Legendary Rock/Pop Artist John Sebastian (From The Lovin’ Spoonful) Talks About His Great Career And Writing His Classic Songs

John Sebastian
John Sebastian
(photo credit: Jim Shea)

From the 1960s to the present, John Sebastian has been known as a legendary rock & pop singer/songwriter, who has written and performed many classic hit songs. Probably best known for his ‘60s work with his band the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame for his enduring songs and recordings.

As the leader and co-founder of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian wrote and sang an impressive string of Top 10 Billboard pop hits. This includes the upbeat “Do You Believe In Magic,” “Daydream,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Summer In The City” (which reached #1 on the Hot 100 chart), “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “Rain on the Roof” and “Nashville Cats.” In addition, the band had three more Top 30 hits with the beautiful ballad “Darling Be Home Soon,” “Six O’Clock” and “She Is Still A Mystery.”

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with John Sebastian, who tells the amazing story of how he was selected at the last minute to perform at the legendary Woodstock Festival.

Most of these Lovin’ Spoonful hits were very melodic, appealing and positive. The band’s flurry of hits (from 1965 to 1967) made them one of America’s best and hottest bands during that period. In particular, their high-energy, uptempo hit “Summer in the City” dominated the radio airwaves in 1966. It’s a fiery, passionate song that sounds as vibrant today as it did when it first came out.

Notwithstanding Sebastian’s many hits with the Lovin’ Spoonful, his best known song is probably his 1976 solo hit “Welcome Back,” which was released as the theme song to the hit TV series, Welcome Back Kotter (that starred John Travolta and Gabe Kaplan). “Welcome Back” is a very catchy song that is easy to sing along to, and it reached #1 on the Hot 100.

Recently, Sebastian announced that he has signed a major publishing agreement with AMR Songs. He has sold his song catalog interest to AMR, which is a full-service, global independent music publishing, rights management, and catalog marketing company founded by music industry veteran, Tamara Conniff (AMR CEO), and private equity professional Steve Reinstadlter (AMR CFO).

Here’s the video of the Lovin’ Spoonful performing their hit “Do
You Believe In Magic” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“AMR’s involvement in my catalog, and specifically the enthusiasm I’m feeling from Tamara Conniff about this material, will ensure that my songs will keep singing for a good long time,” said Sebastian.

Sebastian was born in New York City, and he grew up in Italy and in Greenwich Village, NY. He grew up surrounded by music and musicians, and he took an interest in blues and folk music. Sebastian became part of the influential music scene in Greenwich Village, and he met and played with top artists including Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and Cass Elliot (of the Mamas & the Papas).

It was during this time that Sebastian became friends and collaborated with guitarist Zal Yanofsky, and they formed the Lovin’ Spoonful, which included bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler.

The band subsequently signed with Kama Sutra Records, and they had a breakthrough hit with their single, “Do You Believe In Magic.” This was followed by six more Top 10 hits including “Daydream” and “Summer in the City.”

In 1968, Sebastian decided to leave the Lovin’ Spoonful to start his solo career. Then in 1969, he became known for performing at the legendary Woodstock Festival, in front of a massive crowd of 400,000 people. Sebastian’s live performance became a memorable part of the Woodstock movie and soundtrack album.

In the early ‘70s, Sebastian released two solo albums: John B. Sebastian (1970) and Tarzana Kid (1974). Then in 1976, he had a #1 hit with “Welcome Back,” and he released his album, Welcome Back.

Later on, Sebastian released his album, Tar Beach (in 1992), plus a collaboration album with musician David Grisman called John Sebastian & David Grisman: Satisfied (in 2007). Then in 2021, he released an album with musician Arlen Roth, called John Sebastian and Arlen Roth Explore the Spoonful Songbook, which consisted of new instrumental versions of the Lovin’ Spoonful classic songs.

John Sebastian Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with John Sebastian. He discusses his legendary career, and tells how he wrote some of the Lovin’ Spoonful hits, plus his solo hit, “Welcome Back.”

Here’s a video of the Lovin’ Spoonful performing their hit,
“Summer in the City.”

DK: You’ve recently sold your great song catalog to AMR Songs. Can you talk about your new deal with them?

John Sebastian: I’m very happy to be working with AMR. The changing times kind of dictated that it was time to make that move. And luckily, Tamara Conniff (CEO of AMR Songs) has been showing interest in my catalog for a while. And that was one of the things that moved me towards AMR and that company.

DK: In recent years, many legendary artists have sold their publishing catalogs, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Why are older artists deciding to sell their catalogs?

Sebastian: I guess it’s because you do the math. Let’s say…I had a really good year last year; a lot of people needed “Welcome Back” for their ad campaigns. So taking that as my best year in recent years, and you do the math and imagine how long a lucky guy might live, and you go…Man, I can’t come close to this figure, even if I’m working my ass off. So that was one of the things that determined it. Also you know, I’ve been doing this gig since I was 20…I’ve had a lot of fun. But I need a little room for what the Italians call “dolce far niente,” which means sweet doing nothing (laughs).

DK: Early on, I read that you formed the Lovin’ Spoonful with Zal Yanofsky in New York City. How did you meet Zal and decide to form the band?

Sebastian: There was a group of musicians and friends that gained its center originally in Washington DC at a club called The Shadows, where a young woman named Cass Elliot was singing with a group called The Big 3. Well, Cass knocked my socks off, first as a vocalist and as one of the funniest people I ever met. And one of the things that Cass said to me, was “Oh, you have to meet Zal Yanofsky. Oh my God, you’re gonna love Yanofsky. Wait ‘til you hear this guy play…you’ve gotta get together.”

Then on the eve of the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show (in 1964), I got a call from Cass, who said that Ringo would be there at her apartment. Well, when I arrive at the apartment, a very tall and maybe more Jewish looking Ringo is there at the door to greet me. And so it’s obvious that Cass was making a joke about Zal Yanofsky’s appearance. Then we sat down and started playing along with the Beatles, who were on TV. When they were done, we started playing other stuff and we were having fun.

Here’s a video of John Sebastian performing his hit,
“Welcome Back.”

Within weeks, Zal and I started hanging out, wandering around the Village. It took several weeks before we [decided to form a band] and go, “We’re looking for a bass player and drummer.” Soon after we met (bassist) Steve Boone, who had been riding around Europe on a motorcycle. Steve reminded us of guitarist Luther Perkins (of Johnny Cash’s band) in his delivery, which was perfect because Yanofsky is all over the stage. I would be trying to remember the damn lyrics, so it was great to have Steve, who had a certain gravitas about the way he would stand there in his spot. And Steve knew (drummer) Joe Butler from playing together, and now we had the basic four (for Lovin Spoonful).

DK: Your first hit was “Do You Believe in Magic” which has such a positive, uplifting theme. What inspired you to write this song?

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with John Sebastian, about how he write his classic song “Welcome Back” for the hit TV series, <em?Welcome Back, Kotter.


Sebastian: The important inspiration for “Do You Believe In Magic” came at a club calle the Night Owl Café where the audience had been primarily folkies or jazz folks. It didn’t have a teenage audience yet, and we hadn’t really found our audience. But on this particular night, we looked out at the audience and there was a young girl dancing in a free-form way. And this was in a setting where most of the other people were Beatnik types sitting around playing chess So this really made a difference. It was like seeing the beginning, because we knew if she was there, she would tell her friends to come next week. I said to Zal, “She’s here. Come on, let’s go play our ass off because this is our key. And soon enough, there were a dozen young women who all seemed to come in a group (laughs).

DK: A year later, you had a hit called “Daydream,” which was also very positive and catchy. Can you talk about writing this song?

Here’s the video of John Sebastian performing his song “Rainbow
All Over Your Blues” at the Woodstock Festival.

Sebastian: The song was just born out of a sweet love. [And musically] it was inspired by a summer on the road with the Supremes, because “Baby Love” which was huge on the radio, and Yanofsky was always my gadfly. He’d always be pushing me, saying “Do one of these—write something like the Supremes.” And it was very helpful to me. Then at a certain point we had (legendary Motown bassist) James Jamerson on our bus. James Jamerson and (Motown drummer) Benny Benjamin would occasionally come out to play the weekend shows, and it was an out-of-body experience to hear those two men play.

DK: In 1966, your band had a #1 hit with “Summer in the City,” which was a great, high-energy song that was quite different from your other hits. How did you write this song with your brother Mark Sebastian and Steve Boone?

Sebastian: That’s right. The majority of credit in that goes to my brother, Mark, because he was the guy who wrote a song called “Summer in the City.” Now, its original section went back and forth from C, B flat, C, B flat, and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it would be, “But at night it’s a different world,” and I remember going “Whoa, hold on. What did you do?” But the idea so flipped the song, I felt like this makes me want to rewrite the thing before this wonderful chorus happens. What we’re trying to do is set this chorus up to be a new thing. So I guess I was looking for a certain kind of menace like you feel in “City” during those few summer months. And I was also imitating “Night on Bald Mountain” (from the film, Fantasia). Because there’s an introductory passage that creates the tension for the big statement (he emphatically sings the melodic passage), so I guess that’s what started me to get that piano figure. And luckily, a wonderful player and arranger named Artie Schroeck, who would later do all of the arranging for (the movie) You’re a Big Boy Now, played that piano part.

DK: You are known for being one of the artists who performed at Woodstock, and you’re featured in the movie. What was it like to perform at Woodstock, and to be known for your performance there?

Sebastian: It happened quite fast. I had gone to Woodstock at the suggestion of my (producer) friend Paul Rothchild, who said, “This is gonna be big—you should go.” So that’s what I did. I walked into this festival and floated around. Me and the bass player for Santana formed a friendship and we walked around the festival. I was in the crowd hanging out.

Here’s a video of the Lovin’ Spoonful performing their hit
“Daydream” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

It was the next day that I was backstage. It had rained, so they were sweeping the stage. I was standing between (stage director) Chip Monck and (promoter) Michael Lang, and I’m looking at these guys and I hear their conversation. They said, “We can’t put an electric band on here now, so we’ve gotta find a guy who can hold the audience with an acoustic guitar and play a few tunes.” And I’m listening to this, and I realized that they’re both looking at me! (laughs). I said, “Guys, I don’t even have a guitar here. I didn’t think I would be performing.” And Chip Monck with his wonderful somber voice said, “Well, you have several moments to find a guitar.” So I run down to what was the understage, where Tim Hardin is lying around after having done his set. I’ve already made albums with Tim so we’re tight. So I go, “Tim, I’ve gotta do something onstage. Can I borrow your Harmony Sovereign guitar?” He goes, “Yeah, go ahead.”

So I was running up the stairs, tuning the guitar, and then Bam! I’m onstage, and it was an amazing moment (in front of that huge crowd).

DK: In 1976, you had a huge solo hit with “Welcome Back.” How did you connect with the show Welcome Back, Kotter and write this song?

Sebastian: What happened was, I had recently changed to a new manager, David Bendett, who had been an agent of mine. I owed him money (laughs). So I said “Hey, how about if you became my manager?” David had a tremendous amount of experience, and luckily he went along with this idea. Within two weeks, he began talking to Alan Sacks, who was a producer for Welcome Back, Kotter. Alan called David up and said, “We’ve got this show with Gabe Kaplan, and we’re looking for a New York guy, like a Dion or John Sebastian (to write the theme song). And David says, ”Well, I started managing John Sebastian a couple weeks ago.“

So I went to a meeting where I was shown rough cuts of early shows, and I got it. It was a very easy thing to come up with. I went home and made a toy version of a song that sucked, but the end of the song had “Welcome back, Welcome back” (he sings the hook). And so I said, “Wait a minute…I’m going to save that part.” And so eventually I had the 2½ minutes that was required for the song. Then I went back in there the next day and played them the song. And they were startled (laughs). They asked, “How did you come up with this so fast?”

And I said, “Guys, you’re forgetting…I was the Sweathog” (like the main characters in the show). It’s true—as a dyslexic kid, I was always the guy with those marks [where the teacher says] “John seems to be an intelligent boy,” and then the rest wasn’t as flattering (laughs). So that’s how that song came to be.

DK: Over the years, you’ve continued to perform live. Are you planning to play some live shows this year?

Sebastian: The live performing that I’ve been doing of late is much more directed towards an opportunity to play with my pals. When friends come to town and say, “Let’s boogie all night long,” I’ll go do that. I’ll be doing a show next week. These are the things I’m doing. I’m just not doing shows that have my name on the marquee.

Here’s the link to John Sebastian’s site: https://www.johnsebastian.com/

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima