The Lovin’ Spoonful

 The Lovin’ Spoonful

 John Sebastian – circa 1967

 “Pull down a washboard / And play a guitar chord / And do a little do-it-yourself” – ‘Jug Band Music’ (John Sebastian)

“On NBC–TV this weekend: the new television program ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful’!  See the zany antics of the happy-go-lucky pop group!  Hear their fantastic hit songs!  Fun for everyone!”  Do not adjust your set: No such TV show ever existed.  The success of the film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964) starring British rock sensations The Beatles sends American television producers in search of a Yankee answer to the foreign phenomenon.  NBC auditions The Lovin’ Spoonful but decides ‘that an already existing group would cause too many problems’ and elects to create a band.  The result is The Monkees.  So, no, there never was a ‘Lovin’ Spoonful’ TV show, but, for a while, it looked like a genuine possibility…

The story of The Lovin’ Spoonful starts with John Sebastian (born 17 March 1944).  He is born in New York to a creative family.  “My father was a classical musician…My mother wrote for radio,” Sebastian recalls.  [She was also an administrator for the Carnegie Hall venue.]  Sebastian Senior was actually a harmonica virtuoso.  Unsurprisingly, young John develops a talent for the mouth-organ as well.  As an adolescent, John Sebastian begins playing folk music in Greenwich Village.  He sings, plays guitar, harmonica and autoharp.  He gets session work playing harmonica on some recordings by folk artists such as Tom Rush and Fred Neil.  He goes on to work with the Even Dozen Jug Band under the pseudonym of John Benson.

In May 1964 John Sebastian joins other aspiring performers in a band called The Mugwumps.  One of this group is Zal Yanovsky (born Zalman Yanovsky, 19 December 1944 -13 December 2002).  Zal (pronounced ‘Zoll’) is a guitarist born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Other persons involved include Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott.  The Mugwumps play ‘primitive folk rock of a sort.’  The Mugwumps last until November 1964.  Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott go on to help form another outfit, The Mamas And The Papas.

John Sebastian spends some time in the southern parts of the United States, collecting folk songs and talking to blues musicians.  He returns to New York’s Greenwich Village.  In 1965 record producer Eric Jacobson convinces John Sebastian to put together a new group and record Sebastian’s own songs.  The first person he enlists is Zal Yanovsky.  These ‘two folkies from Greenwich Village’ join with ‘two rockers from Long Island’, Steven Boone (born 23 September 1943) and Joe Butler (born 16 September 1941).  With these components in place, The Lovin’ Spoonful are constituted as: John Sebastian (vocals, guitar, harmonica, autoharp, keyboards), Zal Yanovsky (lead guitar), Steve Boone (bass, keyboards) and Joe Butler (drums, vocals).

Officially, the name ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful’ is derived from a reference in blues musician Mississippi John Hurt’s song ‘Coffee Blues’.  There have been other suggested sources for the name though they are not officially acknowledged.  In keeping with the band’s folk music origins, ‘a lovin’ spoonful’ was thought to be a reference from old-fashioned recipes for ‘a heaped teaspoon’.  A salacious possibility is that ‘a lovin’ spoonful’ is the amount of ejaculate produced by an adult male at the height of orgasm.  Yet another version has it that ‘a lovin’ spoonful’ is a dose of the illicit drug heroin given by injection.  This last one is true so far as it goes, but (a) it isn’t the source of the group’s name; and (b) it may post-date the band’s activities.

As stated earlier, The Lovin’ Spoonful is built around the songs of John Sebastian.  This makes him the group’s leader.  In later years, drummer Joe Butler becomes the band’s alternate vocalist.

“Zal and I wanted to form a band that would love [blues man] Elmore James as much as it loved [country and western artist] George Jones,” John Sebastian muses, before undercutting the observation with this humorous aside: “They called it ‘folk rock’, which kind of took the fun out of it.”  Nonetheless, folk rock is indeed the designation most often placed on The Lovin’ Spoonful.  Its application here is apparent in the description of Sebastian and Yanovsky as ‘folkies’ and Boone and Butler as ‘rockers’.  Folk music is gentle, thoughtful, and political music, usually played on acoustic instruments.  Rock ‘n’ roll is loud, aggressive, and built for dancing and parties.  Folk rock fuses these different characteristics and, typically, is a sort of gentle pop with a strong beat.  The Lovin’ Spoonful are ‘more influenced by blues and jug bands than other folk rock acts.’  Blues is the music, primarily, of African-Americans.  John Sebastian took an interest in blues during his wanderings in the south.  The band’s name is derived from a blues song.  Yet, the music’s biggest legacy for this group is in Sebastian’s harmonica-playing.  Although there is no shortage of harmonica players in folk music, Sebastian’s style owes a greater debt to the fiery, emotive blues harmonica than the wheezy musical thickener of folk.  Jug bands are a more homemade relative of folk.  In a jug band, a heavy chest or trunk with a broom handle and a string attached may act as a bass.  A washboard [a wooden implement used for scrubbing clothes before washing machines became commonplace] is ‘scratched’ by fingers clad in thimbles to achieve a percussive pattern, and, most importantly, a mason jar becomes a wind instrument when the ‘player’ blows over the lip of the ‘jug’.  None of these makeshift instruments are used by The Lovin’ Spoonful, but the rickety, good-time clatter is a model for their sound.

Perhaps the element that most distinguishes The Lovin’ Spoonful from their folk rock brethren is their sense of humour.  Their willingness to be a bit silly and smile is endearing.  It’s this sort of clowning around that makes the TV producers see them as equivalent to The Beatles’ knockabout charm and sets the template for The Monkees’ light-hearted pop.  “We were very intent on getting whatever fun we could have on [recording] tape,” claims John Sebastian.

The Lovin’ Spoonful begins gigging around New York and gains a residency at the Night Owl Café.  Phil Spector, the legendary record producer of the late 1950s – early 1960s, displays some interest in the band, but they end up signing with Kama Sutra Records.

The first single by The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Do You Believe In Magic?’ (US no. 9), is released on 20 July 1965.  “Do you believe in magic / In a young girl’s heart / How the music can free her / Whenever it starts?” asks John Sebastian in the lyrics.  It’s a romping, high-spirited song that “Makes you feel happy like an old-time movie.”

This song also appears on the debut album by The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Do You Believe In Magic?’ (1965) (US no. 32).  The album includes an irreverent take on ‘Blues In A Bottle’ and the equally tongue-in-cheek ‘My Gal’, another traditional blues song.  John Sebastian shares a credit with Steve Boone for the scorching harmonica-led instrumental ‘Night Owl Blues’, a title that nods to their days at the Night Owl Café.  These three songs are more blues-oriented than anything the group will later record.  Their pop side is represented by the title track and another song, ‘Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’, which, strangely, is not released as a single until later (more on that song in due course).

The second hit single for The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965 is ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’ (US no. 10).  With a chiming melody and a giddy romanticism, John Sebastian sings, “You didn’t have to be so nice / I would have liked you anyway / If you had just looked once or twice / And gone upon your quiet way.”  Again, Sebastian shares the song-writing credit with bassist Steve Boone.

‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’ is included on the group’s second album, ‘Daydream’ (1966) (US no. 10).  The title track, ‘Daydream’ (US no. 2, UK no. 2), marries a carefree guitar lick to a yawning slide guitar for a gorgeous tribute to laziness.  “I’m blowing the day to take a walk in the sun / And fall on my face on somebody’s new-mowed lawn,” chuckles John Sebastian.  In between harmonica touches, he whistles along with the song’s melody.  Paul McCartney of The Beatles later tells Sebastian that ‘Daydream’ influences the British group’s ‘Good Day Sunshine’ from later in the same year.  ‘Jug Band Music’ is a more comical piece, with each verse ending with the assertion “And the doctor said / Give him jug band music / It seem to make him feel just fine.”  This line is followed throughout the song by a neat, thoughtful bass line from Steve Boone.

‘Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’ (US no. 2), originally heard on the first album by The Lovin’ Spoonful, becomes the band’s next single.  It is constructed from an electric piano and a goofy guitar lick that sounds like it should be on a television advertising jingle.  John Sebastian acts as part-singer, part-stand-up comedian, crooning “Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her / Then you get distracted by her older sister / When in walks her father and takes you aside / Say [in a deep voice] ‘You better go home, son, and make up your mind.’”

The next project for The Lovin’ Spoonful is the soundtrack album for ‘What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?’ (1966) (US no. 126), one of the earliest films by writer / director / star Woody Allen.

The Lovin’ Spoonful’s finest moment comes with ‘Summer In the City’ (US no. 1, UK no. 8), a single that tops the charts in August 1966.  This is an atypical ‘tough-minded’ effort co-written by John Sebastian and Steve Boone.  Over a nagging electric piano, John Sebastian hollers “Hot town / Summer in the city / Back of my neck / Getting dirty and gritty / Pinned down / Isn’t it a pity? / Doesn’t seem to be / A shadow in the city.”  The discomfort of the sweltering day is almost compensated for in the evening because “At night / It’s a different world.”  The song pauses in its momentum for the sounds of traffic and jack-hammers tearing up the street.

‘Summer In The City’ is part of the group’s best album, ‘Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful’ (1966) (US no. 14).  ‘Full Measure’ (US no. 87), written by John Sebastian and Steve Boone, is a big production number.  More satisfying are a quartet of Sebastian solo compositions.  ‘Rain On The Roof’ (US no. 10) is a delicate “summer shower” with the guitar notes falling like the lightest of raindrops.  ‘Nashville Cats’ (US no. 8, UK no. 26) is a laughing commentary that observes “Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar-pickers in Nashville / And they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill.”  With an envious shrug, Sebastian admits, “That anyone who unpacks his guitar can play twice as better than I will” – with apologies to lovers of correct grammar.  ‘Sittin’Here Lovin’ You’ is a warped, country thigh-slapper.  ‘Darlin’ Companion’ is a hoedown love-in.  ‘Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful’ is the best attempt to bind together the disparate strands that make up the group’s sound.

Another soundtrack album by The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ (1967) (US no. 160), accompanies the work of another film-maker who goes on to bigger and better things in a few years: Francis Ford Coppola.  This soundtrack includes ‘Darlin’ Be Home Soon’ (US no. 15, UK no. 44) a song that strives for profundity, pitting its essentially acoustic arrangement against a swelling string section.

Things take a turn for the serious when Zal Yanovsky and Steve Boone are arrested in California in 1967 for possession of marijuana.  The drug culture associated with pop music is still, at this time, something that is relatively unspoken.  This bust soils the Spoonful’s public image as happy minstrels.  The duo gets out of trouble with the authorities by naming their sources, who turn out to be ‘some of San Francisco’s best-connected drug-suppliers.’  In retaliation, members of the counter culture urge a boycott on The Lovin’ Spoonful.  It probably doesn’t make a lot of difference since the band’s fans are mainly average suburban teenagers rather than hippie drop-outs.  Still, it seems like the band are copping it from both sides: the drug-bust taints their clean image with the mainstream, and the far-left fringe audience loathes them for ‘betraying’ their drug-suppliers.

Zal Yanovsky quits the band in mid-1967.  Taking his place is Jerry Yester (born 9 February 1943) from The Modern Folk Quartet.  His brother, Jim Yester, is a member of another folk rock act, The Association, whose hits include such songs as ‘Cherish’ in 1966 and ‘Windy’ in 1967.

The Lovin’ Spoonful rack up three more singles in 1967.  ‘She’s Still A Mystery To Me’ (US no. 27) is followed by ‘Six O’Clock’ (US no. 18).  The latter is a tale of a young Romeo too excited to sleep as the guitars tick off the seconds.  ‘Money’ (US no. 48) is the third of this clutch.  These songs are included on ‘Everything’s Playing’ (1967) (US no. 118), along with John Sebastian’s witty ‘Boredom’, a strum-along “in a bleak motel” that chronicles the pitfalls of life on the road.  The album also looks at ageing from two different perspectives.  ‘Younger Generation’ is a fantastical portrait of the future while ‘Old Folks’, co-written and sung by drummer Joe Butler, shows sympathy for senior citizens.

On 12 October 1968 John Sebastian leaves the group.  The Lovin’ Spoonful ‘straggles on briefly under the helm of [drummer] Joe Butler.’  ‘Revelation Revolution’ (1969) features a version of California folkie John Stewart’s ‘Never Goin’ Back’ (US no. 73) with Butler on vocals and Nashville session man Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar.  After this, The Lovin’ Spoonful ceases operations.

John Sebastian appears solo at the Woodstock festival, 15 – 17 August 1969.  He has a fitful solo career most notable for ‘Stories We Could Tell’ from the ‘Tarzana Kid’ (1974) album and, in 1976, ‘Welcome Back’ (US no. 1), the theme song from the U.S. television series ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ (1975 – 1979).

The four original members of The Lovin’ Spoonful – John Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone and Joe Butler – briefly reunite for a concert at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills Mountains in New York State in 1979 and to film an appearance in the movie ‘One Trick Pony’ (1980) starring fellow folk rock veteran Paul Simon.

In 1991 a version of The Lovin’ Spoonful is reactivated for concert tours.  Joe Butler (vocals), Jerry Yester (guitar) and Steve Boone (bass) are joined by Jerry’s brother Jim Yester (vocals, guitar) and John Marrella (drums).  Jim Yester leaves in 1992 to be replaced in 1993 by Lena Yester (vocals, keyboards), Jerry’s daughter – and Jim’s niece.  Mike Arturi (drums) takes over from John Marrella in 1996.  Phil Smith (guitar) joins in 2000 as Lena Yester exits.

Zal Yanovsky dies from a heart attack on 13 December 2002.

There was never a Lovin’ Spoonful television series but, in their heyday, they would have made for entertaining viewing.  They were colourful extroverts.  The Lovin’ Spoonful were witty and warm and found a place for good humour in their enchanting pop classics.  The Lovin’ Spoonful were ‘a crafty combination of infernal affability, cartoon costumes, rock & roll and jug band music…[and] John Sebastian’s breathy vocals and tie-dye vision were nothing if not pleasant…’  They brought ‘a goodtime jug band ethic to popular music, endearing themselves with a string of cheerful melodic hits.’

Sources:

  1. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 180, 206
  2. nj.com – ‘Cool Stuff: John Sebastian interview’ conducted by Mark Voger (29 October 2010)
  3. allmusic.com, ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful’ by Richie Unterberger as at 15 January 2002
  4. wikipedia.org as at 6 May 2013
  5. The Official Lovin’ Spoonful Page (lovinspoonful.com as at 14 January 2002)
  6. urbandictionary.com as at 3 June 2013
  7. classicbands.com – John Sebastian interview (as at 6 May 2013)
  8. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 104, 119, 132, 149, 161
  9. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Folk Rock’ by Paul Nelson (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 316
  10. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 134, 240

Song lyrics copyright EMI Music Publishing with the exception of ‘Summer In The City’ (Robbin Music Corp. Ltd / EMI), ‘Rain On The Roof’ (EMI Catalogue Partnership) and ‘Boredom’ (Warner / Chappell Music Ltd / Control)

Last revised 19 November 2013

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