The Talented John Sebastian Part One
For the classical harmonica player and composer, see John Sebastian (classical harmonica player). For the similarly named Mexican pop singer, see Joan Sebastian.
John Benson Sebastian (born March 17, 1944) is an American-born singer-songwriter, guitarist, harmonicist, and autoharpist, who is best known as a founder of The Lovin’ Spoonful, a band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000; for his impromptu appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969; and for his No. 1 hit in 1976, “Welcome Back”.
Sebastian performing in concert in East Lansing, Michigan, August 1970
John Benson Sebastian
Also known as
March 17, 1944 (age 73)
Greenwich Village, New York City, New York, U.S.
Rock, pop, folk, blues
Vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, autoharp
Kama Sutra, Reprise
The Lovin’ Spoonful
Even Dozen Jug Band
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Sebastian was born in New York City and grew up in Italy and Greenwich Village. His father, John Sebastian, was a noted classical harmonica player and his mother, Jane, was a radio script writer. His godmother was Vivian Vance (“Ethel Mertz” of I Love Lucy), who was a close friend of his mother. His godfather and first babysitter was children’s book illustrator Garth Williams, a friend of his father.
Sebastian grew up surrounded by music and musicians, including Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, and hearing such players as Lead Belly and Mississippi John Hurt in his own neighborhood. He graduated from Blair Academy, a private boarding school in Blairstown, New Jersey, in 1962. He next attended New York University for just over a year, but dropped out as he became more interested in musical pursuits.
In the early 1960s, Sebastian developed an interest in blues music and in playing harmonica in a blues style, rather than the classical style used by his father. Through his father’s connections, he met and was influenced by blues musicians Sonny Terry and Lightnin’ Hopkins (for whom Sebastian served as “unofficial tour guide and valet” when Hopkins was in New York City). Sebastian became part of the folk and blues scene that was developing in Greenwich Village and later gave rise to folk rock.
In addition to harmonica, Sebastian played guitar and occasionally autoharp. One of Sebastian’s first recording gigs was playing guitar and harmonica for Billy Faier’s 1964 album The Beast of Billy Faier. He also played on Fred Neil’s album Bleecker & MacDougal and Tom Rush’s self-titled album in 1965. He played in the Even Dozen Jug Band and in The Mugwumps, which split to form the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas & the Papas. Bob Dylan invited him to play bass on his Bringing It All Back Home sessions (though Sebastian’s parts probably did not appear on the album) and to join Dylan’s new electric touring band, but Sebastian declined in order to concentrate on his own project, The Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Lovin’ Spoonful
Sebastian was joined by Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone, and Joe Butler in the Spoonful, which was named after “The Coffee Blues,” a Mississippi John Hurt song. The Lovin’ Spoonful, which blended folk-rock and pop with elements of blues, country, and jug band music, became part of the American response to the British Invasion, and was noted for such hits as “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”, “Darling Be Home Soon”, “Jug Band Music”, “Rain on the Roof”, “Nashville Cats”, and “Six O’Clock”.
The band, however, began to implode after a 1967 marijuana bust in San Francisco involving Yanovsky, a Canadian citizen. Facing deportation, he revealed the name of his dealer to police, which caused a fan backlash and added to the internal tension already created by the band members’ diverging interests. Neither Sebastian nor Butler was involved in the matter, both being away from San Francisco at the time. Yanovsky subsequently left the band and was replaced by Jerry Yester, after which the band’s musical style veered away from its previous eclectic blend and became more pop-oriented.
Performing at the Woodstock Reunion 1979 at Parr Meadows in Ridge, New York
Sebastian left the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968 and did not play with any later versions of the band, except for a brief reunion with the other three original members to appear in Paul Simon’s 1980 film One-Trick Pony, and again for a single performance at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2000.
Solo career 1960s–1970s
Broadway musical composer
One of Sebastian’s first projects after leaving the Spoonful was composing the music and lyrics for a play with music, Jimmy Shine, written by Murray Schisgal. It opened on Broadway in December 1968, with Dustin Hoffman in the title role, and ran until April 1969, for a total of over 150 performances. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sebastian himself wrote a stage musical adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in consultation with his godfather Garth Williams, who illustrated White’s original book. The proposed musical included 20 songs, some of which Sebastian performed in concert, but the musical was never produced.
In August 1969, Sebastian made a memorable, albeit unscheduled appearance at Woodstock. He was not on the performance bill and traveled to the festival as a spectator, but he was asked to appear when the organizers suddenly needed an acoustic performer after a rain break because “they couldn’t set up amps on stage for Santana until the water was swept off.” Sources that have tried to reconstruct the Woodstock running order differ on the exact time and position of Sebastian’s unplanned set, with some stating that he played on Saturday, August 16, immediately after Country Joe McDonald’s set; others saying that on that Saturday, Santana followed McDonald and Sebastian appeared after Santana, and still others, including McDonald, recalling that Sebastian actually played on Friday, August 15, at some point after Richie Havens opened the festival.
Sebastian’s Woodstock set consisted of three songs from his recorded but not yet released John B. Sebastian album (“How Have You Been”, “I Had a Dream”, and “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”) and two Lovin’ Spoonful songs (“Darling Be Home Soon” and “Younger Generation”, which he dedicated to a newborn baby at the festival). Documentary remarks by festival organizers indicated that Sebastian was under the influence of marijuana or other psychedelic drugs at the time, hence his spontaneity and casual, unplanned set. Sebastian has confirmed in later interviews that he was a regular marijuana user at the time and had taken acid at Woodstock because he was originally not scheduled to perform. However, he has also noted that “there was a natural high there [at Woodstock],” and that “in an interview it is the easy thing to say ‘yeah, I was really high,’ but it was actually a very small part of the event. In fact, I had a small part of some pill that someone gave me before I went onstage, but it wasn’t a real acid feeling.” Sebastian appeared on the original Woodstock album and in the documentary film. Twenty-five years later, he returned for Woodstock ’94, playing harmonica for Crosby, Stills and Nash and appearing with his own band, the J-Band.
In September 1969, a month after Woodstock, Sebastian performed a similar set of solo and Spoonful material at the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival and was featured in the subsequent documentary Celebration at Big Sur (1971).