CD Review: John Sebastian – Life and Times 1964-1999 (Raven Records)

Onetime leader of ’60’s rock hitmakers The Lovin’ Spoonful and later a solo artist with a monster hit called “Welcome Back” which was used as the theme for the ’70’s television sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter John Sebastian has been fairly silent for the past 30 years or so. While has released the occasional solo album during that time and has made a few guest appearances on others’ albums, Sebastian for the most part has eschewed the music business, content to mount the occasional solo tour for the true believers and live comfortably on the sizable royalty checks nostalgia brings to his mailbox.

I say these things not to denigrate the man. Most, for good or bad, tend to feel that a musician needs to constantly be pushing – pushing forward struggling with their art and trying to get it heard, to swing for the brass ring no matter what. What’s the point if you’re not rich or famous or your music doesn’t get heard, they say. Here’s a man who’s seemingly found what most artists want but what their restless muse and need for acceptance won’t allow them to have: contentment. Sebastian long ago decided he was making his music on his terms and not when a major label pulled his strings. As such, he’s mostly forgotten now – but Sebastian had huge hits when he was at his peak, quite a few of them in fact, and his place in rock history is assured.

As it should be.

After a childhood spent immersed in music and the arts (his mother was a radio show writer and his father a harmonica virtuoso) Sebastian formed the Lovin’ Spoonful (the name comes from an old Mississippi John Hurt lyric “I love my baby ’bout a lovin’ spoonful” and refers to the fact that the average male ejaculation equals about a tablespoonful of semen) after spending time backing up folk artists on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene and playing in a few jug bands specializing honest-to-goodness folk music. Together with Canadian guitarist Zal Yanovsky (who Sebastian met while both were playing in a short-lived band called The Mugwumps with future members of The Mamas and The Papas) the two recruited bassist/pianist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler to form The Lovin’ Spoonful. Mixing his folk tendencies with the rock brought by the other bandmembers led to a country-rock hybrid which sounded right at home with bands like The Beau Brummels, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who were also coming into their own around this same time. The band lasted several years and began to splinter when Yanovsky left after the band’s third album. Without his friend, Sebastian decided to break free of the band and devote himself to a solo career and so the multi-instrumentalist broke up his band and went out on his own. Unfortunately, though his first album was hotly anticipated, it sold poorly as did his followups. He had a monster hit with The Welcome Back Kotter theme in the mid-’70’s but the album including his song was the last in his current contract with his label and they opted not to renew, leaving the singer with the huge Top-10 hit label-less a mere two months later. Sebastian took a long hiatus and resumed recording in the early ’90’s and has done so on his terms ever since, with some of his latter-day cuts appearing alongside his Spoonful classics on this compilation.

Starting with Sebastian’s first band (The Even Dozen Jug Band) and moving through his hits as part of the Lovin’ Spoonful and then through a handful of his solo songs, this album gives a comprehensive look at Sebastian’s career that is been unequaled. Sure, there are a few scattered Lovin’ Spoonful collections (though the albums proper are usually out of print) and Sebastian has seen a few of his earlier albums released on Collector’s Choice recently, but this set gives fans of Sebastians country-tinged rock everything they could have hoped for, save reissues of the Spoonful albums. Just about every hit Lovin’ Spoonful had is here, from Do You Believe In Magic to Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind to Summer In The City to Nashville Cats and on and on including many album cuts not usually found on their other hits comps. Sebastian’s solo years are less well represented, but he had few hits after disbanding The Lovin’ Spoonful and this comp’s lineup falls in line, including about seven solo Sebastian cuts, the most notable being his big hit Welcome Back, of course.

Fans of the Lovin’ Spoonful or John Sebastian are going to love this comp as all the big hits from the band and Sebastian’s solo projects are here in one handy collection for the first time, allowing the casual fan to have every hit they’ve ever wanted plus more than a few deep cuts to whet their appetites into searching out the original albums. While Sebastian’s solo work has often been hit and miss, more for the sameness of his work than for the songs, which are always well written and melodically tuneful. Sebastian has had an interesting career, and his upbeat country rock is not for everyone, but feeling an affinity for good time rock and roll and jugband music mixed with country are encouraged to check out a true legend of rock and roll. Just for Do You Believe In Magic he should be remembered as a rock god. Hopefully this comp will remind everyone how good he actually is as Sebastian is too happy doing his own to really care about esoteric stuff like fame. Gotta love the guy. Pick this up!