Surprisingly few songwriters have a natural ability to convey warmth. Performers can do it, and composers can turn it on when the lyric requires, but only now and then does one come across a songwriter who can put a smile on your face within a couple of bars.
Hoagy Carmichael had it, as did Fats Waller. In the last 50 years, I can think of Bjorn and Benny of Abba, Carole King, Sam Cooke, maybe James Taylor – then I’m struggling.
But I’d certainly include the hugely under-rated John Sebastian on the list.
Sebastian wrote a handful of hits for the Lovin’Spoonful between 1965 and 1967. His career lasted beyond the break-up of the group, with a successful, unscheduled appearance at Woodstock (he was there as an audience member and the stage was too wet for leads and they needed an acoustic act to fill in). He’s still working and reminiscing happily about those days but will always be associated with the crazy, hippy-dippy days of the mid- to late-sixties.
At first glance, the Lovin’ Spoonful look like a generic group of the time – the west coast zaniness, the granny glasses, the drugs busts – but I suspect that Sebastian’s best songs (Do You Believe in Magic?, ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mindd’, Daydream’, ‘Summer in the City’ will be being listened to when many of the flashier songs of the time have become period pieces.
In an interview, John Sebastian has said:
‘I think that my past stands me in good stead in that it does have a certain strength for musicians. In other words, musicians know that going back to the Spoonful, what we were doing was not copying. It was original. These are all things that stand you in good stead in the long run.’
Not copying is the key. John Sebastian was always his own man. His songs, which were described as ‘good time music’, have a wit and charm that are unmistakably his own.
Musically, he brings together the Greenwich Village influences of the early 1960s – the mainstream folk of the Kingston Trio, the new folk of Van Ronk and Dylan, some jazz, some roots, an echo of Tin Pan Alley, even a touch of 1950s doo-wop music. And, of course, the Beatles were coming.
The Lovin’ Spoonful were created at the moment when the Beatles were conquering the world – indeed their music was a reaction to the British invasion. It was while watching the Fab Four playing the Ed Sullivan Show on a TV at Mama Cass’s flat that Sebastian met guitarist Zalk Yanovsky and the idea of forming a group emerged.
‘We didn’t want to imitate these guys. We were going to look like regular street guys.’
Sebastian’s musical influences took him back to the jug-band music of the 1920s which he gave a gentle, witty 1960s makeover. I love his easy melodies and the quiet swing and wit of his lyrics. Now and then (notably in his 1976 TV theme-time hit ‘Welcome Back‘) he reminds me of early Randy Newman.
These are not songs are going to change the world – they are catching small everyday moments and that’s more difficult than it looks. John Sebastian had not only absorbed and learned from American music of the past but was determined for his own personal voice to come through in a way that was quite unusual at the time. Unsurprisingly, Ray and Dave Davies were Lovin’ Spoonful fans. He was, in a way, a precursor of the great wave of singer-songwriters of the early 1970s.
His lyrical voice is entirely his own – something which may have been the influence of his mother who wrote for radio.
‘Having the skill to write funny, which is what my mother could do, is the most valuable thing, i think. You know, writing songs – it really comes in there.’
‘Nashville Cats’ is a sweet, light song paying tribute to a part of America where not only did everyone seem to play the guitar, but they also played really well.
It has a country-ish groove but it’s an outsider’s view of country music (although it has become a great bluegrass standard when played by the Del McCoury Band ). I love the way the lyrics, with their tumbling rhythm and little internal rhymes, drive the song forward.
‘Yeah, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a
Musical proverbial knee-high
When I heard a couple new-sounding tunes on the tubes
And they blasted me sky-high.
And the record man said every one is a Yellow Sun
Record from Nashville
And up North there ain’t nobody buys them
And I said, “But I will!”‘
John Sebastian has been happy to talk about those days and do new takes on the old songs – the recent version by the black country singer Tony Jackson, with Sebastian happily mouthing the words as he does backing vocals, is particularly worth watching.
But it’s the Lovin’ Spoonful, with their distinctive production who most perfectly – ‘clean as country water’ – capture that moment in musical history.
Good time music indeed. Thank you, John Sebastian.