John Sebastian founded The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965 and scored hits like “Daydream” and “Do You Believe in Magic?” The band was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He also had a No. 1 hit in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” the theme to “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
Sebastian will be in Ithaca to play a solo concert at the Hangar Theatre on Feb. 9. He spoke to the Ithaca Times about his ideas for The Lovin’ Spoonful, writing “Welcome Back” and how The Spoonful wound up in Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.”
IT: Congratulations on “Echoes in the Canyon,” [a 2019 documentary charting the influence of 1960s music].
JS: Well, thank you very much, and I would say that I still haven’t seen it! [laughs] I really do have to concentrate on that kind of thing more.
IT: You were an East Coast guy.
JS: Yeah. I was born in New York and raised up in Greenwich Village, and so I had this proximity to the dawn of the folk scare [laughs]. Washington Square, I lived on Washington Square. I was able to go see “Mississippi” John Hurt every time he came to town. So some of this stuff was just a wonderful coincidence that permitted me to have a tremendous head start on many of my contemporaries—more talented guys—who just took a few more years to get in from the boroughs.
IT: You must have met so many people coming and going.
JS: I had great opportunities to meet everybody in the dressing room.
IT: How did The Lovin’ Spoonful get started?
JS: See, I had been doing a number of sessions and things, and I made friends with a guy named Erik Jacobsen, who eventually would become The Lovin’ Spoonful’s producer. But he and I started conversing about this idea of a group that kind of referred to American music than imitating what The Beatles had just been doing. There were a lot of kind of Anglicized American acts at that moment. But during that time, I was learning these songs that really had a lot of profanities and a lot of words that you can’t say now. So I found myself substituting stuff for those words, and [laughs] I guess that really was the beginning for me, where it was trying to fill in these verses that had unwholesome thoughts in them. And our intent was to play this for 16-year-olds, so we really didn’t want to horrify anybody, but we wanted to give them a flavor.
IT: I love that era because you had The Beatles goosing The Beach Boys goosing Bob Dylan and there was this exchange of creativity and energy.
JS: Tremendous energy, and a lot of going “Okay, well, if you can write that, I can write this.” “Good Day Sunshine” is “Daydream” [laughs]. There’s a lot of that.
IT: How did you come to write “Welcome Back,” the theme to “Welcome Back, Kotter?”
JS: A guy called my manager said, “I’m looking for kind of a New York-sounding guy, kind of like a John Sebastian. We actually sent Dion this assignment too.” And my manager said, “Well, I did just start managing John.” And I ended up in a meeting and very quickly could absorb the idea, which was a good idea, and easy to write for. So, I just informed them that I wasn’t going to use the word “Kotter,” because that would make it a smaller song [laughs]. And I turned out to be right over the years.
IT: “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.” How did you guys wind up in such a strange film?
JS: Okay. Again, New York is the center of a lot of different things going on at once. The Lovin’ Spoonful had a manager who I’m still pals with, who was also friends with Rollins and Joffe, the guys who managed Woody Allen. So they and Bob were friends. And I was actually a fan of Woody Allen’s, even though he didn’t know it. He probably never knew I was coming quite regularly to see his performances at The Bitter End. In fact, I would bring people to see it, to see if they laughed. And it was a remarkable division of certain people usually beyond a certain age found him distasteful, and other, younger folks thought he was really funny. It was like a cultural age divide on that kind of self-effacing humor, I think.•