Next Avenue Logo

At 80, John Sebastian Has Found a New Key

John Sebastian, the founder of The Lovin' Spoonful, reflects on his music, Woodstock, tie-dye clothing and singing with an older voice

By Steve Uhler

When John Sebastian's music comes through the speakers, it's hard not to smile. As founder and frontman of the Lovin' Spoonful, Sebastian wrote and sang some of the sunniest, most evocative songs of the mid-60s. When their effervescent first single "Do You Believe in Magic?" topped the charts in the summer of 1965, they became the hottest band in America overnight.

Headshot of John Sebastian holding a guitar. Next Avenue, the lovin spoonful
John Sebastian  |  Credit: Jim Shea

With his bookish good looks, John Sebastian made for a uniquely quirky pop star — transforming the autoharp into an unlikely rock 'n roll instrument and proudly wearing the distinctive round spectacles that later inspired John Lennon's style.

Within 18 months, the Spoonful had released an astonishing string of hits: "Daydream," "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" and more until a drug scandal brought it all tumbling down.

"I feel a great kinship with Carl Perkins, 'cause I wonder how many times he had to tell the story of how he came up with 'Blue Suede Shoes.'"

Following the band's breakup, Sebastian embarked on a solo career. Pausing along the way, he put in a spontaneous appearance at Woodstock, festooned in a rainbow-hued tie-dyed shirt and jeans that triggered a national tie-dye fashion trend that lingers to this day.

"I've told the story far too many times," he says. "I feel a great kinship with Carl Perkins, 'cause I wonder how many times he had to tell the story of how he came up with 'Blue Suede Shoes.'"

In 1976, Sebastian wrote and recorded an unexpected No. 1 hit, "Welcome Back" which was the theme to the popular TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter" — a song so catchy the producers changed the name of the show from "Kotter" to keep it.

Since then, Sebastian has never stopped playing, writing and performing – and he's still at it today. Freshly back home in Woodstock after celebrating his 80th birthday in Italy, Sebastian sounds relaxed but raspy due to jetlag. 

"Italy was absolutely fabulous," he says. "We were in the air on my actual birthday, but that gave me an excuse to get away with at least two or three celebratory dinners. I enjoyed the company of (actor) Brad Dourif while we were there. He was around, so we had ourselves some fun. I've been teasing the hell out of him because in Italy you can see an Italian-dubbed "Chucky" movie [Dourif voiced Chucky.] I said, "Hey, Brad, you speak really good Italian! You gotta see this version!"

Currently working on a documentary about his life and career, Sebastian took time to talk with Next Avenue about where he's been, where he is now, and an American landscape that is vastly different from his days as a pop star.

Next Avenue: Now that you're back home from Italy, how's the view from the 80th floor?

I thought, 'Hey, when I'm 80 I might have one nice little album to put out.' And then the record company suddenly imploded.

John Sebastian: Well, right now it's very mixed. There are some folks doing a biopic thing that requires attention - a documentary about my growing up in [Greenwich] Village and what ensued afterward. I've also been playing recently with Jimmy Vivino, and we're about to do some shows together. But I'm still sort of recuperating from doing an album with [guitarist] Arlen Roth that I thought was quite nice. I thought, 'Hey, when I'm 80 I might have one nice little album to put out.' And then the record company suddenly imploded. It just died! It was a tremendous disappointment for me, 'cause if anything, I thought the album might deserve some kind of recognition. But I'm Grammy-proof, it seems.

What are you up to these days?

First of all, my life has changed. I'm not required to get on planes and get in cars and then do a couple of hours of sensitive singer-songwriter guy. This present time permits me to be the accompanist that I've been in many situations, which I love to do. I have some folks like Jimmy who really enjoy that aspect of playing with me. We have a couple of dates coming up, and I have a few other things that are more 'solo-istic.' There's enough to keep me stirring around, but not with my name on a marquee.

You had a culturally privileged upbringing; raised in Greenwich Village, your dad a world-renowned classical musician and your mom a professional comedy writer.

I had my own inclinations and taste — and neither of my parents were trying to restrict that or anything. I was very privileged to have both an amazing virtuoso musician in my father (John, a classical harmonica player) and a virtuoso in writing 'funny' from my mother (Jane). My mother was like Dayton, Ohio's version of Tina Fey — she just ate the boys all up. Running shows, writing scripts and being a homemaker.


Before forming the Spoonful, you were probably the only kid who got to play with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Oh God, this has gotten schmeared a little bit. I was a child when Woody Guthrie happened to be staying at our apartment for a week or so, and I was near Leadbelly when he played children's concerts in New York. All of us red-diapered babies were getting to hear Pete Seeger and stuff like that. But as far as first-person playing music together, I was much closer to somebody like Mississippi John Hurt, who I got to play with like every night for several different occasions.

"I was a child when Woody Guthrie happened to be staying at our apartment ... and I was near Leadbelly when he played children's concerts in New York."

Over the years your songs have been recorded by everyone from Cher to Joe Cocker to Kermit the Frog and just recently you appeared in a video with the MonaLisa Twins performing your song "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" that went viral.

That was so cute! We did that in their apartment. It was great. Their dad can produce things out of completely nothing. He's a very skilled filmmaker.

Is having your music still performed and heard a kind of immortality?

I guess music and records and film and TV are all avenues in some way to a certain kind of immortality. I still love turning on "I Love Lucy" and being able to see my aunt, Vivian Vance, just by close association with my mother. She was my godmother. They were very close. I could see by the way they talked that they were very tight together, the two of them.

The Lovin' Spoonful was known for 'Good Time Music'and injected a lot of humor and goofing off into their shows and TV appearances. Do you feel that approach may have undermined your being perceived as serious musicians?

That's a fair question. There was maybe too much energy for the moment. It wasn't the thing that was gonna upset us, because maybe we weren't to be taken that seriously. Maybe rock 'n roll in general was not to be taken that seriously. There is some element of maybe if we were 'serious-er,' maybe we could have impressed people as darker guys. I had a wonderful foil in Zal Yanovsky, our lead guitarist. I think it was Clapton who said, 'He can play just like me, but he can cross his eyes and stick his tongue out at the same time.' So that was the mood.

In 1966, the band splintered over a pot bust that received a lot of bad press. Today, you can walk into a boutique dispensary and buy it legally. Can you compare the dichotomy of pot now and back then?

A vintage photo of 4 members of the lovin spoonful. Next Avenue, John Sebastian
A 1965 ad for The Lovin' Spoonful's single "Do You Believe In Magic".

Well, it's stronger now. (laughs)

Yes, that really did change radically. In the 60s there was this element of hundreds of thousands of people that got their lives ruined because of small quantities of this herb that, I'm sorry, is just not that exciting. Everybody calm down!

It killed the Lovin' Spoonful to be part of a one ounce bust. Everybody said it was a 'drug bust'; nobody ever said pot. It was a 'drug bust,' not pot. I was not in the same city when it happened. I was in LA and the boys were in San Francisco. I didn't even know about it until several days later. It was kept from me.

After leaving the band in 1968, the following year you made a memorable solo appearance at the Woodstock Music Festival.

I was an unexpected visitor who had this odd opportunity because the stage was absolutely soaking wet after a rainfall. People were trying to sweep it off, but they couldn't put an amplifier up there — they could really only put one mic. At that point, I was really just standing on the stage. That was a pretty cool outfit that I had on but I had not intended it to be a big show-off thing for the Woodstock Music Festival. I was just havin' fun with a white Levi's jacket and white jeans.

"I think that what we got right was a moment in music that was so fertile and worthy of exchange. It fueled an entire generation."

Speaking of Woodstock, you're widely credited with introducing tie-dyeing into the Zeitgeist of the 70s. You have a lot to answer for.

I probably, by accident, and with very little effort, am looked upon that way. However, people like Ann Thomas (aka "Tie Dye Annie") who taught me how to tie-dye, deserve credit. But that jacket I wore still looks the same. Granted, nobody's worn it to death, but it's almost unchanged. It was in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, but it's gonna be auctioned off in the next year or two.

In the 70s, you became an activist for wildlife and the environment, working with Greenpeace. What is your prognosis now for the planet and its occupants?

Bad. Let's leave it at that. I can't give you any false sense of security here. What we've done is bad, and how does it look for the future? Bad. So that's what I got.

It's been over half a century since our generation navigated their way through the 60s. What did we get right — and what did we get wrong?

I think that what we got right was a moment in music that was so fertile and worthy of exchange. It fueled an entire generation. And it wasn't just only one kind of style or anything like that. Music had that wonderful explosion. I think a lot of it was right. Not all of it, but a lot.

The other side is that we were often not that well-informed. That was the beginning of the end of the Great American Education. I was experiencing the beginnings of it in prep school. That was tremendously disappointing to me, simultaneously experiencing this music explosion, and at the same time ... well, I haven't gone into the politics of the moment, but it's education.

Any thoughts on the politics of the moment?

No. I'm not an authority. I hate talking about it. It's too stupid. I have no comments. I'm stupid, too.

There has been a lot of press and speculation about your vocal chords in the last few years.

For one thing, that was sort of self-imposed and I was not acknowledging the fact that my voice was getting lower and older, and I was trying to do songs in the same key. The other main factor that you have there was my old pal [musician] Donovan Leitch telling a reporter, 'Gee, it's too bad Sebastian's having problems with his voice' and the [reporter] blew that up. It became my life for a couple of years. But I learned a lot, and I had great help from a lot of people that I was playing with. They'd move me to another key and suddenly I wasn't straining. And now, when people are critical or worried about it, that doesn't help. That criticism is kinda tired out now. I'm older and singing in lower keys. It's all relative.

Finally, any advice for those of us on the north side of 50?

Just keep walkin'!

Steve Uhler is a freelance journalist, author, and advocate for active aging, covering the challenges of adjusting to new paradigms in a changing world. He has also interviewed and profiled such diverse figures as music icon Brian Wilson, former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, filmmaker Richard Linklater and 97-year-old Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough. His work has appeared in outlets including Cox Media, ABC News, Kirkus Book Reviews, and numerous newspapers and magazines. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo