes the sound of the Rolling Stones circa 1965, the harder rock of “What She Thinks About”, the soft tropical psychedelia of “Magical Connection,” the sparse and arty “The Room Nobody Lived In”, the singer-songwriter solo man and his guitar version of “You’re a Big Boy Now”, and the zany, light instrumental “Fa Fana Fa” that sounds like it’s played on nose flute.
Taken as a whole, John B. Sebastian offers many pleasures, but Sebastian was a guy who once penned hit tunes. There are no clear hits or catchy singles to be found here. The collage of different styles also made it hard to get a bead on the man. He lacked a clear identity and musically seemed to be in a holding pattern, unsure of what to do next. MGM muddied the picture even further by releasing a terrible audio quality live album to try to cash in further on Sebastian’s fame. His new record label countered with the satirically titled Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live John Sebastian that was miles better in terms of sound and performance than the MGM disc, but Sebastian’s career continued to flounder.
In 1974 Sebastian put out the genial Tarzana Kid, but this album too suffered from a lack of a discernable identity. He also seemed to be less than inspired on several of the tunes, including a lame version of “Dixie Chicken”, despite the support guitar playing of the original writer Lowell George and the golden-throated Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. Other covers were more successful, including Sebastian’s surprisingly wry version of Guy Mitchell’s 1956 hit “Singing the Blues” and Jimmy Cliff’s reggae anthem “Sitting in Limbo”. The self-penned material was also a problem. There wasn’t much of it here, and those songs that did appear were generally updates of previously written ones. The album sold poorly and didn’t even make the Billboard charts. Warner Reprise didn’t seem anxious to have Sebastian put out a new record.
Then something unexpected happened. Sebastian wrote the theme song to the smash television show Welcome Back, Kotter that became Sebastian’s first number one record as a solo artist. Warner quickly got Sebastian to put enough material together for a new album, called Welcome Back. The record has a light, bright appeal and a minimal level of production, presumably as a result of getting the thing together so fast. Several of the tunes are quite catchy pop songs that may have been hits in an earlier era, but by 1976 sounded weirdly old-fashioned. It would not be surprising if some American Idol-type star resurrected tunes like the jangly “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, the bouncy cantina rhythms of “Hideaway”, or the love ballad “I Needed Her Most When I Told Her to Go”. These still have the sound of potential hit records, but they weren’t at the time. The album didn’t do that well commercially, peaking at #79, and despite having a number one single, Sebastian was unceremoniously dropped by his record label.
Commercially, Sebastian has not been a presence during the last three decades. His old Lovin’ Spoonful records still show up on movie soundtracks and oldies radio, but his solo efforts rarely dent the airwaves. Collectors’ Choice, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, has cleaned up the masters and re-presented his solo CDs to the boomer audience that didn’t purchase them the first time. This seems a worthwhile project. These are too valuable to be forgotten. The discs also contain informative new liner notes about the original recordings and what artists played on them, which is a great added bonus.