Fortunately, nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes they reach the top of the hill and stay there for quite some time. One such nice guy is John Sebastian, the principal writer and lead singer of the Lovin’ Spoonful and composer of this month’s “Classic Tracks,” “Do You Believe in Magic.”
Raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village, long-haired Sebastian spent a fair amount of time during his high school years getting hassled by blue bloods at the Blair Academy, a private school in New Jersey. But he also hung out with artists back on the block during the off-season. The Village gave Sebastian first-hand exposure to some of the best musicians in the folk universe of the late ’50s and early ’60s, including Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. As a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, The Mugwumps and eventually the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian would take elements of folk, jug band and rock and toss them together to create his own sound.
Sebastian eventually teamed up with guitarist Zal Yanovsky, another luminary in the New York folk scene. Along with drummer Joe Butler and bass player Steve Boone, they formed a group that took its name from a line from a Mississippi John Hurt song: the Lovin’ Spoonful. A rapid rise, however, wasn’t in the cards. Led by The Beatles, the British Invasion was in full throttle and record execs of the day couldn’t imagine that the Spoonful’s folk-influenced sound would attract a sizable fan base.
“We were turned down by every record company in New York City,” says Sebastian. “But we’d play each night. For a while, we were working at a club that was mainly for beatniks. The crowd would snap their fingers in mild appreciation of what we were doing. Hardly the rock ‘n’ roll audience of your dreams!
“There were some odd cabaret regulations back in those days, and one of them outlawed dancing,” Sebastian continues. “People in these clubs didn’t routinely dance anyway like they did uptown at the Peppermint Lounge. But this one night, while we were playing our set, a girl started dancing by herself. It wasn’t the Lindy, but some new, personally expressive set of movements, the kind of dancing you were going to see at Woodstock in a few years. We looked at each other, and without saying a word shared a common thought: Our moment had arrived! Sure enough, the following week the audience had changed. Those 50-year-old beatniks had drifted off, replaced by a horde of 16-year-old girls. I took that memory, and in the next couple of days started to work on an idea that would become ‘Do You Believe In Magic.’”
A novice in the recording area, Sebastian had been looking for unusual sound combinations, and that curiosity would inform the songs he wrote, including “Do You Believe in Magic.” “I played Autoharp and knew it had never been used on a pop record. I’d been screwing around with the idea of taping a ukulele contact microphone to the back of the Autoharp, and hearing its amplified sound was a real ‘Eureka’ moment. I realized instantly that this could be the heart of a new sound.
“When I finished writing ‘Do You Believe in Magic,’ I was certain that it was going to be a hit, but I wanted it to have something unusual about it. The regular Autoharp tuning doesn’t allow for the minor 7th chords that climb in the intro of the song, so I retuned it for that section. However, when we went into Bell Sound, the hot 2-track recording studio in Midtown at the time, we knew that the Autoharp on its own was too thin, so Jerry Yester [who would eventually replace Yanofsky in the group] doubled it on the piano. We buried the piano part and used it to create the effect of a huge Autoharp.
“We recorded ‘Magic’ back in 1964, and it was the first example of a scheme that developed between Zal, our producer, Erik Jacobsen and myself. We’d start out with familiar sounds, add something else and then mix them together so that the listener couldn’t quite tell what the instrumental combination was. That was our personal dawn in the mysterious and magical use of technology. We instantly realized that we could use this 3-track recorder to create something new, so we experimented. For example, we’d double a guitar lick with a set of orchestral chimes, and then bury the chimes far enough under the guitar so that they wouldn’t be heard as a seperate instrument. The result was the chime-iest guitar I’d ever heard!
“By the way, the Guild Thunderbird that Zally played was not a very popular guitar at the time. He loved it because it was very twangy — a single-coil instrument, which Zally played through a Fender Super Reverb. He felt that its sound resembled that of a pedal-steel guitar, and one of his goals was to sound like a pedal steel.
“‘Do You Believe in Magic’ was one of four songs that we recorded during that session, and like the others, the band was tracked in one pass. The idea was to record the things you wanted to project most out of the mix last. We were kind of doing a kindergarten version of what Phil Spector became known for. After we tracked the band, we added Jerry’s piano part and then an acoustic part of mine. I played this part as loudly as I could, knowing that it would get buried beneath the drum track. But that was okay; we used this guitar part to help create a bigger-sounding drum track.
“The vocals came last. I think my lead was done in five or six passes. Toward the end, someone said, ‘Give me a little Dion,’ which was our signal for the Italian guy doing doo-wop bit! That’s where the gospel tail comes from. Then we began to work on the backing vocals. As would become the norm for the Lovin’ Spoonful, backing vocals were executed by me, Zal and Joe Butler. Joe lent a very legit quality to our background parts, which we doubled a few times.”
Mixing was really producer Erik Jacobsen’s area. A banjo player turned Beatles fan, Jacobsen was intent on creating something new in the studio. “Bell Sound was the hot place,” says Jacobsen. “It was a mastering room as well as a recording studio. Big Dom mastered all of the Rolling Stones singles that would be sent over from England. A lot of Latin groups worked at Bell, and there always seemed to be a group leaving when we came in. Alan Lorber, who was an arranger in town at the time, came by and helped us with the vocal arrangement on the ride-out. Harry Yarmark was the engineer on the session. There was no such thing as a splicing block back then, just a guy with a pair of scissors cutting tape that someone else held at a certain angle.
“Once we finished the four-song demo, we shopped it around, but nobody wanted it! I owned the acetate for about 10 months before Kama Sutra became interested. We kept being told that no one had heard a sound like this and that it was terrible!”
To the surprise of everyone except the group and its producer, “Do You Believe in Magic” raced up the charts when it was released in 1964, topping out at Number 9. In a flash, the nice guy who had been given noogies at school was being given the full star treatment. “Within two weeks,” says Sebastian, “we went from playing high schools to being headliners at the Crescendo, the wildest club in L.A., which would become The Trip a few years later.
“Then we got invited to play the Rose Bowl on a bill with Herman’s Hermits, the Bobby Fuller Four, the Beau Brummels — and the Beach Boys! We took a plane from New York to the West Coast, rented a car and headed out to the Rose Bowl. We played through Beatle amps that we were totally unfamiliar with and our sound was terrible, but it didn’t matter because the screams of a million girls drowned us out completely! We finished our four-song set, got back in the car and I never imagined just how many teenaged girls could fit on the top of car!”
Beatlemania-ish hysteria followed the Lovin’ Spoonful for the next several years. How did it feel? “Wildly inappropriate!” Sebastian says with a laugh. “Okay, I wasn’t going to complain if our music attracted beautiful young women, but we thought our sound was something that you snuggled up to, the opposite of the edgy attitude that inspired such idol worship.”
It turns out that the Lovin’ Spoonful were just getting started. Over the next several years, they would etch their brand of sunny, opitmistic folk-rock into the popular culture with a string of hits that included “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Nashville Cats” and “Summer in the City.” And Sebastian would embark on a long and successful solo career, as well, which continues to this day.