JOHN SEBASTIAN'S JOHN B. SEBASTIAN
John Sebastian started
his solo career in the late 1960s, Warner Brothers seemed like a
logical home for him, as the label was at the forefront of signing
artists who were part of the emerging singer-songwriter boom. His debut
solo album unfortunately got delayed, and its impact diluted, by a
contract dispute whose details are peculiar even by the idiosyncratic
standards the record business brings to such situations. Fortunately,
however, the characteristic good-natured cheer of Sebastian's music
remained unaffected, and the record was the most commercially
successful of his solo LPs, reaching #20 upon its release in 1970.
however, had been done for a while before it found release. To get to
the bottom of that knot, it's necessary to backtrack to around 1968,
when Sebastian was leaving both the Lovin' Spoonful and that group's
label, Kama Sutra Records. A couple of tracks that ended up on John B.
Sebastian, "She's a Lady" and "The Room Nobody Lives In," were
as a single on Kama Sutra during this transitional period. Sebastian,
however, wanted to begin his career as a solo act with Warner Brothers,
and worked on his debut LP with that label in mind for its release.
"MGM [Kama Sutra's parent company] was asking me for
more Lovin' Spoonful albums, claiming that I owed them," remembers
Sebastian today. "At that point, [manager] Bob Cavallo went to [Warner
Brothers executive] Mo Ostin. They had a very good relationship, and it
was Mo's feeling that MGM was asking me for something that wasn't
theirs to ask. He said, 'Look, I'll buy this contract out.' That was
really what happened."
For his part, Sebastian was eager to do an album
with some of the musician friends he'd long admired. With the Spoonful,
he explains, "Although it had been a tremendously popular thing, what
we were finding at the point at which we were sort of on our last
record was it felt like we were at the upper limits of our own musical
abilities. I wanted this opportunity to play with the same guys I'd
been playing with when we were all broke"—Sebastian, it's sometimes
forgotten, having been a session musician himself in New York before
the Lovin' Spoonful took off, contributing to recordings by key early
folk-rockers such as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. "That included [drummer]
Dallas Taylor, Steve Stills, [bassist] Harvey Brooks, [keyboardist]
Paul Harris. These were very often New York buds from before all of
this. I felt like, well, wait a minute, if I was playing with Dallas
Taylor, I can play a syncopated beat! It all made a lot of sense to me,
that I could kind of move on musically."
Another old friend, Paul Rothchild (who'd produced
some sessions for
Elektra Records on which Sebastian played in his early days, including
ones for Fred Neil), would produce the album, mostly recorded in
Elektra's Los Angeles studios. "I would say that familiarity is really
valuable in these kind of relationships, and I had had a terrific run
with [Lovin' Spoonful producer] Erik Jacobsen," observes John.
"However, towards the tail end of the Spoonful, there were some kind
of, I think, bad feelings. The Spoonful, essentially, had fired Erik
from one last project, and it took me a few years to regain my
friendship the same way. By the time Tarzana
Kid [Sebastian's 1974
album, co-produced by John and Erik] came along, we managed to work it
out. But that first album was totally because the other producer that I
was really familiar and comfortable [with]—and he'd seen me at my worst
already—was Paul Rothchild. I know that it was also a project Paul
wanted to do."
In addition to using Taylor (most famous for
drumming with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young in the late 1960s and
Brooks, and Harris on many of the tracks, John B. Sebastian also had
notable guest appearances from Stephen Stills (who played guitar on
"Baby, Don't Ya Get Crazy" and "She's a Lady"), David Crosby (who also
played guitar on "She's a Lady"), Graham Nash (who contributed a high
harmony vocal to "What She Thinks About"), pedal steel player Buddy
Emmons, and Buzz Linhart. As he expected, the tracks allowed
Sebastian to go into some directions he hadn't been able to explore in
the Lovin' Spoonful, even on a remake of "You're a Big Boy Now," which
the Spoonful had released as the soundtrack theme to the Francis Ford
Coppola-directed movie of the same name. "Ones that would work were the
only ones I'd do, I think," responds Sebastian when asked why he
occasionally revisited Spoonful songs on his solo records. "'You're a
Big Boy Now' was great fun as a one-guitar-one-voice thing, because I'd
already had the opportunity to hear it orchestrated and kinda big on
the soundtrack album."
Another song on the LP, "The Room Nobody Lives In,"
would be the recipient of two quite different cover versions by fellow
stars, many years apart. Cass Elliot interpreted it on her 1968 solo
album, Dream a Little Dream of Me,
which ended up coming out far in
advance of John B. Sebastian.
"We were very, very tight as friends, and
it was sort of frustrating that her record-making process was so tied
up," remarks John. "It was a big deal to get Cass to wrap that voice
around that song, 'cause I knew she could do it beautifully." Then in
1989, Elvis Costello put it out as a single-only track, though it's now
available as a bonus cut on the expanded CD reissue of his Spike album.
"I like both of them," says Sebastian of Elliot and Costello's covers.
"Elvis's version is more wrenching in some ways, just 'cause of the
quality of his voice."
Certainly the most well-known song on John B.
Sebastian is "I Had a Dream," famous for its inclusion (as the
track no less) on the Woodstock
soundtrack, where it was performed by
Sebastian with just voice and acoustic guitar. John hadn't expected to
be performing at the festival, and played as a spur-of-the-moment favor
when the stage's rainwater had to be swept off, necessitating an
unplugged performer if any music was to be heard at all. The studio
version is considerably lusher, with not just a full band, but also
harp and a Paul Harris orchestral arrangement. "'I Had a Dream' is
probably a really well-realized style that was really going out right
about then," he laughs. "I really enjoyed having the swing of a jazz
waltz, the way that Dallas played it, and being able to arrange a
little bit. I believe Paul and I did that; Paul Harris, mostly. And
'She's a Lady' was kind of an attempt at bringing Renaissance
instruments to something vaguely rock'n'roll. Again, an idea whose time
has definitely passed! Everybody wanted to be tough and mean by now."
"By now" being January 1970, when the album found
release, though it had been recorded considerably earlier. MGM
contended that the Lovin' Spoonful, though now defunct, owed it another
album, and that it had the right to release the LP. An MGM version of
John B. Sebastian (with a
different cover than the one used on the
Reprise version) appeared, unauthorized by the artist. While the
Reprise edition is by far the more common one, the availability of the
MGM version couldn't help but cause confusion and hurt Sebastian
"It hurt everything," emphasizes John. "It made for
confusion that didn't need to be there. Who knows, it might have done a
little better [if MGM hadn't put out its LP]. But the important thing
was losing that year and a half. Because music, especially our popular
music, changes so fast that the shelf life on a style can be six
months, and I was very aware of that. It was one of the first [albums]
of the sort of singer-songwriter guys out of the box, but you couldn't
realize it by the time the album came out, 'cause so many other guys
with the same approach by then had gotten out there."
MGM wasn't done with its troublemaking, putting out
an unauthorized live Sebastian album shortly afterward. That inspired
Sebastian and Reprise to counteract with a concert album of their own,
1971's Cheapo Cheapo Productions
Presents Real Live, also issued on CD
by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
unless otherwise specified.
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