THE ROOTS OF THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL AND THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: John Sebastian, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, Zal Yanovsky, Tim Hardin, and others lead the first generation of East Coast folk-rockers into electric music in 1964

In New York, folk-rock's infant breakthroughs were achieved by a loose circle of musicians, including future members of the Lovin' Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas, who played and recorded with each other in various permutations before settling into the lineups that would make them stars. The strongest link between them, ironically, might have been a musician who never would achieve fame as a recording artist. Erik Jacobsen was a folkie who had been just as bowled over by the Beatles as anyone. Unlike most of his friends, however, he saw his future in different terms than joining a rock band of his own.

    In the early '60s, Jacobsen had been one of those young banjo-slingers traveling to New York in hopes of getting noticed by a label like Elektra. His bluegrass band, the awkwardly-named Knob Lick Upper 10,000, jammed in Washington Square Park. It was in the park itself that they got noticed by Albert Grossman, who got them signed to Mercury, where they did a couple of fair bluegrass-folk LPs. In early 1964, Erik was "traveling around with the Knob Lick Upper 10,000 when the Beatles had just come out. We were trying to promote our record, 'Rocky Mountain Water Tastes So Fine' or something. We went to some radio stations, and they were just total ga-ga over the Beatles." Jacobsen checked out a Beatles single on a jukebox after a gig in Washington, DC, and heard not just the death of the Knob Lick Upper 10,000, but the birth of a new opportunity.

    "I'd been trying to help arrange for our group, and I always thought about bass lines. When I heard McCartney's bass playing ... I mean, I loved the whole band, but the thing that really stuck in my mind was the bass playing. I started thinking, 'Wow, I hear a whole 'nother thing that's possible with this electric bass.' It was just so different from what anybody else was doing. It was so melodic, [with] nice syncopations; it was fabulous. So I decided, kind of then and there I think, by the next morning, that I was gonna quit the Knob Lick Upper 10,000, and go to New York City, and produce electric folk music. One of the first guys I met was John Sebastian, who was playing folk accompaniment with various sessions. John electrified the autoharp, and he started buying electric guitars. He was trying to play things that he had heard as a kid, and was really the first guy that I saw playing with electric guitar."

    Sebastian picks up the story: "An amazing coincidence, some of these things that happened. I took an apartment on the fifth floor of some destroyed building in Lower Manhattan. The guy that lived next door moved out, and Erik moved in. I guess I had maybe shook his hand in some other setting, but really, we didn't know each other at all. Every night, I would come home from my little run around the Village, where I'd be playing as an accompanist, and Erik would be playing unfamiliar records next door. Eventually he'd knock on my door, or I'd knock on his. It was either me saying, 'God, that's good, whatever that is you got playing there,' or it would be him calling up to say, 'Come over to listen to this.'"

    Their bonding was sealed by a more exotic mutual interest. "We had in common that ... at that time, not too many people smoked pot in Greenwich Village," says Jacobsen. "It was not something that everybody did, as they later did. 'Cause we had to go to very bad places to get it.

    "So I asked John: 'Why don't we get together and try to make some records?' He and I recorded two or three records -- 'Warm Baby' and 'Rooty-Toot.'" Jerry Yester recalls that he, Jesse Colin Young, and Sticks Evans also played on "Warm Baby."

    Neither of those tracks came out, though Sebastian's band the Lovin' Spoonful would put a version of "Warm Baby" on their 1966 album Daydream, with Jacobsen producing, and Sebastian would put a solo version of "Rooty-Toot" on an early-'70s live album. But they did represent some of the first attempts of folk musicians to come to grips with the new form of full-band rock music. As Sebastian remembers the 1964 recording experiment with Jacobsen, "'Warm Baby' is a total quote of [blues great Robert Johnson's] 'Come on in My Kitchen.' It's sort of exercising the Robert Johnson muscle in any way that we could. Now, it was silly; it wasn't particularly good or anything. But we were experimenting in some pretty interesting 'it'll be five years before this makes it' kind of ways. We had these African hair drums to get a little bit of a different drumming sound, and some chromatic bongo drums that I don't think had been picked up by studio instrumental rental. Also, I played a sitar on that [1964] record" -- nearly two years before George Harrison made the first widely noted use of sitar on a rock track, on the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood."

    As Jacobsen and Sebastian tried to work out their ideas, they connected with several other folkies who were thinking along similar lines. Two of them were Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty, who'd been in the Halifax Three, one of the many folk threesomes to spring up in the aftermath of the Kingston Trio. Jacobsen had already met both of them when playing in Toronto as part of the Knob Lick Upper 10,000, and "asked them if they knew any good singer-songwriters around. They said, 'Well, there's this guy up in Boston, Tim Hardin.' I called him up and said, 'Some guys were hyping me on you.' He said, 'Send me $100 and I'll come down.' He came down, and I remember the first question he said was like: 'Where can I get some shit?'" Meaning much stronger stuff, it should be said, than what Jacobsen and Sebastian were smoking in their apartments.

    Hardin, an ex-Marine in his early twenties, had already bounced around the Village and Cambridge folk circuits, as well as hoboing around the country with other young troubadours like Shawn Phillips. He was at the forefront of a group of singer-songwriters -- also including, most notably, Fred Neil -- who were mixing folk with rhythm and blues. The growing blanket of the British Invasion was giving such artists more license, if only a little, to use electric guitars. That's what Hardin plays on his first 1964 demos (some of which would appear years later on archival releases like Tim Hardin 4). While Jacobsen had been told that Hardin was a songwriter, at this point he in fact was usually covering R&B and folk songs like "Bo Diddley," Willie Dixon's "Seventh Son," and "House of the Rising Sun," or writing songs that were thinly disguised rewrites of same. Still, it was an electrified folk-blues that, particularly due to Hardin's soulful and mournful vocals, had the germ of something new.

    "He'd go all night without even opening his eyes," enthuses Michael Ochs, soon to become his brother Phil's manager, about one of Hardin's early shows in the Village at the Night Owl. "Him on electric guitar, and behind him would be Freddie Neil on backup guitar, Peter Childs playing a dobro or something exotic, John Sebastian on harmonica. They would go all over the place. They would do a Bo Diddley song, one of Dylan's songs. They had no idea where it was going to go next. You'd be going, 'Christ, this is everything I love about music.' It was the best singing in the world, [and] the best playing."

    When Jacobsen had five or six Hardin demo tunes, says Sebastian, Erik called up his next-door neighbor "to say, 'Come over and listen to this. I know you're playing down there [in the Village] with John Hurt and Fred Neil, tell me what you think of this.'" After hearing Hardin, Sebastian responded, "'I think the guy is the next Elvis. I think this is huge.' And Erik would say, 'I do too, and I can't get anybody from a record company to acknowledge this at all, to think that there's anything different or anything unusual or unique about this guy.' And I'd tell him, 'No, they're wrong. They're all wrong. This guy is a genius.'

    "Tim looked to us like the next big thing. We were still getting to know him. We didn't understand the profoundness of his drug addiction. But what we were hearing from him was this wonderful stir of the pot of R&B and country. He was way ahead of his time. His singing was so heartfelt and yet so swinging. He was incorporating some of these people that we idolized, like Mose Allison and Ray Charles, in his singing. His guitar style was a kind of early R&B approximation that was very much his own. Slowly I began to make friends with Tim and Erik enough that when the next call for sessions came up, both of them wanted me to come along."

    Jacobsen, no older than the musicians he was producing, was operating with little money and no track record. Acting as Hardin's manager and publisher in addition to hoping to be his producer, he had his hands full trying to advance the mercurial singer's career. He was hindered as much by Hardin's own disorganization, and bad actors in the crowd Tim ran with, as he was by the inability of record labels to recognize that the singer was something out of ordinary. At an audition for Columbia that is dated as May 1964 in the CD reissue Hang on to a Dream: The Verve Recordings, Jacobsen recalls that the label "wouldn't accept me as a producer; you know, I had never produced anything. So they assigned some guy to it. The whole thing just disintegrated right in front of me.

    "Tim was higher than a kite. He nodded out. Zal [Yanovsky] I think was there, and Cass [Elliot], laughing, kind of saying, 'C'mon, Tim, wake up, play something.' But he used to nod off. He'd get to a turnaround, and he would kind of just quickly jump into it, so that the musicians were watching him like cats, like, 'When is he gonna start again?'

    "Everybody was smoking pot in the hallway. The guy from Columbia was just freaked. We were in there for 12 hours, and come out; not one single movable thing was left in the waiting room. One of Timmy's friends was a klepto, and started with the Rolodex and typewriter, and all the contents of all the drawers in the secretary's thing ... took her chair, pictures off the walls, even unscrewed the men and women's signs off the doors. That was an old-line New York recordist who did that. I was having to pay the bill for all these session guys, which was hard to [come] up with.

    "But that session produced some great shit, boy. We had [top jazz musician] Gary Burton on vibes, Sticks Evans on drums, and a really good bass player. 'Green Rocky Road,' 'Airmobile,' and all those blues things, funky things, were cut in those very early sessions with Tim Hardin. He had such a wonderful sense of timing, in terms of his vocal lines. The darn guy could start almost anywhere, and he could never do the same thing twice."

    Whether the label doubted the music was salable, or didn't know if it could handle a musician as tempestuous as Hardin, Columbia didn't issue any recordings by the artist at the time. Hardin's first proper LP wouldn't come out until 1966 (on Verve), though literally several dozen pre-Verve demos were later issued. In a sense, this might have been a blessing in disguise, as Hardin's songwriting would improve immensely in the interim, and the market would be far more accepting of his originality within a couple of years. In the meantime, Jacobsen's New York clique kept making tentative stabs at some sort of rock-folk fusion. Among them were two musicians that had been at the Tim Hardin session, Cass Elliot and Zal Yanovsky, and Yanovsky's Halifax Three bandmate Denny Doherty, all thrashing about for a means of survival after the Beatles had put their previous folk groups out to pasture.

    "1963 was the year that the Halifax Three broke up, the Journeymen broke up, the Big Three broke up, everybody broke up," says Doherty. "It seemed that everybody came off the road after the Kennedy assassination, and folk music was sort of over. Zal and I wound up playing as two-thirds of a surf trio, just instrumental stuff. By the time we got back to New York, Cass had broken up with the Big Three [a group that had also included two folk-rockers in the making, Tim Rose and James Hendricks]. Everybody was sort of bivouacked at the Albert Hotel" -- famous for harboring on-the-way-up and down-and-out musicians throughout the 1960s.

    The Big Three had recorded a couple of albums for the tiny FM label in 1963 and early 1964, the second of which used some fairly low-key electric guitar and drums on tracks like "Grandfather's Clock" and "Wild Woman." These were sung by Rose and Elliot respectively in full-throated low, bluesy vocals at odds not just with much other commercial folk, but with most of the group's other material. Rose now says that he was pushing for them to go electric even then. "We had these vicious arguments in our last year together, about, 'It's gotta go rock. Let's just put electric guitars [in], and let's get a drummer.' I wanted to get a blues guitarist. We used a guy on our second album, a fucking jazz drummer, Panama Francis, didn't know from shit. We added electric instruments and drums; they were added incorrectly. Cass didn't want to do it, I wanted to do it, so we kind of added it. So there was no flow to it. But at least the inkling was there, [that] this was the way to go."

    After Rose left in the spring of 1964, resumes Doherty, "Cass, Jim Hendricks, Zally, and I started a group called Cass Elliot and the Big Three. We went out and played a few gigs around New York, but that didn't really cut it, 'cause it was still folk music. Without management getting involved, we all just said, 'Let's go electric. This is not cutting it.' So we got some electric instruments. That still wasn't far enough, so we got a drummer, Art Stokes. We changed our name to the Mugwumps, started rehearsing old Drifters songs and some original stuff we were doing. Went back to Washington, DC, because our managers had a club there which we were the house band for.

    "But we looked and sounded too frigging weird. We had a black drummer, Cass with her chiffon dresses, and we're doing rock'n'roll. It just looked too friggin' bizarre for words. We didn't think about it, but it must have looked and sounded like some kind of weird hybrid. And we were having a great time. We were doing all rock'n'roll songs and evolving without actually saying, 'Let's go this way, let's do this.' It wasn't a conscious effort. We didn't say, 'Let's go out and do some folk-rock.'"

    The Mugwumps got to open for the Beach Boys once and release one single for Warner Brothers in the latter part of 1964, as well as record about an album's worth of material. The album was not released until 1967, after most of the group had become famous in the Mamas and the Papas or the Lovin' Spoonful. Its eclecticism was not so much a strength as indicative of a lack of focus. There were pedestrian covers of '50s rock oldies like the Coasters' "Searchin'," and Bo Diddley's "You Can't Judge a Book By the Cover," as well as uncertain fusions of Merseybeat and Tin Pan Alley pop (such as the single "I'll Remember Tonight"/"I Don't Wanna Know"). The group were not so much a cross between rock and the best traits of their folk training as they were a second-tier rock band. The exceptions were the two Elliot-Hendricks originals, especially the lovely "Here It Is Another Day." Its lilting, folky Beatlesque melody and spidery electric guitar speckles hinted at the formula to be perfected by the Mamas and the Papas by the end of the following year.

    By the end of 1964 the Mugwumps had split. Perhaps it was too soon for their approach to take hold. But it also could have been a matter of musicians, still new to rock and pop, needing a while to find their optimal partners. Near the year's end Doherty was already, unwittingly, in the process of finding his true metier by joining  the Journeymen, about to play out the string of commercial folk as the New Journeymen, under the stewardship of John Phillips. And throughout 1964 there was a musical chairs of sorts as Erik Jacobsen made recordings, in various combinations, of Yanovsky, Elliot, Hendricks, and Jerry Yester and Henry Diltz of the Modern Folk Quartet.

    A couple of these tracks, rocked-up takes of "Tom Dooley" and "Oh Susannah," surfaced on the 1999 CD compilation The Magic Circle. They're impressive prototypes of the folk-rock sound in their treatment of traditional folk standards with not just electric rock arrangements, but some real guts. "Oh Susannah" is anchored by a growing John Barry-type bass line, choppy rhythm guitar, and a gravelly blues vocal by Yanovsky in a style that sounds remarkably close to Tim Rose's. "Erik['s] recordings were taking folk material and making it rock'n'roll," enthuses Yester. "[It] was really, as far as I can remember, the earliest overt folk-rock that I ever heard. 'Oh Susannah' with a rock band is about as classically folk-rock as you can get." Jacobsen is more diffident about these early outings: "I was just experimenting, casting around with a bunch of people, looking to try to make records. There was no real mold as to what those records should be like, or what they should sound like. So they never came to anything."

    There were other Village refugees from commercial folk, or even guitarists stuck for the moment in one of the country's dwindling number of commercial folk ensembles, using any opportunity they could to sneak a little rock'n'roll onto studio tape. The Au Go-Go Singers were one such ensemble, its nine-strong membership including guitarist-singers Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. Like many such groups, the Au Go-Go Singers' repertoire, stage outfits, and arrangements seemed to have been selected with a greater eye to playing Midwestern high school assemblies than hip Village clubs. Their sole album, 1964's They Call Us Au Go-Go Singers , was largely given over to unbearably wholesome interpretations of folk staples like "Gotta Travel On." Amidst the folk songs-cum-cereal commercials, a lone, whiskey-stained voice cut through the crap. It was Stephen Stills, singing "High Flying Bird" -- the same song done to great effect by Judy Henske earlier that year -- with genuine fire and commitment, and actual electric guitar and drums, though the effect was tarnished by more glee club backup vocals. The young upstart got his comeuppance by having his track placed immediately before an a cappella rendition of "What Have They Done to the Rain" that made Malvina Reynolds's nuclear warfare warning safe enough to sing for the most conservative of rotary clubs.

    John Sebastian's chance to sing on folk-rock records was yet to come, but he too at least got some valuable experience in the studio as a session musician, often on harmonica, on progressive folk records by Fred Neil, Jesse Colin Young, Judy Collins, and others. He was also part of the Even Dozen Jug Band, an unwieldy clump of players who did a one-off LP for Elektra in 1964, and also included Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), Steve Katz (later of the Blues Project), David Grisman, and Stefan Grossman. Joe Boyd, later to move to England and become one of Britain's top folk-rock producer with Fairport Convention and others, even remembers that he and producer Paul Rothchild had notions of putting together a folk-rock group featuring Sebastian and others around the spring of '64. According to Boyd, the lineup would have also included Young, Yester, and Yanovsky, though Yester himself has no memory of this.

    Sebastian was pulled into the Mugwumps' camp as well. He played harmonica with them (though not on their recordings), and hit it off especially well with the flamboyant Yanovsky, whom he had met at a gathering at Cass Elliot's apartment to watch the Beatles' debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. With the dissolution of the Mugwumps, the path was clear for them to form their own band, the Lovin' Spoonful. "The writing was on the wall already," says Sebastian. "Roger McGuinn and I played the same club as solo artists before either one of us had a band. He was playing Beatle tunes, I was playing jug band tunes. To me and Zally, it seemed logical that electrifying some of this material and this mood would come up with something that was somewhat unique. It was only another step or two to get aware of things like electric autoharps and electric 12-strings."

There's much more on the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas & the Papas, and 1960s folk-rock from all over North America and the British Isles inTurn! Turn! Turn: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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