John Sebastian

John Sebastian at Woodstock 1969

John Sebastian, born today in 1944 will always be remembered as an icon of the rock era. His work with the Lovin’ Spoonful, an appearance at Woodstock and penning the TV theme “Welcome Back” helped cement his place in the history of rock and roll.

Spoonful’s prime included the chart-topping “Daydream” and “Summer in the City,” plus rock classics, “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” “Rain on the Roof,” “Nashville Cats,” and “Darling Be Home Soon”. Nearly a decade later, John Sebastian would return to the charts with his number one hit theme song from the Gabe Kaplan Comedy “Welcome Back Kotter,” in 1976.

Sebastian contributed to hit records for many other artists and his music found its way to stage and film. He was also a prolific musician. His harmonica graced hits for the likes Judy CollinsCrosby, Stills & Nashthe DoorsBob Dylanthe Everly BrothersArt GarfunkelGordon LightfootLaura NyroGraham ParkerDolly PartonPeter, Paul & MaryJohn Prine, and Bonnie Raitt.

John Sebastian grew up in a show-business household. His father played the harmonica and his mother was a writer for Golden Age radio programs. Growing up in Greenwich Village, he was a regular on stage and in nightclubs by age 16. He was famously and briefly a member of the Mugwumps, along with future Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky and future Mamas and the Papas Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. The Lovin’ Spoonful came together in the winter of 1964-1965

MGM’s Kama Sutra Records signed the Spoonful in the summer of 1965 and the band had immediate success with “Do You Believe in Magic.” Sebastian polished his personal brand as the lead singer on every single the band recorded during his membership. In addition to their string of folk rock hits, The Lovin’ Spoonful graced  the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s film What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and, Francis Ford Coppola‘s You’re a Big Boy Now.

By 1968, John Sebastian was ready for solo career. Despite being recruited to join the group that would become Crosby, Stills & Nash, he signed with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records,. His work there was delayed by legal wranglings with his former Kama Sutra label.

Sebastian made a memorable, last minute appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 (Video). He was backstage and was talked into performing during a set change. Despite being a bit hobbled by recreational drug use, his act was well received and can be seen in the hit film.

By the 1970s, John Sebastian’s career had slowed down. He recorded a number of  LPs, none of which made much noise. It was when he was approached to write a theme song for a new television series starring comedian Gabe Kaplan that he came back to the forefront of our consciousness with the theme from 1975’s Welcome Back, Kotter. His performance of the tune over the closing credits was the best possible product placement and “Welcome Back” became Sebastian’s last Number 1.

John Sebastian never left the stage. He continued to perform at concerts, contributed to other artists’ records. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Lovin’ Spoonful in 2000.

Today in History: March 17

1754: The First St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated.
1905: Albert Einstein finishes his scientific paper detailing his Quantum Theory of Light, one of the foundations of modern physics
1956: Henny Youngman is the guest host as Elvis Presley makes the fifth of his six appearances on Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show on CBS.
1956: Carl Perkins makes his first TV appearance, on the Ozark Jamboree.
1957: Elvis Presley bought the Graceland mansion from Mrs Ruth Brown-Moore for $102,500.
1958: The Coasters record “Yakety Yak.”
1967: Working at Abbey Road studios in London, The Beatles finished the recording of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ after adding backing vocals to the track. Harpist Sheila Bromberg who was part of the string section on the track became the first woman to play on a Beatles recording.
1968: The Bee Gees appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, marking their first appearance on American TV.
1973: Dr Hook‘s single ‘On The Cover Of Rolling Stone’ peaked at No.6 on the US chart. The single was banned in the UK by the BBC due to the reference of the magazine.
1973: Yes‘s The Yes Album and Yessongs are both certified Gold.
1975: Cher appears on the cover of Time magazine.
1978: The Irish high school band U2, which just recently changed their name from The Hype, win the Limerick Civic Week Pop ’78 talent competition, earning about $1,000 and a chance to record a demo for CBS Records.
1978: The Alan Freed biopic American Hot Wax, widely considered one of the best Rock and Roll movies of all time, premieres in New York City, featuring appearances and performances by Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
1991: Seven members of Reba McEntire‘s band, as well as her road manager and two pilots, are killed when their plane crashes near the Mexican border after a performance in San Diego. McEntire, along with two members of her band and some of her road crew, were on a different plane that took off before the one that crashed.

Today’s Birthdays:

1919: Nat King Cole is born Nathaniel Adams Cole in Montgomery, Alabama, but would be raised in Chicago, Illinois. (d. 1965).
1938: Zola Taylor (of The Platters) is born in Los Angeles, California. (d. 2007)
1941: Paul Kantner, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, is born in San Francisco. (d. 2016)
1944: Pattie Boyd is born in Taunton, Somerset, England. She would later marry George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and also inspire the song “Layla.”
1944: John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful is born in New York City.
1946: Harold Ray Brown (percussionist, vocalist for War) is born in Long Beach, California.
1948: Fran Byrne (drummer for Ace) is born in Dublin, Ireland.
1949: Patrick Duffy, actor (Bobby-Dallas, Man from Atlantis), born in Townsend, Montana
1951: Scott Gorham (of Thin Lizzy, Supertramp) is born in Glendale, California.
1951: Kurt Russell, actor (Thing, Overboard, Mean Seasons), born in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1955: Gary Sinise, American actor (Apollo 13, CSI: NY, Forrest Gump), born in Blue Island Illinois.
1959: Mike Lindup (keyboardist, singer for Level 42) is born in London, England.

One for the Road: Here’s John Sebastian on Auto Harp, fronting the Lovin’ Spoonful on “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.”

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit