john b sebastian Rock Flashback: John Sebastian

John Sebastian at the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductions, 2008 (Getty Images/Joe Corrigan)

Did you know that there once was a time when you could make a living as a classical harmonica player? John B. Sebastian, Sr., did exactly that. Sebastian’s son and namesake, born on March 17, 1944, would pick up the instrument himself, partly because sons often develop an affinity for their fathers’ passions, but also because he grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, ground zero for the folk boom.

[lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]John Sebastian[/lastfm] was playing onstage by age 16, and was appearing as a sideman on records by 18. The pivotal year, as it was for so many future stars, was 1964. He joined the Even Dozen Jug Band that year, but also met [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Zal Yanovsky[/lastfm], with whom he would assemble the [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Lovin’ Spoonful[/lastfm].

Beginning in 1965 with “Do You Believe in Magic,” the Spoonful would score seven straight Top 10 hits over the next year-and-a-half, each one radio-perfect. The 1966 hits “Daydream” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” hit #2 in Billboard; “Summer in the City” went to #1 in the summer of 1967. The group’s first three albums were all top 10 hits as well.

But by the end of 1968, the Spoonful had splintered. Sebastian was invited to join a group some friends were putting together, but he declined. ([lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Crosby Stills and Nash[/lastfm] found another guy instead.) His solo career was boosted by an accidental appearance at Woodstock — he was asked to sing during a set change — but his solo career but it was derailed just as quickly by disputes with his record label.

But Sebastian had one more radio-perfect hit in him: the theme song for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter went to #1 on the singles chart in 1976. But “Welcome Back” didn’t mark a career resurgence, at least not on the charts or the radio. Sebastian scored films (which the Spoonful had done twice during its heyday) and worked on various television and video projects. As a member of the Spoonful, he’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.

Bonus fact lifted from Wikipedia, so who knows if it’s really true: Sebastian’s godmother was Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy.

Here’s the Spoonful, with Sebastian on autoharp and lead vocals, performing “Do You Believe in Magic” on the old Hullabaloo TV show. If it doesn’t make you happy, you need some strong medication.


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