John Sebastian and The "J" Band
One of the things that makes an artist endearing--indeed, that makes him an artist in the first place--is the fact that he’s there when we need him. So it is with John Sebastian, famed Lovin’ Spoonful leader some years ago, who, with the growing popularity of his new J-Band, and the release of their fresh sounding first recording, “I Want My Roots”, brings us music we can use right about now! This is jug band music, earthy, foot-stompin’ harmonica-wailing stuff, with connections to turn-of-the century blues musicians who, lacking “real” instruments, thumped out rhythms on tubs and washboards and played bass lines on syrup and kerosene jugs.
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An Ineffable Link
These are good-time folky sounds, and by going very public with the kind of music that early turned him on, Sebastian shows he’s in touch with that ineffable something in art that links past, present and future. Boyish at 51, this Peter Pan and family man, with an ear for a tune and an eye for the written word, describes the J-Band as “the realization of a dream. We’re a modern jug band.” Featured at Woodstock ‘94, the group is busy touring, and has already appeared four times on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio”--and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”.
Roots = Strength
“I Want My Roots” is more than just a recording--it’s a tribute to resourcefulness, not only of the musicians who invented and re-invented that uniquely jug band sound, but Sebastian’s own. And it’s a reminder that we all need roots. Son of a virtuoso harmonica player, Sebastian’s roots began in Greenwich Village, where folk music legends Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie were guests in his parent’s home, and where clubs and “hootenannies” in nearby Washington Square Park brought blues and folk music to his door. Drawing from the riches of his immediate environment, the kid with a $12 guitar who once dreamed of being a Duane Eddy-style rock and roller began to chart a new course. He picked up the harmonica with Mississippi John Hurt. Things started to come together. He joined the Even Dozen Jug Band (featuring Maria Muldaur), then the Mugwumps--and with fellow Mugwump Zal Yanovsky formed the Lovin’ Spoonful, which plugged the electricity of rock and roll into the exuberance of old-time jug bands. Jug and tub virtuoso Fritz Richmond, today a member of the J-Band, suggested the name--from a line in an old blues tune.
The Jug Band Spirit
It’s now pretty much common knowledge how the Spoonful took off with hit after classic hit, including “Daydream”, “Darling Be Home Soon”, “Do You Believe in Magic?”, “Nashville Cats”, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”, “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.” Their music was the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s film “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “You’re A Big Boy Now.” Right in tune with what he calls “the jug band spirit”, Sebastian combined a ukulele contact microphone taped on an autoharp to get that special celestial sound on “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Do You Believe in Magic?”, and “Summer in the City”--the latter newly popular as a theme in the 1995 film “Die Hard With a Vengeance”.
One day in 1969 he proved the soul of resourcefulness when he walked on stage, unprepared, and with a borrowed guitar, at Woodstock--before the then largest audience in history. They loved him, and it led to appearances at innumerable folk and rock music festivals. He went on to write the theme for TV sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”, the song-length version of which went platinum, and here again showed his talent for experimenting with instruments--this time handclaps and an Indian drum substituted for a drum kit. Sebastian moved to a house on a bumpy dirt road in Woodstock, NY, where he now lives with wife Catherine and two kids, and kept experimenting. He wrote music for animated features, and in 1993 released not only a new album, “Tar Beach,” but a children’s book “J.B.’s Harmonica.”
Making Musical History
The constant here? “I never stopped listening to or playing jug band music,” he admits. During those years he accompanied Willie Dixon and Johnny Johnson. Jug band music started to become more and more important to the group he joined a few years ago, a blues band called the Black Italians. One thing led to another, and soon the three “Js,” (Sebastian, James Wormworth and Jimmy Vivino) had changed the band’s name and drafted the “obscure but amazing” team of Paul Rishell (guitar) and Annie Raines (harmonica)--plus soul-melting whiz kid singer Rory Block for a debut recording. Unwritten law of jug bands: drop-in guests, and Sebastian describes the “dropping in” of mandolinist Yank Rachell, 85, a “jug band miracle”, providing “sweet lessons and stories” of how things used to be in the days of groups like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. No wonder John Sebastian wails, deep and strong, “I want my roots.....I’m gonna need ‘em back someday.” After all, as he pointed out in a tribute some years ago, the Lovin Spoonful’s “Jug Band Music.”
The doctor said give ‘em jug band music
It seems to make ‘em feel just fine.
John Sebastian has been thrilling audiences for nearly forty years. Nearly three decades since the break-up of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian has remained in-demand as a solo artist, studio musician, TV/film scorer and songwriter. After six top ten hits, more than two dozen albums, and performances on stages around the world, it’s interesting to note that Sebastian has tasted his most personally satisfying musical moments in the last five years.
John Sebastian was born march 17, 1944 and raised in Greenwich Village in New York City. His father was a noted classical harmonica player and his mother a writer for radio shows. "They were both pretty much ‘hip to the jive,’ smiles Sebastian. Sebastian grew –up in a musical and artsy home, often visited by family friends such as Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. "I remember," says Sebastian, "that at that time, you could walk three or four blocks in any direction and find recording artists ranging from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Mississippi John Hurt playing in the clubs. I was this neighborhood kid following these legends around, carrying their guitars. It was a magical time."
It was during this early era that Sebastian returned from summer camp to find an invitation to join The Even Dozen Jug Band – which also included Maria Muldaur and Steve Katz of Blood Sweat and Tears. After a short but highly visable year, the band broke up. Sebastian later joined The Mugwumps (with Zal Yanovsky, Cass Elliot and Denny Dougherty of The Mamas and the Papas), and after that ran its course, he and Yanovsky joined forces to create an electrified version of this rich roots music.
With the addition of Steve Boone on bass and Joe Butler on drums, "The Lovin' Spoonful" began learning its craft in the nearby clubs of Greenwich Village. Remembers Sebastian, "The cool thing was that the really hip people never heard how bad we were... we got to practice on the busloads of tourists looking for "beatniks in the Village." One night, Phil Spector came down to hear them. "Even though he wasn’t interested in recording us, the very fact that he came down leaked out and the place became a mob scene, night after night."
The group’s name was suggested by Fritz Richmond, a washtub virtuoso who would record with John 30 years later on his CD "I WANT MY ROOTS." Sebastian recalls, "I told him our sound was kind of like Chuck Berry meets Mississippi John Hurt and he immediately chimed in, "Why not call it the Lovin’ Spoonful?’ So, we were named after a John Hurt song."
The Lovin’ Spoonful would become America’s answer to the British invasion and the Beatles, with top ten hits "Do You Believe in Magic," "Summer In the City," "Daydream," "Nashville Cats," "Make-Up Your Mind," "Six O’Clock" and "Younger Generation," among others. During the band’s two year reign, they made three unforgettable albums, and provided the soundtracks to Francis Ford Coppola’s film You’re a Big Boy Now, and Woody Allen’s hit movie, What’s Up Tiger Lily. Thirteen years later, the band would reunite to perform "Do You Beileve in Magic" in Paul Simon’s film, "One Trick Pony."
Two definitive 60’s moments for Sebastian came at the end of one decade – as an unscheduled performer at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 – and at the start of the next decade – at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, when Sebastian "saved the show" by performing an extra ninety minutes in his set until the other bands showed-up.
Between decades, Sebastian kept himself quite busy. He released several solo albums; actively toured; wrote a children’s book; appeared on TV shows such as NBC TV’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the television program Married with Children, Disney specials and broadcast performances; wrote the theme song for a hit TV show – Welcome Back Kotter – which also welcomed him back on the charts with another top ten hit; appeared on Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show, The Prarie Home Companion; and shared stages and studios with artists as diverse as Willie Dixon, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bonnie Raitt, The Doors, Al Kooper, Tom Petty, Phoebe Snow, Les Paul, Graham Parker, NRBQ, and others, and also starred in several harmonica instructional videos. Bruce Willis’ 1995 film "Die Hard with A Vengence" turned to Sebastian for its theme song, "Summer in the City."
It was during the mid-90's that Sebastian's old friendship with Fritz Richmond combined with rhythm kings Jimmy Vivino and James Wormworth to form John Sebastian and The J-Band. The addition of Paul Rishell and Annie Raines brought a depth to the band that resulted in a first album, "I Want My Roots" (MusicMasters/BMG-65137-2.)
I Want My Roots (MusicMasters/BMG) brings John back to the American roots music he first fell in love with as a teenager. It is a tribute to the musicians who invented and re-invented the Jug Band sound – an earthy, foot stompin’ harmonica-wailing, country-blues sound with the rhythms thumped out on washboards and bass played on washtubs and syrup jugs.
Throughout the years, Sebastian has repeatedly carved his own niche in the musical rule books. His inner voice plays a powerful role in his life and guides him well. Today he can be found living in upstate New York with his wife and two children, getting back to his roots....
Some Facts You may Not Know About John Sebastian:
Played Guitar on Jewel’s Album Pieces Of You
He can be heard on the landmark recording of Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music CD box set Smithsonian Folkways’ reissue of the landmark collection: Revelations of a Tradition: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Its Legacy. In 1952, Harry Smith, an eccentric freelance cultural anthropologist, compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music from his collection of some 20,000 78 rpm records. Of these, he chose 84 tracks to illustrate the diversity of American cultural and regional styles – hillbilly versions of Elizabethan ballads, zydeco fiddle pieces, Mississippi blues, church choirs, and street preachers.
I Want My Roots CD charted on American Top 25
He helped develop the first true baritone guitar
Recently Sebastian joined a delegation of songwriters in Washington D.C. to campaign on behalf of the National Music Publishers Association along with Lamont Dozier, John Hartford, Allen and Marilyn Bergman, Mike Stoller and Cy Coleman.
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