A Nashville Cat with New York Soul
More than any other American band in the 1960s, the Lovin' Spoonful best exemplified the musical spirit of The Beatles. Led by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer John Sebastian, the Lovin' Spoonful's sound was an original blend of folk, rock n' roll, R&B and country that defied description. The 'Spoonful were renown for tight harmonies, clean-toned guitars, and a slightly behind the beat groove inspired by southern R&B. The band's mastery of the push & pull of American music styles inspired their contemporaries and earned them an induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1965, John Lennon included their single "Daydream" in his portable jukebox and both "I'm Only Sleeping" and "Good Day Sunshine" owe a debt to the 'Spoonful's sunny sound. "We were grateful to the Beatles for reminding us of our rock & roll roots," said Sebastian, "but we wanted to cut out the English middlemen, so to speak, and get down to making this new music as an 'American band.'"
Today, you can hear the influence of the Lovin' Spoonful in NRBQ, She and Him, Yo La Tengo, Camera Obscura and many more. Taking into account the band's (and especially John's) deep love of what we now call "roots music", in essence, the Lovin' Spoonful were the prototype Americana band. And now their influence is about to be heard again in Country music with the debut single by Tony Jackson, a spirited remake of the 'Spoonful classic "Nashville Cats" featuring Sebastian along with Steve Cropper and Vince Gill on guitar.
John Sebastian was born March 17, 1944 in New York City. His father John was a noted classical harmonica player whose solo recital at the New York Town Hall in December 1954 was reviewed in the New York Times. "He succeeds more than some people might think possible... what he works for is subtlety and poetry with a small dynamic range." Sebastian's mother wrote scripts for radio programs and visitors to the family's home in Greenwich Village included Josh White, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. "We had a steady stream of accompanists who were working with Dad and there was a piano in the house," Sebastian remembered. Young John fell quickly for rock and roll ("whatever Elvis was doing, that's what I wanted to do") and joined his first group, the Even Dozen Jug Band, as a teenager playing guitar, harmonica, and autoharp. When the Lovin' Spoonful formed in the early 60s, the hits came quickly-- "Do You Believe In Magic?" "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice" "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" "Summer In The City" and "Rain On The Roof" --and they all still sound as fresh and inventive as they did when they were made 50 years ago.
After the Lovin' Spoonful, John's solo career--including his now famous spontaneous performance at Woodstock ("They said 'can you play?' and I said, 'sure'--so they handed me whatever was laying around")--kept him in the limelight including soundtrack work and the classic theme song to the TV show Welcome Back Kotter, which once again put Sebastian in the top of the charts when many of his contemporaries were struggling to find a place in pop music.
Sebastian, who is a serious Les Paul fan (he once owned "Lucy," George Harrison's famed Les Paul), dropped by Epiphone for what was intended to be a short stop to check out the new Masterbilt Century Collection. But after seeing our showroom, he stayed the afternoon telling tales of his youth in New York, meeting heroes like Lightin' Hopkins ("he was astonishing"), helping Bob Dylan pick his now-iconic Nick Lucas guitar, and the origins of "Nashville Cats."
We were talking about your collection of Les Pauls. When did you get your first Les Paul?
I bought it from a guy name Skip Boone who was Steve Boone's, the bass player for the Spoonful, older brother. And he was playing it in a club with a band called the Sell Outs. They were going for the folk rock thing I think.
The Lovin' Spoonful had a unique look from other bands at the time. You had autoharps, Les Pauls, and Guilds on stage while other bands were playing Epiphone's and Fenders. Was that on purpose?
We gave thought to what we weren't gonna have on stage. For example, none of your beautiful Epiphones (laughs). No--can't have that--because that's The Beatles. Rickenbackers--no no. Can't do it. But that Les Paul I had--it was second hand--had been in a pawn shop window for a couple of years, and it was faded. And to us, it felt right. We thought: whatever we are, we're not a band with big golden Les Pauls, but that guitar was perfectly doable.
You were around music growing up. Was there a moment that you realized the guitar was going to be your instrument?
I had a schoolmate who had--this was in elementary school--a very beautiful and tall older sister who played guitar. And through a series of negotiations I got use of her guitar for a weekend. Now I did have a few friends who could tell me a little something, mostly adults. And I had learned an E-minor chord. By the end of the weekend I figured I had invented a D-chord--until I learned otherwise.
I didn't get any decent guitars until I was about 19. I got a good entry level New York Martin--then they stopped making them! The Epiphones were way up scale. Those Emperors--I don't want to even try to drive this thing. But they were beautiful--classy. Something to aspire to. I'd go to Manny's--I knew him when he was still behind the counter--and try everything.
Your main acoustic guitar on stage for many years has been an Epiphone Masterbilt EF-500 RA with Rosewood Abalone inlay. How did you discover that guitar?
It came about that I went to a NAMM show years ago, I was up on the upper floors where the Gibsons were and I was looking through the various rooms. I had been all through the Gibson display and then I came upon the Epiphone Masterbilt display. It looked wonderful and it obviously was done by someone with an eye for old Epiphones and that whole aesthetic. I picked it up and I played it and to no one in particular, I held it up in the middle of the floor and said: "this is the best guitar on this floor!" Though it probably wasn't the ideal place to be saying that (laughs)! I caused some commotion I guess.
I said 'I'd like to buy this guitar.' They said you can't do that because it's got to go to Musikmesse and all these other shows. I said, 'That's fine. I'll buy it after it's done.' Then they said no no, can't do that, it's going to be scratch and dent. I said, 'Ok, I'll still take it.' So the instrument made it all the way around the country, came back, and I eventually bought the guitar. I guess when I first got it I thought this is a great backup guitar. But it started to be everywhere with me. I went to the Bahamas with it. I started to take it to songwriting sessions. My grandkids would crawl all around it. It was tough. Then it graduated so to speak and I started taking it to my jug band recordings because it did have a certain sound, almost like ladder-braced guitar. There's something about it that sounds like those great Stellas. Just yesterday here in Nashville there was a call for a guitar break when we were re-cutting "Nashville Cats" with Tony Jackson and it ended up that guitar is prominently featured in the video.
How did you come to write "Nashville Cats?" That was written long before the world got turned on to the term.
It happened to me quite by accident. First of all I was a tremendous fan of the music coming out of Nashville and the south at that time. Sometimes it was Memphis or Muscle Shoals but I didn't know that, I was just responding to the music. I knew that when you cut records here, you could finish an album in a day in a half! But the 'Spoonful played in Nashville in '65 or so. We finished our show at the Fairgrounds Auditorium--the biggest thing in town. We felt pretty good about it and went back to the Holiday Inn and to the beer bar in the basement and get some beers and this guy comes in--goes and sits in the corner. There wasn't even a stage. He pulls out a guitar and he is absolutely stunning. He starts off with something Chet Aktins-y and then he starts to get these bends and pedal steel tones and then multiple bends and then more jazz chords. Now we're in "hillbilly jazz." By the time this guy finished, me and (Lovin' Spoonful�s) Zal Yanovsky we went up to our room. In those days, the 'Spoonful were still sharing rooms, and we sit on the edge of our beds and go 'How could this be?' We are playing the big joint in town and this guy is in a beer bar. He can play rings around us. How does this work? Are we just four guys with long hair? It was years before we figured out that the kid had been a young Danny Gatton making spare change. But it traumatized us for a while.
The song actually was written a couple of weeks after our Nashville encounter. I was in Long Island somewhere. I saw an album cover --years later--Zal and I were in a record store--and I go "Oh my God, this is the guy from the beer bar." Danny Gatton fans have sent me a stack of his cds and I can't understand how he did the first damn thing (laughs).
There's a small guitar mystery that goes back to your early days in Greenwich Village as to where Bob Dylan found his early 1930s 13-fret Gibson Nick Lucas which became his main guitar throughout the 60s. Do you know anything about that guitar?
Yes--he got it from me! I was working part-time at Fretted Instruments. I would go get pizza or coffee while the owner looked at the store. So this time they leave me with the shop and Bob Dylan comes in. We know each other--it's still the dawn of his visibility. But he knows what I know. So he goes around and he says: "What do you think is the best guitar on the wall?" Before I could stop myself, I point to this rosewood Nick Lucas that I had been playing for a month thinking: "$2,000... who could come up with $2,000 for a guitar? (laughs)" Bob literally goes like this --(brushes the strings with his hand) and says 'Good! Ok!' and takes it and walks out the door! So, then it was great. I would see this guitar on all these iconic performances--the film Don't Look Back. As I understand it, he doesn't sell guitars and might still have it.