John Sebastian’s musical journey has taken him from Greenwich Village to The Lovin’ Spoonful to Woodstock to a notable solo career, with a lot of hit songs along the way, including “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City” and the theme song for Welcome Back, Kotter.
He talked to Noozhawk about the upcoming show and some of his musical milestones.
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Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at your upcoming show?
John Sebastian: I do a one guy/one guitar approach to describing 50 years of songwriting, and generally end up getting to most of the songs from the Spoonful era. There was also sort of a middle era — I guess the solo period, the Warner Brothers time — that I’ll touch on. Also, some of the music that was the stimulus for some of these songs, which were anything from jug band to Holland-Dozier-Holland.
JM: Have you ever performed in Santa Barbara before?
JS: Yes, I have, although [laughs] I’m afraid that on the spur of the moment I don’t have the venue. But I have, yeah.
JM: Probably my favorite of the Spoonful songs is “Summer in the City.” What’s the story behind that song?
JS: It was a wonderful collaboration with my brother Mark, who actually has lived in California more than he’s lived in New York at this point. He had written a song, and when I heard the chorus I said, “Wow, that’s amazing! I want to go and sort of work on the front end.” It already was a good song, I just wanted to make it more tense, so that when that chorus hits it’s as open as its chords invited you to be.
Then Steve Boone contributed the middle — I guess you could call it like a middle eight section — that was pivotal because then we got all these ideas about putting traffic on it. I think we really were referring to “An American in Paris,” the Gershwin piece, because he uses the instruments of the orchestra to create that section that’s traffic — [sings] “Bang bang bang oo-ah ah ah / eh eh eh oo-ah ah.” There’s a section there — next time you listen to it you’ll see it.
Roy Halee, as the engineer, created this wonderful situation. When Zal [Yanovsky] in particular said, “No, no! We want the backbeat even bigger. No, much bigger! Not even close!,” Roy took a microphone and put it eight floors up in a metal stairwell, pushed a Voice of God speaker in the bottom of the thing — actually, it was Voice of the Theater, but we called it the Voice of God for short — and then recorded the snare drum, all the time wowing the capstan on the board, and essentially creating a sound that he would go on to use in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and in “The Boxer.”
JM: I want to ask you about one of your big gigs as a solo artist — Woodstock. I understand that you weren’t on the program.
JS: Yes, that is correct. Not to belabor the point, because the story has been told 80,000 times. But yes, I wasn’t prepared. I went as a member of the audience, and when the rains came, I remember Michael [Lang], who was on the stage at the time, said, “You know, we’ve gotta find somebody with an acoustic guitar who could hold them until we sweep off the water. We can have an acoustic guitar.” And I didn’t realize until I looked around that he was talking directly at me. So I had to go find a guitar. I said, “I didn’t bring anything. Maybe I’ve got a thumb pick — I don’t know.” He said, “Well, you’ve got a few minutes to turn one up.” So I turned up a guitar from Timmy Hardin, who I had recorded with during days when I was an unknown. I was mainly a harmonica player with him.
JM: I used to watch Welcome Back, Kotter, and of course you did the theme song for that. How did you get that gig?
JS: Well, it was a very standard way where a producer calls my manager. It was like two guys from Brooklyn calling each other, going, “So, I’m looking for kind of like a New York guy to do a theme song. You know, it’s gotta be kind of like a John Sebastian kind of guy, or Dion DiMucci, or somebody.” And my manager says, “Well, that’s funny. Two weeks ago I really began graduating from his agent to his manager.” So I was in an office with the producer of the show, who was a very likable guy, who described the show at great length. I came up with that song very quickly. They liked it so much they changed the name of the show from “Kotter” to “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.