Dare to be Different

The Lovin’ Spoonful could very well be one of the most under-appreciated and underrated bands ever, despite the fact they held their own when the music world around them was changing faster than a magician’s disappearing act.
In only two years in the mid-1960s, the Greenwich Village group charted a string of ten Top 40 hits at a time when their competition included Motown, the Beatles and the entire fleet of the British Invasion.
The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the most successful pop/rock groups to have jug band and folk roots, and nearly half the songs on their first album were modernized versions of blues standards. Their popularity revived interest in the form, and many subsequent jug bands cite them as an inspiration. The rest of their albums featured mostly original songs, but their jug band roots showed up again and again, particularly in “Daydream” and the lesser-known “Money” (which reached only #48, in 1968), featuring a typewriter as percussion.
With their freewheeling hits like “Do You Believe in Magic?” and the harder rockin’ “Summer in the City,” Spoonful spoon-fed their fans lots of poppy, melodic, feel-good music in heaping amounts.
The four original members — singer/guitarist John Sebastian, guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler — came together at a time the folk-music scene was in full swing, engulfing them all in this organic rootsy vibe, but the electrified sounds of the Beatles and the other pop bands of the day had also caught their attention. Retaining their folk roots while exploring new directions, the Lovin’ Spoonful adapted folk-style fingerpicking to electric instruments. Their folk-rock hybrid was particularly evident in the unusual combination of autoharp and electric guitar on “Do You Believe in Magic.”
What really set the Lovin’ Spoonful apart from the mid-’60s pack of one-hit wonder syndrome was their daring eclecticism. No two singles were written in the same style. Between 1965 and 1968, they tackled jug-band music (“Good Time Music”), ragtime (“Daydream”), country (“Nashville Cats”), folk-pop (“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”), hard rock (“Summer in the City”) and orchestrated pop (“She Is Still a Mystery”).
For those not familiar with the “jug-band” genre, a jug band is a mix of conventional and homemade instruments. These homemade instruments are ordinary objects adapted to or modified for making sound, like the jug, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, bones, stovepipe, and comb and tissue paper (kazoo). The term jug band is loosely used in referring to ensembles that also incorporate homemade instruments but that are more accurately called skiffle bands, spasm bands, or juke bands because they do not include a jug player.
In the early days of jug band music, homemade guitars and mandolins were sometimes made from the necks of discarded manufactured guitars fastened to large gourds that were flattened on one side, with a sound-hole cut into the flat side, before drying. Banjos were sometimes made from a discarded guitar neck and a metal pie plate.
The jug sound is made by taking a jug — usually made of glass or stoneware — and buzzing the lips into its mouth from about an inch away. Changes in pitch were controlled by altering lip tension, and an accomplished jug player could have a two-octave range.
The happy sounds of the Lovin’ Spoonful made the quartet a fixture during the golden age of Top Forty radio, and those same singles have stood the test of time. “Do You Believe in Magic” remains a defining rock and roll anthem.
They challenged the domination of the British Invasion bands with their string of successful hits, issuing one classic hit single after another. “Summer in the City” was uncharacteristically riff-driven and hard-driving.
Leader and principal songwriter John Sebastian was a young veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene when he formed the band in 1965 with Zal Yanovsky, who’d already played primitive bohemian folk-rock of a sort with future members of the Mamas & the Papas in the Mugwumps.
Sebastian already had some recording experience under his belt, playing harmonica (his father was a virtuoso classical harmonica player) on sessions by folkies like Tom Rush and Fred Neil. The Spoonful were rounded out by Steve Boone on bass and Joe Butler on drums. After some tentative interest from Phil Spector (who considered producing them), they ended up signing with Kama Sutra. Sebastian’s autoharp (which would also decorate several subsequent tracks) helped propel “Do You Believe in Magic?,” written by Sebastian, into the Top Ten in late 1965.
Additionally, they wrote their own material (aside from a few covers, mostly on their first album), including “Younger Girl” (which missed the Hot 100), which was a hit for The Critters in mid-1966.
“Rain on the Roof” and “Nashville Cats” went on to become a staple in the concerts of bluegrass legend Del McCoury.
At the peak of the band’s success, the producers of the television series that later became “The Monkees” initially planned to build their series around the Lovin’ Spoonful, but dropped the band from the project due to conflicts over song publishing rights.
The Lovin’ Spoonful’s song “Pow!” was used as the opening theme of Woody Allen’s first feature film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily; the band also composed and played instrumental music for the film and appeared in some live performance sequences in the film (reportedly added during post-production without Allen’s knowledge or consent). Shortly thereafter, John Sebastian composed the music for Francis Ford Coppola’s second film, You’re a Big Boy Now, and the Lovin’ Spoonful played the music for the soundtrack, which included yet another hit, “Darling Be Home Soon.” Both films were released in 1966. In addition, the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-up, also released that year, contained an instrumental version of the Spoonful song, “Butchie’s Tune”, performed by jazz musician Herbie Hancock.
The consequences of a 1966 arrest of two band members for marijuana possession led to the band’s gradual dissolution, with Yanovsky leaving in 1967. Sebastian, the group’s founder and leader, quit in 1968. The group’s final album featured only Joe Butler from the original group. Sebastian launched a successful solo career that found him giving one of the more memorable performances at Woodstock in August 1969. Many years later, in 1980, the Lovin’ Spoonful lineup came together one more time to perform a cameo in Paul Simon’s film One-Trick Pony.
In 1991, Butler and Boone decided to start up the Lovin’ Spoonful again, and started touring with Butler as the group’s lead vocalist.
The original four members of the group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2000. Since then, Yanovsky passed away in 2002.
With Boone and Butler still leading the charge, keeping the music alive, and still asking, “Do you believe in magic,” the logical answer from their audiences couldn’t be anything other than “yes we do.”


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Thursday-Saturday, March 8-10 (7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets