Having learned my lesson by reviewing a new release from a band that hadn’t released anything “new” in a while (America - Here and Now), I found myself volunteering to review three of the five albums by John Sebastian that are to be released in February as part of an effort by Collector’s Choice Music to “Welcome Back” his Reprise solo albums from the 1970s.
Reissuing these albums will allow those familiar with Sebastian’s work to have a chance listen to these albums once again in exceptional clarity as well as allow those unfamiliar with it, such as myself, to listen and discover what they’d previously missed out on.
Granted, I was only born in 1971, so it is more my parent’s fault then mine, right? Thought so.
Sebastian is best known for his role as leader of the Lovin’ Spoonful, his subsequent solo work, and especially for the use of one of his solo songs as the theme song for a very successful television program starring John Travolta - but, as I have subsequently come to learn by researching him, his American roots run deep.
Bonus Question 01: I wonder which successful television show it could possibly be that used one of his songs? Hmm.
The son of classical harmonica player John Sebastian, young John grew up in Greenwich Village and appeared as a sideman on records by the time he was 16. In 1964, he found himself a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band and The Mugwumps, which split to form the Lovin' Spoonful and the Mamas and Papas. Sebastian was joined by Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone and popular drummer-vocalist Joseph Campbell Butler in the Spoonful, a band that was named after a Mississippi John Hurt song.
Bonus Question 02: What Mamas and Papas song had the following lyrical nod to this particular point in John’s life? “In a coffee-house Sebastian sat / and after every number, they passed the hat.” Hmm.
The Lovin' Spoonful, thanks in no small part to Sebastian’s ambition and talents, became part of the American music scene’s response to the British Invasion and was noted for such folk-flavored hits as "Jug Band Music," "Do You Believe in Magic," "Summer in the City," "Daydream," "Nashville Cats," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," "Six O’clock," and "Younger Girl."
Sadly, the band was mired in “Behind the Music”-esque personal issues, and eventually Sebastian decided to step out of the fold and make his way as a solo artist. He signed with Reprise, but the Spoonful’s label, Kama Sutra, believing they were owed one more album, released their own version of Sebastian’s solo debut, John B. Sebastian, made from second generation masters.
Reprise prevailed in the eventual squabbles that followed, and Sebastian went on to eventually release five albums during the time he worked with the label: John B Sebastian, The Four of Us, Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live John Sebastian, Tarzana Kid, and Welcome Back.
Sadly, I did not receive a copy of The Four of Us or Cheapo Cheapo…, so I was not able to give them a listen, yet. Eventually, however, I’ll own all five of these albums – but that may be putting the carriage before the horse, review wise…
John B. Sebastian:
Sebastian’s debut album for Reprise turned out to be the highest charting of the bunch, reaching number 20 in 1970. From all that I’ve found research-wise, it was an album that was horribly cannibalized on the Kama Sutra “bootleg” version, which was eventually withdrawn.
How it would be possible to screw up such a lovely collection of songs, though, is completely beyond me. From the funky groove that opens “Red-Eye Express” down to the sublime and gorgeous melodies of “I Had A Dream,” Sebastian crafted a wonderful record to announce that he was ready to stand on his own musical feet.
Bonus Question 03: Which song from this album did John play during the original Woodstock Festival? Here’s a hint! It led off the movie soundtrack album. Hmm.
Released in 1974 and recorded while Sebastian was living in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, TK was an album peppered with many guest stars. Lowell George and Emmylou Harris join in on a version of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.” Sebastian is also joined by former Even Dozen Jug Band band-mate (sat THAT three times fast!) David Grisman plus David Lindley, the Pointer Sisters, Ry Cooder, and Phil Everly.
While just as lovely and well-written as his debut album, I think this album may be my favorite of the three I am reviewing. There is a wonderful sense of maturity in this album, and despite the fact that there are quite a few other musicians helping out, Sebastian seems to have really grown comfortable with himself as a solo artist. It is just a great album, really.
Bonus Question 04: What former producer of Lovin’ Spoonful did John bury the hatchet with and ask to co-produce Tarzana Kid with him? Hmm.
Released in 1976, this album was a “welcome” return to the charts for Sebastian, thanks to the title tune theme song to the television show featuring Gabe Kaplan and a young John Travolta. The album contains the “single” version, which was different from the demo used on the show.
Even though WB is an album that I find myself enjoying whenever I put it on the stereo, I am sad to say that the urge to do so doesn’t come nearly as often as it does for one of the other two albums I’ve reviewed here. While the song writing and playing is talented and capable, it just seems the odd duck in the bunch to me.
Of course, it could just be that I seem to have latched onto the second album as a “favorite” of mine; such thoughts are no doubt a quagmire that a more capable reviewer would be able to dodge. Ah well.
In the end, I find myself grateful for the chance to have listened to these three albums. While I’d heard of the Lovin’ Spoonful, I might not have noticed John Sebastian quite so much, which would have been something regrettable.
Whether you are an old fan looking to have a new listen to familiar friends, or someone like myself in search of wonderful music that you might not have had the opportunity to listen to and love during the time when it was initially created, the fact that Collectors’ Choice Music has decided to reissue these albums by John Sebastian, is something to rejoice over.
Now I just need to pre-order the two albums I’ve yet to hear. If they are even half as good as any one of the three I do have, then they will be worth three times what it costs me to purchase them.
Answers to the goofy Questions: 01. Welcome Back, Kotter, 02. "Creeque Alley," 03. "I Had A Dream," and 04. Erik Jakobson. If it is any consolation, I would have gotten only one of these answers, myself.