JAMBASE'S CELEBRATION OF GREAT ALBUMS
MAKES THE BACK OF YOUR NECK DIRTY & GRITTY
John Sebastian is primarily known for four tunes. Two of them are montage/film picnic favorites "Do You Believe In Magic?" and "Daydream." The third is the theme song to '70s hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. And this week in 1966, the fourth, "Summer In The City," was on top of the charts, the sweating cherry atop a 14-month run that had already produced four Top 10 hits since The Lovin' Spoonful released their debut in fall of 1965. It's a hugely limited view of a gifted musician, and for the clean-cut kids still waxing up their surfboards and visiting a beauty shop before school dances, the Spoonful were a gateway drug into folk and blues, American roots music dressed up in a swinging new poncho and made to twitch to a good beat. In his own very sweet way, Sebastian did as much to popularize dustbowl ditties and tin pan leftovers as The Grateful Dead, The Band and other codified rock saints. That he wrote ire-fucking-sistible melodies and strung words together like a bluebird touched by Orpheus didn't hurt, but down deep Sebastian was just a jug band lovin' boy that wanted to dirty up the Greenwich Village purist scene as much as Dylan, Richie Havens and Roger McGuinn.
"Summer In The City" comes from The Lovin' Spoonful's third album in just over a year, Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful, a tremendous 33 1/3 document that doesn't often crop up on many "Best of the '60s" lists but has a devout following amongst musicians and liner note reading obsessives. Not one cut breaks three-minutes yet there's the unmistakable sense of having traveled a country mile by the end; a rural walk that ultimately dumps us into a swelter of concrete and glass, a nice echo of the journey the music that inspired Sebastian took from the Appalachians and southern bayous into modern cities. From the music industry diatribe "Nashville Cats" to the flowery come-on of "Lovin' You" to the atmospheric warble of "Coconut Grove," the Spoonful's reach is stunning, and not just that of mastermind Sebastian but also Steve Boone (bass, keys, percussion),
Joe Butler (drums, background vocals, lead vocal on "Full Measure"), Zal Yanovsky (guitar, banjo, background vocals, slide whistle, lead vocal on "Voodoo in My Basement") and supporting players Henry Diltz (clarinet), Artie Schroeck (electric piano on "Summer in the City") and Larry Hankin("Jews" harp).
These boys get down, most clearly on "Voodoo In My Basement," which dabbles with real menace but maintains a stoned sock-hop feel. One picks up on all the hours of back-of-the-bus pickin' and impromptu performances that come with fast stardom. While it wouldn't last, and miles of legal documents and recriminations would soon follow, we get to eavesdrop on a terrific, very American band hitting their stride on Hums. It's well worth seeking out, especially if you're already sweet on Workingman's Dead, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde and other backwoods flavored delights of the era.
Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful track list:
1. Lovin' You
2. Bes' Friends
3. Voodoo In My Basement
4. Darlin' Companion
5. Henry Thomas
6. Full Measure" (Steve Boone, John Sebastian)
7. You and Me and Rain On The Roof
8. Coconut Grove" (Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky)
9. Nashville Cats
10. 4 Eyes
11. Summer in the City" (Steve Boone, John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian)
All cuts by John Sebastian unless otherwise noted.
John Sebastian and his mighty sideburns lip sync enthusiastically through "Summer In The City" in this 1966 TV clip.
This dreamy breeze 'n' trees video is the perfect drifting accompaniment to "Coconut Grove."
Last, it's the Del McCoury Band playing "Nashville Cats" this past March in Denver..
John Sebastian remains an active explorer of traditional music and has teamed up with David Grisman and tours occasionally, and his intimate, thoughtful, quite cool concerts in recent years are something worth savoring. It's always wise to sit at the heel of someone who knows our oldest songs and stories AND continues to tell them in a way that makes them relevant.