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John Sebastian

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The Lovin’ Spoonful played a major role in the mid-1960s rock revolution, but what its leader, singer-songwriter John Sebastian, had in mind was actually a counterrevolution. “We were grateful to the Beatles for reminding us of our rock & roll roots,” Sebastian explains, “but we wanted to cut out the English middlemen, so to speak, and get down to making this new music as an ‘American’ band.”

The Lovin’ Spoonful made this new music like no other band before or since, putting its first seven singles into the Top 10. This was unprecedented and utterly unthinkable at the height of Beatlemania. At first, they had taken older material from blues, country, folk, and jug-band sources—what is now known as “roots music”—and made it sound modern. Then, in a series of original songs composed and sung by Sebastian, the group did the reverse, creating thoroughly modern music that sounded like it contained the entire history of American music, which it did.

You know the songs by heart: “Do You Believe in Magic?”; “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”; “Daydream”; “Younger Girl”; “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”; “Summer in the City”; “Rain on the Roof”; “Nashville Cats”; “Six O’Clock”; “Darling Be Home Soon”; and “Younger Generation.” These songs did more than simply answer the British invasion, they carried the musical tradition into the future.

After leaving the group he founded, Sebastian bore witness to another turn of the musical zeitgeist with his performances at massive festivals such as Woodstock and its English equivalent, the Isle of Wight. He had been involved in music for films (most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now and Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and Broadway, but when producers of a TV show called Welcome Back Kotter commissioned a theme song in 1976, Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” became a chart-topping solo record.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to record and tour, pleasing old fans and winning new ones. There’s no telling how many aspiring musicians have been nurtured by his instruction books for harmonica and guitar, but he aimed to inspire an even younger audience with the publication in 1993 of the delightful children’s book JB’s Harmonica. The 1990s also saw Sebastian return to the group format with the J-Band, a contemporary celebration of his jug-band heritage. The acclaim the group received was gratifying, but bittersweet. The group’s albums contain some of the last recorded performances of blues pioneer Yank Rachell and washtub/jug virtuoso Fritz Richmond.

Thankfully, Sebastian’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 has not slowed him down. Whether the stage is at Carnegie Hall in New York City or a folk festival in some far-flung locale, he is still out there spreading his gospel of American roots music. John Sebastian is not only a master musician, writer, and performer, he remains one of the best ambassadors American music has ever had.

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