John Sebastian was brought up in New York’s Greenwich Village. His father played classical harmonica and his mother was a radio playwright. John (aged 16) enjoyed folk music and sang at the local folk clubs and coffee houses. By the time he was 18 he was a ’sideman’ on recordings. John Sebastian played bass on Bob Dylan's first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home.
Zal Yanovsky was Canadian and moved to New York with Denny Doherty (Mamas and the Papas). In 1964, the flamboyant Zal Yanovsky met John Sebastian in Cass Elliot’s apartment when they were invited to watch the Beatles make their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Zal, Cass and Denny were in a folk group called Mugwumps and asked John to join them. John and Zal hit it off and were keen to explore the new sounds of the Beatles so they got together with Steve Boone (bass) and Joe Butler (drummer) to form the Lovin' Spoonful in early1965. The band took their name from a verse from a Mississippi John Hurt blues song and of all the American bands of the time, combined most aspects of popular American music including jug-band into what John Sebastian termed “good-time music”. The name stuck and The Lovin’ Spoonful had seven Top 10 hits in the three years. John Sebastian took lead vocals and sang with rather a flat voice and finger-picked his guitar whilst Zal kept the tunes light and lilting. Kama Sutra Records signed the Lovin' Spoonful in 1965 and they released their first single, "Do You Believe in Magic."
It peaked in the US Top Ten, and was quickly followed by "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," which did reasonably well but their third single, "Daydream," was a number one hit.
John Sebastian wrote most of the group’s material and was very impressed with the Motown musicians when the Spoonful toured with the Supremes. Through the influence of the Funk Bros and listening to “Where did our love go” and Baby Love, John was able to develop the rhythmic shuffle heard on “Daydream.”
More hits followed with "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?," and the classy "Summer in the City," which became their second number one hit.
1967 saw the Lovin’ Spoonful again riding high on the charts with "Rain on the Roof," and the absolutely brilliant "Nashville Cats."
The group’s albums also sold well. When not in the studio the band toured almost constantly and was one of the first rock bands to perform on college campuses. Zal was the clown prince of rock 'n' roll and when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, he had a rubber frog dangling from the neck of his guitar.
John and he were notorious merrymakers onstage adding considerably to their live performance. In the 70s, Dr Hook and the Medicine Show adopted a similar chaotic live act to very good effect. In 1966, the Loving Spoonful music was very popular and they wrote and performed two soundtrack albums for up and coming directors: Woody Allen "What’s Up Tiger Lily?" (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola "You're a Big Boy Now." (1966).
Their next hit single, “Darling , be home soon" came from the “You’re a big boy now’ album and was followed up by “Six O’Clock.”
Despite their success problems arose when Zal Yanovsky and Steve Boone were ’busted’ on marijuana charges in May 1966. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a “hippy band” (counter culture) and when Zal Yanovsky and Steve Boone named their supplier to avoid prosecution (and deportation for Yanovsky) the Spoonful received negative publicity that seriously damaged their commercial appeal. Zal Yanovsky left the band to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jerry Yester (Modern Folk Quartet). The band parted ways with their producer, Erik Jacobsen in the same year and their last chart entry was "She's Still a Mystery."
In 1968, John Sebastian left the band to go solo. Joe, Steve and Jerry continued as the Lovin’ Spoonful and had a minor success with "Never Goin' Back" which featured the legendary Nashville session musician, Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar.
The Loving Spoonful broke up in 1969. John Sebastian started working on solo projects after rejecting an invitation to join a trio of his friends, Dave Crosby, Stephen Stills & Graham Nash. He had a minor chart success with “She’s a lady” which was originally written for a Broadway play called ‘Jimmy Shine“ (starring Dustin Hoffman).
When John Sebastian changed his record company, legal problems ensued and inferior recordings were released. Meantime John made an impromptu appearance at Woodstock (1969) to much acclaim giving him a new status as a rock festival favourite. Despite this however his record sales were disappointing.
In 1975 John was asked to write a theme song for a new television series, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter‘ (featuring John Travolta). Both series and single were instantly successful and John was back in the US charts in 1976 but this was to be his swan song as a pop singer.
John Sebastian carried on performing as a solo artist and has made many guest appearances on other artist’s recordings. In the nineties he formed a jug band called John Sebastian and the J-Band and they played in Greenwich Village venues. The Loving Spoonful reformed in 1991 with Joe, Steve and Jerry and they still perform. After a brief solo career Zal became a restaurateur in Canada until his untimely death in 2002.
Worth a listen:
Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind (1965)
You Didn't Have to Be So Nice (1965)
Do You Believe in Magic? (1965)
Summer in the City (1966)
Nashville Cats (1966)
Darlin' Be Home Soon (1967)
Six O-Clock (1967)
She's Still A Mystery To Me (1967)
Welcome Back (1976)