“Houston had a special message for me as a young musician, and it came directly through Lightnin’ Hopkins,” John Sebastian says from his home in New York.
But the former frontman of the ‘60s band The Lovin’ Spoonful and solo artist didn’t just get the Houston vibe through the music of the storied and legendary bluesman. He got it up close and personal with the man. Real personal.
“Lightnin’ would stay with me in New York when he came to play at the Village Gate or some other places in midtown. And it was hilarious, our relationship was completely obsequious. It became all about getting Lightnin’ to the gig, carrying his guitar, and getting him his pint!” Sebastian laughs.
John Sebastian first encountered Hopkins when the bluesman appeared on the same television show as Sebastian’s father, who was a classical harmonica virtuoso. “His playing was astonishing. By the end of the afternoon, I wanted to be Lightnin’ Hopkins!” he recalls. Soon, the teenaged boy was acting as unofficial guide and valet for the elder performer.
“I began to sort of speak for him because he didn’t like talking to white club owners. He also needed an interpreter because he had this thick accent and would slur his words on purpose as a device to back off the white guys,” Sebastian continues.
And when he finally got to Houston? “It was a mythical thing to me, this city,” Sebastian laughs. “I was like ‘wow, this is a modern city with skyscrapers! I thought I was going to see a Centerville or something!”
Recently, John Sebastian returned to the not-so-mythical city for a “One Guy, One Guitar” show performing material from his Spoonful and solo catalogue. “I’ll have my Baritone and by big fat arch top guitars. Me offering my renderings of songs that had 18 overdubs originally!”
In the mid-‘60s, the Lovin’ Spoonful – Sebastian (vocals/harmonica/guitar/autoharp), Zal Yanovsky (guitar – later replaced by Jerry Yester), Steve Boone (bass), and Joe Butler (drums/vocals) racked up a string of chart hits including “Do You Believe in Magic?” “Summer in the City,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” and “Darling Be Home Soon.”
Sebastian and Yanovsky – who became fast friends – actually met at Cass Elliot’s place to watch the Beatles make their debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. All three were also part of a group called the Mugwumps (the story is told in the Mamas and the Papas single “Creeque Alley”).
“Cass had this kind of salon going, even before she had any money. She introduced Zal and I just like she did for Crosby, Stills and Nash. And I think she enjoyed the ‘den mother’ role,” Sebastian says. “It was almost as if she could have all these beautiful boys at her feet in a way that smokin’ hot babes couldn’t.”
But with Yanovsky’s departure due to a drug bust, and his own desire to write more personal, mellower music in the singer/songwriter vein, Sebastian left the Spoonful (who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000). He then put out albums like John B. Sebastian, The Four of Us, and Tarzana Kid.
Lesser known was his occasional collaboration with the Doors, via their producer, Paul Rothschild. That’s Sebastian blowing harp on “Roadhouse Blues” from Morrison Hotel. He also appeared on stage with them and could be heard on a couple of live records.
“They weren’t anxious to advertise or make a fuss that I was on that record, and I got that, I did. The atmosphere for me was that they’ve already been [recording] for awhile, but Paul was trying to get them to be consistent in the studio as Jim was becoming more erratic,” Sebastian recalls.
“I was there and Lonnie Mack was playing bass to kind of snap Jim [Morrison] out of it to be more responsible,” he continues. “And I think it worked beautifully. Jim came in very together, and that session didn’t have any kind of drama. We got the job done.”
Sebastian also made an impromptu appearance at Woodstock, playing a short solo set and with borrowed equipment. Asked to name the one reality about Woodstock that doesn’t jibe with the myth, he says that with a few notable exceptions (including Sly and the Family Stone, Richie Havens, and Creedence Clearwater Revival), “the music wasn’t that great.”
He chalks that up to the fact that, because the festival ran well behind schedule, some acts spent up to nine hours onstage or in the back tent just waiting to go on.
“The real star of Woodstock was the audience, and the way they maintained and kept things relatively calm,” he says. “That was the real victory of the show.”
Ironically, his only solo top 40 hit – which went all the way to #1 in 1976 – was a one-off job, the theme to the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter.” In fact, the show was originally titled just “Kotter,” but the song’s obvious power and hook made producers change the name. And Sebastian knew it was going to be a hit.
“I knew it immediately. I spent one day writing it and stuck on the tail end this [bit] about ‘welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.’ And I knew it was fucking catchy!” he laughs. “ I finished it the next day, made the demo that afternoon, and I think I was in the studio the next available day. It all happened very fast.”
Unfortunately, the scheduled drummer for that session – Kelly Shanahan – couldn’t make it to the studio. Which explains why there are no drums on the track. And why Shanahan hasn’t collected any lucrative royalty checks since then.
“To this day,” Sebastian says, “Kelly Shanahan goes ‘god DAMN it!”
This interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.