Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Lovin' Spoonful (music)

(1965-69)
Members:
  John Sebastian (guitar, harmonica, autoharp, vocals), Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Steve Boone (bass), Joe Butler (drums)
All Music Guide

After Sgt. Pepper, most rock musicians turned away from hit singles and toward albums.  Many of this period talked at the time about how they lost interest in top 40 radio, that they didn't really care for it and preferred to listen to albums.  But there was one group that they always said was an exception:  The Lovin' Spoonful.

The group had its origins in New York's Greenwich Village.  Guitarist Zal Yanovsky had become a member of the Mugwumps with Cass Eliott and Denny Doherty, who soon gained pop fame as half of the Mamas and the Papas.*  After the Mugwumps broke up, Yanovsky started working with Sebastian.  The added Boone and Butler and started recording.

Their first single, Sebastian's "Do You Believe in Magic," went to number 9, and they followed up with a series of classic singles, with  "Daydream," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," and "Nashville Cats" hitting the top ten.

The hits were all written by Sebastian.  He was able to take a combination of folk music, jug band music, and rock and turn it into a cheery new hybrid, usually called "good time music."  Which described it well:  there was a joyousness in every song and a sense of fun throughout.  It started a trend**.  

In addition to their singles and albums, they recorded two movie soundtracks:  "What Up Tiger Lily?" for Woody Allen, and "You're a Big Boy Now" for a young Francis Ford Coppola.

Things were going well, but trouble struck in an unexpected way.  Zal was arrested for possession of marijuana.  Not unusual, but the police pressured him to name his supplier, threatening him with deportation (he was Canadian).  The music community didn't forgive him and put pressure on him so much that he quit the group and moved to Canada anyway. 

He was replaced with an old friend of the group, Jerry Yester.  The group's sound changed and, though they had a couple of hits,*** things were ending.  Sebastian decided it was time to go solo.  The group continued and even had some minor hits, but it just wasn't the same.  They broke up in 1969.

Sebastian went on to a successful solo career****, starting with the album John B. Sebastian***** and hitting the charts a few years later with "Welcome Back," written as the theme song for the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.  Yanovsky released a quirky album called Alive and Well in Argentina, which was quickly forgotten.  Yester, Boone, and Butler eventually reunited and are playing as the Lovin Spoonful even now.

While they were not a group known for their albums, their singles still have the power to make you smile.

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* Their song "Creeque Alley" includes references to Sebastian ("In a coffee house Sebastian sat") and Yanovsky ("Zal and Denny, working for a penny").

**The Turtles, for instance, who had a couple of minor hits with Dylan covers and who thought of themselves as a protest band, heard "Do You Believe in Magic?" and decided they'd rather be cheerful than Mr. Alienation, and recorded "Happy Together."  The Grateful Dead reportedly saw the Spoonful and decided to switch from acoustic jug band to rock.

***Including "Money" (not the song the Beatles covered), which is a loving paean to the capitalism and the banking system.

****He was an extremely likeable live performer.  I saw him live at the Union College Memorial Chapel in the early 70s.  Sebastian came on and, with wonder in his voice said, "I've never played in a chapel before," then broke into a few bars of "Chapel of Love."  Great show.

*****Probably the only record to ever be bootlegged by a major recording company.  Sebastian signed with Reprise Records for the album, but MGM Records (the parent company of the Spoonful's label) claimed he owed them an album, so they pirated the tapes and sold it.  MGM lost the ensuing legal battle.  They tried again by releasing a live John Sebastian album the next year, but again, they were told to cut it out, and Sebastian released his own live album in response.

5 comments:

Beatrix Kiddo said...

they're great

Mara said...

Joy just radiated from this group, and especially from the voice of John Sebastian. I still break into their happy tunes to this day.

However the sadly cautionary song "Younger Generation", which came out shortly after I had my first child, ended with the heartbreaking line, "Can it be that you can't live up to your dreams?"

Anonymous said...

10/8/11
RobGems.ca wrote:
It's unfortunate that Zal Yanovsky couldn't have a successful a solo career like John Sebastian's, and over a silly drug bust that went wrong,simply because he named names to the police. The police were becoming very unpopular with the counterculture emerging around 1967-68,when the terms "fuzz" & "pigs" were becoming familiar. I suggest that Yanovsky had as much to offer as a solo artist as Sebastian, since he brought much pride to his Jewish heritage in Canada as a fine guitarist. He was signed to Buddah Records for "Alive &Well in Argentina",and the single "As long As you're Here",but sadly "the single bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100, and the album bombed. Buddah tried to give it a second chance when they aquired the Kama Sutra master tapes of the Spoonful away from MGM Records over the botched Sebastian LPs,and re-issued "Alive & Well" in 1971, this time on yanovsky's old imprint, Kama Sutra records with Buddah Distribution, but again, nohing. Yanovsky eventually quit the music business in the 1970's, and aside from a brief cameo reunion with the Spoonful band mates in the Paul Simon movie "One Trick Pony"(1980),went into the restaraunt business in his native Canada,called "Chez Le Piggy". (he did do one thing with that business, and sold pork meals at his restaraunt,which belied his Jewish Religion, but still, he was a success in the food industry.)He continued to run the restaraunt until his sudden death in 2003 Of a heart attack at age 57. His widow would eventually continue to run the restaraunt business until her death in 2009. Today, the Chez Le Piggy is now run by his daughter, and is still considered a legend in the Northern Ontario area by those who recall Zal as one of the best guitarists of the 1960's. It should also be known by Spoonful affeciandos that Steve Boone was also a witness in that infamous 1966 drug bust.They (Boone & Yanovsky) were attending a party of the said drug dealer,and were originally trying not to rat on the said dealer, until Yanovsky was threatend by the police with deportation. Yanovsky sadly gave in, and many felt at the time it was the beginning of the end of the Spoonful.

Anonymous said...

10/16/11
RobGems.ca wrote:
A correction & some info about Yanovsky's Restaraunt,Chez Le Piggy:
1)Zal Yanovsky died on December, 2002, not 2003, so that was my own error.
2)Chez Le Piggy was formed in 1979 by Zal & his widow, Rose Yanovsky in Kingston, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.
3)"As Long As You're Here" was issued as Buddah 45 #12, and went as far as #101 on The Billboard "Bubbling Under" Charts. Buddah Records re-issued the single on Kama Sutra records,where it did not chart. the B-side was the same a-side song recorded backwards, a tatic copied by two of Buddah Records' other producers,Jerry Katzenez & Jeff Katz. "As long As You're Here" was composed by Gary Bonner & Jerry Gordon, who also composed the Spoonful's last U.S. Chart Entry, "Me About You." The Spoonful managers,Charlie Koppelman & Don Rubin served as producers. Charlie Koppleman later formed SBK Records in 1989.
4)After Rose Yanovsky's death in 2009, The Chez Le Piggy serves as a charity foundation for starving children of Canada,helmed by the Yanovsky family, led by their daughter, who continues to run the place with an in-house bakery in Kingsland,Ontario.

Anonymous said...

2/11/12
RobGems.ca wrote:
A correction to the last note: The co-composer of "As Long as youre Here" and "Me About You" was named Alan Gordon, not Jerry gordon. Sorry for the mix-up.